Among the most travelled Hajj routes over the last five centuries are those between India and Mecca. The details in this poem are based on conversation with an Indian friend who described the Hajj his father and grandfather made in 1939. Like so much else to do with the Hajj, the journey described here, which took place a mere 70 years ago, would be unrecognisable today. This is why I have entitled the poem An India Ago. In it, very old pilgrims say goodbye to those they suspect they may never see again as they set out for Mecca.
With autumn garlands,
The pilgrims guide their horses door to door,
Bidding the neighborhood good-bye,
Cool tears brimming on their eyelids.
The old ones under parasols
Have made their wills.
Some won’t be coming back.
They’re bound for Mecca, to greet the shrine
And keep a date with Allah.
Roses, rice grains
Rain down on their saddles as they pass.
Beyond the gates the cheering fades.
A sun-baked plain takes over.
They’ll board a train tonight
On the Bombay road.
They won’t mind hard wood seats in a third-class carriage.
They’ve known each other since childhood.
Wed young to distant kin
They have each other,
As silver limbs
Have leaves on trees, in those Mogul paintings
Small as playing cards
Where sultans picnicked centuries ago.
Though fortunate in this
And feeling blessed,
Some will meet their end before they get there,
Breathing their last on choppy seas
In a freighter bound for Jeddah,
Or slake their thirst
From stagnant streams
And, reaching Mecca fevered, lie at dawn
In a stranger’s tent, faint breath clouding
A small mirror.
Or later come to grief on the way home.
It doesn’t matter.
Made glad by what may sadden us
They take their leave together,
Departing in a way that makes them glad.