It’s midnight and there’s electricity in the air of Patharchapri. More than a lakh of jostling pilgrims have descended on this village not far from Shantiniketan in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, for the Chaitra (late-March) fair at the grave of Sufi Data Mehboob Shah. And piercing the din is the vigorous music of the fakirs.
Music is the fakirs’ lifeblood. It’s at once their bread earner and the language through which they preach their form of Islam. But their language is loaded with double meaning and their take on Islam is at variance with the mainstream versions.
“Manush bhojle sonar manush hobi”: ‘to become a man worth gold, you need to revere man.’ This is the anchor of the fakir’s humanist universe.
Says Shaktinath Jha, founder of the Berhampur-based Baul-Fakir Sangh, the largest organisation of these minstrels, “They are bothered only about ‘iho’ (this, the present) and ‘deha’ (the body). This sort of ‘dehatatva’ (the cult of the body) has existed in our subcontinent for longer than Sanatan Hinduism or Islam.”
Amitabh Chakraborty, director of Bi’shar Blues, a documentary on fakirs that won the National Award last year, explains this radical materialism: “To the fakir, the visible universe is ‘bartaman’ (the present) and everything else, including heaven and rebirth, are ‘anuman’ (guess).” So, in this navel-gazing order, every human, irrespective of his or her religion, is an ally.
This belief system sets the fakirs apart from other Muslims. They observe their own take on marfat, mystic Islam, but not the shariat.
The 67-year-old Jha, whose life’s research has revolved around the ‘fakiri’ way of life, says, “There are even those who do not smoke, drink, or even eat beef because they have been barred by their gurus. Some of them avoid all meat.”
The fakirs keep an arm’s length even from the Sufis, whom the American think-tank RAND Corporation declared in a couple of papers published in 2007 as the most ‘moderate face of Islam’ that the West should engage with.
Arman Khan Fakir leans close amidst the din to explain the difference. “We call Sufis musafir (wanderer). They roam around the countryside preaching… well, somewhat like us,” says the 50-something minstrel from Gorbhanga. And then his face lights up with a knowing smile: “But what we preach is different.”
Arman is referring to the secret sexual practices that only an initiate can be taught. “Everything is concentrated in the bostu (literally, ‘the thing’). The Koran... it’s in the human body — why do we need to pray only towards Mecca?”
This system, deeply rooted in India for centuries , particularly in Bengal, is nurtured at a steady distance from more organised forms of Islam, which makes the fakirs into ‘renegades’. That’s why they have been persecuted for centuries, from before the time of Lalon Fakir, the grand vizier of them all who died in 1890 in Chheuria, Bangladesh.
In his monograph, The Chronicles of the Destruction of Bauls and Fakirs, Jha details how fakirs have been driven out of West Bengal’s villages as recently as a decade ago. Their dreadlocks have been cut, moustaches snipped and their musical instruments broken.
The persecution continues in Bangladesh, too, where a substantial number of fakirs stay. Says Haidar Ali, a white-clad 75-year-old who has mostly lived ‘o-paar’ (‘on the other side’), “The atrocities peak whenever nationalist forces such as Khaleda Zia’s come to power. They ask us to do namaz and roja, and not sing of Krishna-Radha as we sometimes do.”
This status of being the arch-rebels probably explains why they descend in lakhs from all over the country to the shrine of ‘Datababa’, an undatable mystic who neither signed up to a Sufi lineage nor spawned one. Says Liaqat Ali, a former Naxalite leader who has been coming to the fair for almost three decades, “If you put the ancestors of the other Sufi pirs on top of each other, you’ll reach Hazrat Mohammad one way or the other; but not this one.”
Jha says that these days the Islamicists insinuate themselves into fakiri conventions and start singing more “fundamentalist songs” — “They use tropes of qawwali and would never ever sing of Krishna”.
What this ongoing tug-of-creed is up against is the entire body of fakiri songs. In the words of Lalon:
Jat gelo, jat gelo boley eki ajob karkhana,
Sotyokajey keu noy raji, shob-i boley ta-nanana.
What is this strange going-on, claiming loss of religion, No one’s ready to work for the truth, all that’s a no-no.