Written by: Tasneem Sariya
I have grown up hearing that feeding people or providing for their meals is one of the most important services. As His Holiness Dr Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin TUS regularly reminds us, nobody should go to bed hungry. It is said that an involuntary prayer emanates from the hungry when someone serves or provides them with food. It is not even a conscious act of gratitude and this I experienced quite clearly some years back. I was fasting and during the late afternoon hours, when it becomes most tiring, I dragged myself to the kitchen to prepare ‘iftar’ – a snack for breaking the fast. Just then I heard the doorbell ring and I found the FMB thali had delivered – the daily meal provided to all Bohras and made by our local community kitchen. I wasn’t expecting it and even before I could open it, I almost felt an involuntary prayer emanating from the deepest corners of my heart, offering gratitude for the meal that was just handed over to me.
Everybody has experienced the feeling of being hungry, whether one is rich or poor. The need for proper nutrition and regular meals is essential for all and its accessibility is of paramount importance. This has never been better understood than in our present times where, because of the lockdown caused by the global pandemic, many people are finding it particularly hard to meet their daily requirements. Yet, in such times, Bohra households continue to receive food essentials led by the efforts of the community kitchen. Every day I find on my doorstep the daily delivery of basic raw materials and cooking ingredients that are such a boon during these trying times. And once again, almost involuntarily, a prayer of gratitude and an overwhelming feeling of being taken care of rises from the very bottom of my heart.
There are people who live to eat and those that eat to live. I have always regarded myself as the latter and have never quite understood the fuss people make around meals. I can happily eat anything without caring much about its size, shape, color or method of preparation. Yet, we all understand that cooking is an art as much as is rationing, budgeting or calculating our household’s daily needs. When prepared food makes its way into our homes each day, I have never ceased to be thankful for it. And although I have heard that some have their own opinions about the quality of the FMB thali during better times, I find those very same people opening up with gratitude as they receive rations to sustain themselves during the lockdown days. There are some that are relieved, some that are teary-eyed, and some that feel elated. And there are those like me who are amazed at the level of detail and quantity of the food provided and are left sincerely grateful when we contemplate how much we owe our leader Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin TUS and others for this bounty.
A Helping Hand
And yet, we must consider the larger context of using food and meals as means of extending happiness, brotherhood and a helping hand. The Dawoodi Bohra community across the world has been involved in numerous philanthropic activities during the global pandemic. The community is providing food and rations to many homes and people, following the example of our leader himself. Both in parts of India and elsewhere, the community has come together to provide food, meals and other necessary requirements for those in need.
The importance of Roti – the Bohra’s favored bread
Providing, preparing and serving food has always been a big part of our culture. This is why the FMB thali – prepared by our local community kitchens – has so much meaning and importance. Making chapatis and rotis – the Bohras’ favorite types of bread – plays an important role in the FMB thali and our culture. I used to find making rotis a boring task. The painstaking method of first kneading the dough, getting the perfect round shapes, and then making sure not to over or under cook the roti left me feeling a little hostile towards it. But I carried out the daily routine of making rotis as an automated response. However, when I heard Syedna Saifuddin TUS consistently emphasise the importance of roti making, I finally understood that making rotis is perhaps one of the best ways to pour love and positive energy into a household. Roti making is a purpose, a means to an end, and I started viewing it not as a robotic mundane activity, but as a way to provide for the family.
The mechanism of making food and distributing the FMB thali varies from city to city, but rotis are incorporated into the menu, if not every day, at least once a week or month. Munira Ben Sodawala, who manages roti making in Chennai, says that she gets happiness when she makes rotis for the thali. She feels a sense of deep gratitude towards her fate that she has been given a chance to perform this task or khidmat. Arwa Ben Dhegamwala points out that she volunteers to make rotis because it makes Syedna happy, and he has always said that when you serve food to someone a prayer automatically emanates from the heart of the consumer.
So whether it be making rotis, sourcing and distributing food to people across different strata of society, or feeding hundreds during these trying times, the Bohra community has risen magnificently to the challenge of each occasion. All of this to seek that precious involuntary prayer and in turn to understand that simple good deeds can go a long way. A single idea to feed people becomes a collective effort of feeding each other. A routine chore of making chapatis or rotis becomes a meaningful act of bonding and love. All of this leads to a sense of togetherness in difficult times that demonstrates a strong value of humanity cutting across lines of caste, creed, wealth and class.
I have always respected the role of food and its intrinsic connection to the spiritual and divine. But when the very same food becomes a means to strengthen the bonds of humanity, care and generosity, we imbibe in ourselves too a bit of divinity that we otherwise may never have been able to reclaim.