By Tasneem Pocketwala May. 16, 2019
In most other places, people welcome Ramzan by hanging lanterns on their windows or lighting up the streets. But in Mumbai’s Byculla, children welcome the holy month by fishing for a battered old pair of badminton racquet and as many shuttlecocks as they can lay their hands on.
Ihad already been fasting for a day or two before Ramzan. But I knew the holy month had officially arrived when a flying badminton shuttlecock landed at my feet as I mounted my bike. I looked around and found a tiny hijab-wearing girl with the racquet held aloft, looking for a chance to retrieve the flyaway shuttlecock. Only a short distance away, another boy was prepping to serve.
In most places, people welcome Ramzan by hanging lanterns on their windows or lighting up the streets. But in Mumbai’s Byculla, or at least its Muslim-dominated neighbourhoold, we welcome Ramzan by fishing for a battered old pair of badminton racquets and as many shuttlecocks as we can lay our hands on, and setting off to play on the eve of the big month. It’s a peculiar tradition, something that my friends and I took to when we were young. Our passion for badminton lasted the whole month, but post-Eid the racquets would somehow find their way back to the loft.
Ramzan means a sudden entry of new items and routines in our daily life for a short while – a sudden increase of dates in our diets, of RoohAfza or gol sharbat, of the whole building lighting up in the small hours of the morning as the elders moved about in haste to prepare for sehri. Above all, it involved going to the mosque every day for the evening prayers (at least). It meant the making of a new and eventually steady set of “masjid friends” who we would meet every single day for the entire month, and with whom we would do iftar together and stay back to learn more about our faith. Ramzan meant learning to pray, and pray in earnestness, for this is the most important month of our calendar, when everything is brushed aside to make way for ibadat.
Of course, we were children then and didn’t really grasp the importance of piety. But the mechanics, the logistics of it, the routine of waking up for sehris and going to the mosque with the call to prayer in our ears, all of it were enough to drive home its significance to our young minds.
It’s a peculiar tradition, something that my friends and I took to when we were young.
And it was to this routine that we had added our own twist: badminton.
Since our parents were strict, we never ventured out onto the streets, making do with the small space underneath our building, nestled uncomfortably between cars and bikes parked at awkward angles. Our rackets were as short as our heights, and we’d make sure to come armed with a clutch of shuttlecocks, because there would always come a time when the shuttlecock we’d be hitting between ourselves would fly off on an errant wind to a roof higher than the highest bamboo stick we could find to rescue it. If we didn’t have an immediate replacement, we would have to let go of the game, which of course we’d hate to do. At least not until our mothers were forced to scream their lungs out as we neared midnight.
We’d rush home, but promise to make up for the lost time by sneaking out of the mosque. Our parents continued to pray, often blissfully unaware that we were out and about on the road engaged in a heated battle of badminton in the middle of the night. We girls sneaked off to find that our brothers (and their friends, who would curiously raise their voices whenever we happened to be around, no matter what they might be talking about) were already there, finishing off round one. And we’d join in.
Years later, not much has changed in the gullies of Byculla. Our romance with badminton continues. Today, I ride my bike to and from the mosque, careful not to crush the shuttlecocks that come flying from between parked cars. I pass a new generation of preteens playing that same old game of badminton — perhaps with different rules, perhaps the same.
Why badminton, I have no clue. Perhaps because it does not sap too much of our energy. Or maybe because it’s the most practical choice for a neighbourhood constrained for space beyond imagination. Where even the 10 feet between you and your opponent can transform in your own little court.