Offering meat to the birds may benefit the carnivorous among them, but this can affect the balance between the various other species vying for space. Also, there are other, nobler ways to give
My grandmother used to give a needy old lady a sheep-head (siri in vernacular) as sadqa (charity), neatly cut by the butcher every month, costing a rupee. Another four annas were dispensed with for cooking. Once when the recipient turned up rather early, my grandma gave her the money to make the purchase herself to which my uncle objected. His fear was that she might use the money elsewhere. But my grandma overruled his objection, saying that the recipient was entitled to use the money whichever way she wanted to; the purpose of charity would remain fulfilled.
History tells us that sadqa was always offered, albeit in different ways. Fulfilling somebody’s needs is certainly a noble act. Offering meat to the birds may benefit the carnivorous birds, but this can affect the balance between the various species vying for space. The ‘cheel gosht’ offered on sale on roadsides in Lahore has its own adverse implications. Chopped lung pieces from cows and buffaloes are on sale on the bridge over the Ravi. The numerous vendors you find there are invariably invalids, holding on to their crutches or walkers, they wave their merchandise in (usually) pink-tinted plastic shoppers to potential customers who have just braved the notorious traffic jam. After each transaction, the vendor takes time to rotate the meat in a plastic bag around the head of the customer or the child in their lap, already reduced to a psychopath due to attending parents’ health or their socio-economic circumstances and other problems. The contents are then thrown into the river together with the shopper. Hundreds of carnivorous birds await the ‘manna from heaven’ sent into the small islands below the bridge.
As to why only the invalids, it begs deeper probe. Around the bank of the river, deep blue plastic drums are lined half submerged in the flowing water to keep the fast decomposing proteins somewhat cool. The contents are sprinkled with some red pigment meant for textiles and packed in pink plastic bags.
The wholesale merchants prefer to offer it only to the physically handicapped because they arouse the sympathy of customers looking for extra sawaab. How the river gets further polluted and the plastic bags endanger the aquatic life is not an issue in their cerebellum or medulla oblongata. The greater the traffic jams, the more their business thrives.
In other parts of the city, wherever dozens of kites are seen somersaulting, a meat seller is sure to be around. Crows too loiter or lurk obediently around the bicycle on whose handlebars are hung the big bags. Lately, immigrant white cranes and storks have joined the swarms of hopefuls for a morsel, while the sponsors are awaited. Just how many mouths could thus be fed is a big question.
The vendor has more of it stored in a blue drum nearby. Or else, the wholesaler is only a call away.
The white immigrant birds, the cranes or storks, joining in the free luncheon is a recent phenomenon. It clearly shows that these farmer-friendly birds can no longer find enough insects in the farmlands because of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Thanks to the cheel gosht, kites and crows have multiplied which has upset the balance. As a result, nightingales and sparrows have either flown away or their numbers have dwindled drastically.
Occasionally, a black goat head is found thrown at some crossing, petrified, emitting foul smell. People change their path in order to avoid it. Some even suspect it to be an act of black magic or sorcery.
Sometimes people smash raw eggs against tree trunks as offerings. Some superstitious person smashes a couple of eggs against my door stealthily and disappears every Thursday. I would like to request the simpleton to gift me the eggs for my breakfast omelet instead.
The Mian Ahmad Din Bagh in my neighbourhood, in Jahanzeb Block, Allama Iqbal Town, has only local trees, eighty-five of which we have jealously protected. But it is also threatened by the pagan-like offerings. There is a constant and unwelcome onslaught of ants and alien rodents and insects that come to feed on all kinds of pulses, rice and sugar dropped in the roots of the trees. The insects once satiated in their comfort zone look around for more nutrients, digging deep into the roots of the indigenous trees, causing many to decay. With the prices of food items rising prohibitively high, one wonders if this really is an act of benevolence. Bestowing them upon the needy, instead of throwing away these expensive food items would open the gates of the heavens.
There are now countless sale points of sadqa goats all around the city, including several in government residences on Wahdat Road, of course in connivance with the estate officers. A specie of mountain goat that remains short in height even into adulthood is available for the purpose. People having lost hope in health issues or facing various predicaments or hoping for divine intervention offer this animal as charity. Once when my mother wanted to offer a goat, we gave the money to a Yateem Khana (orphanage) on Fleming Road. The manager gave us its official receipt and promised to use it to feed the children. I felt as if my late grandma’s wish had been fulfilled.
I have a special liking for the Istanbul Chowk in front of the National College of Arts, from where I retired after serving for many years — more so for having finished my doctoral dissertation in that fabled Turkish city.
What irks me, however, is the fact that over a high pole, small wooden boxes have been grouped together and titled Birdhouse. Of course, no bird would be foolish enough to venture in.
Next to it is the Kim’s Gun, or Zamzama, cast in Lahore. Literally, thousands of pigeons fly over and settle around it to feed on bajra (millet) offered as sadqa.
Pigeons have been referred to as rats with wings as they spread many diseases, and their acidic droppings are problematic to the historic district’s built environment. My respected teacher, late Waliullah Khan, worked for years to get the Wazir Khan mosque and other monuments rid of this menace.
Pious, noble intentions need to be streamlined. Donations can be made to orphanages including the SOS Village. You can also sponsor children at the various charitable schools such as the Teach A Child (TAC) School. It would be akin to perpetual benevolence or sadqa-e-jaaria.
Similarly planting trees in the name of your parents and later taking care of them is certainly a road map to the heavens. The Edhi Foundation can provide help in this regard.
Another form of offering, popularly termed mannat, is not exactly sadqa; it is merely offering a deg (cauldron) of cooked rice at some saint’s shrine as a token of gratitude when a wish of yours has been granted.
When after a long period of joblessness, my first pay cheque arrived, my mother told me that she had vowed to make an offering at the patron saint of Lahore, i.e. Data Sahib, to which I readily agreed. It so happened that a needy relative of ours, called Jaani, came over from Gujranwala. I suggested that he be given the money instead, to which my mother happily agreed, and the man received the payment. I thought the matter had been settled, but after a few days my mom told me that she had had a dream of a deg. This being a psychological matter, the offering had to be made as originally vowed.
It might seem to be a coincidence that when the whole world has been locked down, the likes of which has been witnessed or endured by the Kashmiris for the past so many months now, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Countless people across the country need help in kind and cash. It would be most apt that we extend help to the needy. The money spared for cheel gosht, or goat meat for sadqa, even for pilgrimage or Umrah, can be used to provide for daily rations for those who were dependent on daily wages. The same money could also be deposited in the Coronavirus Relief Fund established by the government.
Religious leaders should support this idea, in this time of emergency, and also educate the masses about the urgency of taking precautionary measures. The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) had said: “If there is a vabaa [outbreak] in some settlement, don’t go there; and if there is vabaa where you live, don’t step out of that place.” These are indeed pearls of wisdom that the prayer leaders should know and observe before going to such places and/or returning from the affected areas.
Florence Nightingale, while looking after the Crimean War wounded, pointed out that more soldiers had died of infections than from wounds, therefore washing hands was very important. I came to know about this during a visit to a hospital where she had served in the early 1850s, in Uskudar, Istanbul.
(This dispatch is dedicated to Bibi ji, my grandma)