A peek inside the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz
Most nights, the main avenue of Delhi’s tony Nizamuddin East is as silent as a grave. There is no traffic except for an occasional car, a “Niz East” dweller probably returning to his or her elegant apartment. The 17th-century tomb of Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana remains shrouded in darkness.
Sometimes though, in this silence, footsteps are heard — those of men walking in small groups, each holding a bundle under their arm or on the head. They are the Jamatis, members of the Tablighi Jamaat, on their way from the Nizamuddin railway station to the Markaz, the organisation’s headquarters. It is located across Mathura Road, next to the equally upscale Nizamuddin West, in the congested and not-upscale-at-all Nizamuddin Basti.
This village takes its name from the shrine of Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, which lies deep in the heart of the basti. The Markaz’s grey building stands near the entrance, very close to the famous Karim’s restaurant, and a few steps away from a great literary landmark: poet Mirza Ghalib’s grave.
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The front facade of the six-storey building is studded with long arch-shaped windows that look strangely similar to traditionally built windows seen in the bylanes of distant Venice – currently ravaged by the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), another thing it has in common with the Markaz building that has emerged as India’s biggest Covid-19 hot spot so far.
Social activist Faisal Khan, convener of Khudai Khidtmatgar welfare organisation, spends a couple of days every year inside the Markaz, in the month of Ramzan, for “peace and meditation”. Talking on the phone from his office in south Delhi’s Ghaffar Manzil, he gives an idea of the interiors of the Markaz complex. “The entrance hall is littered with hundreds of chappals that spill far out into the street. It’s a miracle that every Jamati finds his own sandals from that great pile.”
Khan says that each floor in the Markaz has the same layout — a spacious hall lined with small rooms, each being the temporary dwelling of some learned elderly person to whom younger Jamatis might go for counsel. Most residents (some might stay for a week, others for just a weekend) would, however, settle with their backpacks and beddings in the big halls, sleeping at night on the floor. Sermons will be held in the mosque at different times of the day. An average day in the Markaz, Khan says, “is about performing prayers and listening to maulanas about how to be a good Muslim”.
The eating arrangement, he says, “is just like the langars held in Sikh gurdwaras.” Simple meals such as dal and chawal are prepared communally, and served in a basement hall, he reports. In the evening, the Jamatis can be seen milling around in the basti. The Tablighi centre attracts visitors from countries such as the UK, the US, Germany, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Sudan and South Africa. A mere walk in the lanes of the Basti might take you to different corners of the world, as you are likely to overhear conversations in British-accented English, Chinese, French, or Arabic. Until a few years ago, the area had a popular telephone booth advertising special call rates for places such as Yemen and Morocco.
Almost all the Jamatis are men. One evening, just a few days before the lockdown, this reporter spotted a few young Jamatis huddled in a small park not far from the Markaz. Some of these boys were exercising on the fitness equipment installed in the park. One man in a loose shalwar kameez was shyly working out on the chest press machine; two were sitting at the two ends of a see-saw.
The “open gym” remained crowded for a long time, and then the boys walked back towards the Markaz.