‘Hey…hey HEY, my friend, please! Please come!’
I’m grabbed by the arm and spun around, for the tenth time. A smiling but firm face whirls into view.
Politeness and tedium make me follow this man to his group. I would say family, but the lines blur after a while, between Wives, cousins, work colleagues, brothers’ friends and grandparents’ maids. The man shoos the women in his group to the side, takes his place in the centre of the remaining men and boys, holds up his hand: two fingers raised in salute to peace. Silently sighing, I snap the photo.
After briefly flashing the photo to the man, I reclaim the precious real estate on my memory card (knowing that he will not ask to see it) and head for the Indo-Islamic arched entrance of the Mosque. I’m confronted with two poorly constructed wooden doors, barred across with a beam. The tide has risen, threatening to swallow the exposed causeway that runs between Haji Ali and Mumbai, trapping me and 200 Muslim pilgrims at sea for the foreseeable few hours. I am the only Westerner, (read white person) and I have a camera. A target for families to gain access to a permanent monument of themselves, which they have no interest in holding onto.
The Haji Ali Dargah is Mumbai’s biggest monument to Islam, constructed in 1431AD by the rich merchant who relinquished his wealth and travelled to Mecca, along the way sculpting himself into a holy man: Sayyed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari. Legend suggests that Bukhari’s final wish was to has his coffin cast into the sea, whereupon it floated back to the shores of the Haji Ali. In response, a tomb was built within the mosque, the Dargah, inscribed with the 99 names of Allah.
Today, millions make a similar pilgrimage across the sea to pay tribute and worship at the marbled structure standing resolute and weather-beaten, 500 meters away from mainland India. My mistake was doing so during a monsoon. Until the seas calmed and abated, I was to remain in the presence of the holy grave, accepting relentless offers of Chai, smiling for selfies and of course, being at the disposal of queuing families waiting for their ‘photoshoot’.
Among the insistent Mumbaikers lies a rare glimpse of Islamic life that is often suffocated within a country famous for the overflowing powdered colours, reverberating sounds and statues of Hinduism. Muslims make up merely 14% of India’s billion-strong population, where their polytheistic neighbours hold a 79% share. As a result places such as Haji Ali attract people invested in displaying their faith vehemently. Although the process of being dragged by the arm, sleeve and even at one point, the backpack; was frustrating, the result was a set of glances into a lifestyle which cultural-bias around the world has distorted.
Between chai vendors are stood two men wearing Keffiyeh’s, looking out to sea deep in discussion. They both seem familiar with the Haji Ali, leaning casually against the ornate white marble walls, but one disappeared towards an elderly woman the moment I raised my camera questioningly, the other looked at me without saying a word.
In the main square, families crowd around the Mumbaikar-style picnic, aromatic curries stored in metal containers until they appear steaming, placed on blankets on the floor. Within this is a Muslim family not eating, what I gathered we two wives a father and their child found a space to shelter from the rain, the boy was already soaked from the sea spray that caught him on the causeway. I asked the two women if I could take their photo, but they looked to the man for permission which he nodded hastily while on the phone, they sheltered their son on either side, two mothers and a son. I managed to seat the father and his phone also, only for a moment.
When obliging to take family photos, the father’s usually ordered around their children. They seemed ironically aware that I hadn’t come to take photos of them, and perhaps thought that their excited kids would be the straw that broke the camel’s back. In fact, the excitement in the toddlers like this little girl gave me a new view of the Haji Ali. Just like when I was taken to church as a child, I was aware of an overbearing importance, but the little things fascinated me. This girl adored the camera.