One Dervish, One Roti, Four Urchins

And other Sufi stories

Professor Nazeer Ahmed

They called him Shah, the king, even though he was a dervish who owned nothing. Legend had it that one of his forefathers, a certain God-fearing Shaikh, had migrated from the North three hundred years ago and his tomb lay on the outskirts of the town. The Shaikh had earned the nickname, “Allah Allah SaeeN Baba”, because he uttered not a word but “Allah, Allah” during the day. In the bygone, halcyon ages when the spiritual modulated the lives of men and women, villagers from the surrounding area flocked to the Shaikh to learn his secrets and follow him. Shah was the tenth in the lineage of SaeeN Baba. People loved this Shah. No one knew his proper name but out of love they called him Mahboob Shah (the king who was loved).

Mahboob Shah lived in a hut next to the tomb of SaeeN Baba. His routine was the same every day. In the waning hours of the night, even as the world was asleep, he got up as soon as he heard the first chorus of the roosters, did his ablution and started his tahajjud prayers. Several hours later, the second chorus of the roosters was the time for Adhan. He was the muezzin and the imam all rolled into one. His open door masjid was but a bamboo mat under a mango tree. Two or three other faqirs always joined him in prayer. There, with the sky and its fading stars as his magnificent canopy, and the vastness of God’s earth as his carpet, Mahboob Shah opened his heart to the presence of Rabbul Alameen (the Sustainer of the heavens and the earth), led the prayers, did his long dhikr, and ended with Fateha.

There was no time to waste. Mahboob Shah slung his jholi from his shoulder.  It was a long piece of white cloth sown with a pouch at the bottom. He picked up his dayera, a round shallow drum with nineteen slots around the rim, each slot supporting an insert of a circular metallic cymbal.  It is perhaps the most common musical instrument in the Islamic world with slight variations in construction in places as far away as Mauritania and Uzbekistan.

Shah started his song as soon as he left his hut. “Ta Ha ki galiyon meiN……” (In the alleys of the Prophet….). It was a song passed on from generation to generation by the faqirs. The tightly stretched skin of a buffalo around the rim of the dayera produced the suppressed harmonics against which the melodious, heartrending voice of Mahboob Shah rang out reminding those who heard it of the “alleys of the Prophet”.  Centuries of practice had given the song an inimitable perfection.

Allah ke naam par…….”  (In the Name of God…..) rang out the voice of Shah as he approached the first house. It was the standard method of asking. Shah was not a beggar. He was a dervish who had taken the oath of poverty. To keep himself humble he was required to make a daily round, asking every household to share with him whatever they wished to share.  Some gave wheat flour, some rice flour, some jawar but most simply said, “ Ja kar ayeyey…” (Please come back another time). Whether they gave him a handful of flour or nothing, Shah always said a prayer for the household and parted, saying, “Allahu khairur Raziqeen” (God is the best of Providers).

Shah took whatever he collected back to his hut. He had built a chulhaa, a small clay oven. A large brass pan always sat on the oven. He emptied his mixture of flours into a large, clay pot, added a cup of water and with his right hand spread out the wet flour on the pan, carefully tapping it to make it even. He collected pieces of dry mango twigs, lit the oven, and made the roti (bread). On certain days, the roti was thin as paper, when the collected ration was meager. On other days, it was thick as a bamboo stalk. No matter how thin or how thick a roti it was, it was always a single roti, which he shared with all the other faqirs and their families, saying, “Allahu khairur raziqeen” (God is the best of Providers).

There lived in the town four little boys, Fazlu, Khaleel, Shareef and Babu. They were close friends and with the inquisitiveness of seven year olds, were curious about everything.  “Mahboob Shah always feeds his neighbors with his single roti”, Fazlu said to his comrades one day, “let us find out what his secret is”. They agreed that the following day they would have a picnic and make a single roti with whatever flour they would collect from their own homes.

Fazlu was an orphan. His father had died a long time ago. His mom, a single mother, supported four children on a meager ration from the depot run by the district collector. He was lucky that day. His mom had just returned from the depot. She stuffed his shirt pocket with wheat flour and Fazlu went off to meet his friends.

Khaleel’s father was a peon in the local primary school. His salary was barely enough to buy jawar flour for his family for two meals a day.  “May I have some flour for a picnic with my friends”, he asked his mother. The loving mother stuffed his picket with jawar flour and Khaleel proceeded for a rendezvous with his friends.

Babu’s father was a farmer.  What the family ate depended on the vagaries of the monsoons. That year was one of drought and food was scarce. There was only one bag of rice left for the entire month. Babu asked his mom. Out of her love, she ground out a handful of rice in the round stone chakki (grinder) and put it in Babu’s pocket.

Shareef’s father was a chawkidar (a guard) at the local brick factory. His meager income almost always ran out towards the end of the month and the family went hungry. That day luck ran out on Shareef. The kitchen was empty. Shareef’s pockets were full of nothing when he met his friends.

Babu had brought along a large pan, a clay pot and a small bucket of water. The four of them proceeded to the wet lands on the outskirts of the town for their planned picnic.  Rice fields stretched out in the wet lands, in small patches as far as the eye could see. It was late in the morning and the sun was approaching its zenith. Buffaloes waddled in the mud of the rice fields and the birds had retreated to their nests to wait out the heat of the sun.

The four friends set up their picnic under a large banyan tree.  They picked up some stones and made a makeshift oven. Dry leaves and pieces of twigs provided the fuel. Fazlu, Khaleel and Babu emptied their pockets into the clay pot. There were tears in Shareef’s eyes but he emptied the nothingness of his pocket into the clay pot and kneeded  the flour with his bare hands. And as he did so, the flour seemed to grow. Out of nothingness came the rizq from Allah.

Shareef carefully arranged the dough on the pan into a single roti. The fire was lit and as the boys watched, the roti grew thicker. Shareef flipped the roti several times with his bare hands, oblivious of the heat, and each time, the roti became thicker and bigger.

The four friends started to eat the roti, peeling off the hot pieces straight from the pan. Never did anything taste so sumptuous nor was it so filling. They ate and ate, taking water breaks in between, and even as they consumed it, the roti kept growing, getting thicker, spreading out in every direction. Never did such a big roti emerge from so little flour.

The boys ate to their heart’s content.  They divided up what remained into four parts, each to take home to their families. They had understood the secret of Mahboob Shah, the dervish king who was loved by all.

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