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She is dressed as always in a short, cream kurta and white pants. Dupattas are not for her. Mostly, she tosses a small towel over her left shoulder to wipe off sweat from her brow. She likes her trinkets, though — five amulets around her neck, a metal bracelet on her right wrist, and a metal chain with a padlock that runs along with a thread on her right ankle.
“This chain,” she says, sitting on a cot and leaning forward, elbow digging into her left knee, “is both spiritual and fashionable. My leg used to ache so I tied this thread around my ankle as well as this chain. It’s a mannat, a prayer. As for the lock, I threw away its key. One day, it will unlock on its own,” says Fauzia Khan, 43, running her fingers through her hair — “I have always had a boy-cut hairstyle” — that’s parted in the middle. Here in Takiya Ghadar Shah, a locality in Ajmer on a small hillock overlooking the dargah of the 12th Century Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti, Fauzia is known for being “one of the boys”. “That’s how she started firing the cannon too,” says her youngest brother Khursheed, 32, who runs a mobile repair shop and studied till middle school.
Fauzia is known in these parts as Ajmer’s topchi, the one who fires the cannon, part of a practice said to have been introduced in the 16th Century by Mughal emperor Akbar who apparently patronised the shrine. It’s a small hand-held cannon — during Partition, authorities seized the bigger one to prevent its misuse — but with a boom powerful enough to be heard and felt across Ajmer’s old town.
It’s from a scruffy, unexceptional spot, next to a water pipe near Fauzia’s home, that the cannon is fired for the dargah’s big moments. Thrice during Ramzan: once to signal the start of the pre-dawn meal of sehri, the second to signal its halt and a third, around sunset, to mark iftaar or the breaking of the fast. Besides Ramzan, the cannon is fired for Friday prayers and other special occasions surrounding Moinuddin Chishti, such as his birth and death anniversaries.
“I have always been like the boys — playing cricket, football and gilli-danda,” she says, talking about how she would often play ludo late into the night with her neighbour ‘Shahi Qawwal’ Asrar Husain’s sons Ashraf, Aslam and Amjad. “It’s from them that I picked up this habit of chewing tobacco. I started when I was around 7. But nobody had a problem with anything I did. Nobody,” she says. But that’s changing. This year, her uncle Mohammad Rafique, who is in his fifties, didn’t let her fire the cannon. “It is a religious matter. Women aren’t supposed to do such things, people get offended. We won’t allow her to fire the cannon. I don’t mind her brother Khursheed doing it,” says Rafique. “I have always fired the cannon,” Fauzia retorts, standing outside her house.
“The Dargah Committee has explicitly told me that as per rules, no woman can undertake such a thing. They asked me not to allow women to fire the cannon,” the uncle claims, adding that “someone” had complained about her to the committee. “No one has ever complained to me,” she snaps. It’s 3.15 am on Thursday, about 45 minutes for the end of sehri and Fauzia concedes defeat. She goes to a small room in her house and slams the door shut as her cousin, uncle Rafique’s son Mohammad Shafi, prepares to light the cannon. The cannon comes with its own little ceremony. It’s kept in the topkhana of the Dargah Police Station, from where the topchi assigned for that year, or someone in the family, carries it with great reverence, to the small hillock near Fauzia’s home. There, the cannon is cleaned with a cloth rolled around a stick before gunpowder is poured down its mouth. Next, crushed cow dung gets stuffed in, all of which is then hammered down. Earlier, paper and sawdust were used in place of cow dung but the boom wasn’t as loud with sawdust, while a paper from the cannon once burnt a bed in one of the houses down the hillock. So for the past few decades, the family has been using cow dung since it scatters best. The cannon is then adjusted between two chopped girders on a cemented block and more gunpowder is sprinkled on the vent near the base. When it is time to fire, the topchi uses an incense stick, with the left hand awkwardly attempting to block the right ear.
Fauzia’s father Mohammad Haneef and her uncle Mohammad Rafique are first cousins — “their fathers were siblings”, says Fauzia’s brother Khursheed. “Like most people of that generation, my grandfather was a generous man. Uncle Rafique’s father Zahoor lived far away from Ajmer and didn’t have a job, while my grandfather was the topchi at the dargah. So he called them here and said both families could take turns to fire the cannon every alternate year so that Rafique uncle’s family had some means of supporting themselves,” says Fauzia. So though both families took turns, it was merely a formality — usually to decide who would sign at the police station before collecting the cannon. “I was always there,” says Fauzia.
The fourth of eight siblings, Fauzia lives with her mother Asiya Bano, her divorced younger sister Farida and brothers Rasheed and Khursheed and their wives and children in Takiya Ghadar Shah, a part of old Ajmer where homes merge into one another, separated usually by the roots of trees or graves of family members. Here, everyone’s a “relative”, a bond of kinship from a perceived shared history — “our ancestors all served Mughal rulers who were drawn to the shrine,” says Fauzia’s uncle Rafique, whose house, where he lives with his wife, two sons and other members of his extended family, is only a few metres away from hers. Fauzia’s family believes their ancestors had a seat in the Mughal emperor’s court and identify themselves as morosi (hereditary service clan). “Our family has been shooting cannons for the past eight generations,” says Fauzia’s sister Farida. “My grandfather used to get Rs 2 a month, my father Rs 5, and now the Dargah Committee pays us Rs 1,500 per month,” she says, adding, “that’s hardly any money. We do it out of devotion.” Fauzia, who dropped out after Class 7, supports her family through “jhaad-phoonk (exorcism) to cure people of illnesses” while her mother sells soft drinks from a shack by their home.
Though the Mughals ceded control to the British in the 19th century, traditions said to be introduced by them, such as the cannon firing, and those from Khwaja Moinuddin’s time, continued at the dargah. As a newly independent India put its house in order, a need to codify the oral and written farmans (edicts) at the dargah was felt and thus, the Durgah Khawaja Saheb Act was laid down in 1955. The Dargah Committee Employees Service Rules, 1977, then defined four categories of staff — permanent (29 positions), temporary (as per requirement), part-time (11) and hereditary (22). The topchi is among the part-time staff, with saqqa (water man), gharisaz (watchman), gulbardar (one who bears flowers), being some of the others.
Though there is a separate category for hereditary staff, it is usual for staff of other categories to follow the hereditary system, with preference given to son, grandson, brother, or brother’s son, in that order. “Therefore”, asserts Mohammed Adil, assistant to the Nazim or the administrative head of the dargah who is appointed by the Union government, “going purely by rules, only men are supposed to carry out the assigned tasks.”
But Fauzia will have none of it. As she lies in front of a cooler, her head resting on her mother’s lap , Fauzia goes back to that morning’s unpleasantness with her uncle. “This wouldn’t have happened if my father were around,” says Fauzia, adding that she learnt everything from him. “He would ask me to lug the cannon on my shoulder when we brought it from the police station and everyone would look at me and say ‘Munna bhai ki beti!’ as we walked back home through the markets,” she says. After her father passed away in November 2009, Fauzia took the cannon firing upon herself, with her brothers helping out. Soon, word spread and she was hailed in the local dailes as Ajmer’s “cannon girl”.
“She became part of the curiosities associated with the dargah. She would be regularly featured in local dailies during Ramzan,” says Khalid Khan, another of her uncles. “Even when it was Rafique uncle’s family’s turn, I would help them fire the cannon. Nobody objected,” says Fauzia. But over the years, she says, Rafique and his sons Mohammad Shafi and Mohammad Shahnawaz have been increasingly objecting to her firing the cannon. This year, it is the turn of Rafique’s family and he won’t let her come anywhere near the cannon. “The heir is always male. Only a man can and should perform such duties assigned to the family,” says Rafique.
And so, for the first time since she can remember, a Ramzan will pass without Fauzia firing the cannon. Now sitting up, she says, “It is a dangerous job. You have to be committed and take great care. Once, when the sun was very strong, the powder blasted rather quickly. So I still sometimes have difficulty hearing with my right ear,” Fauzia says. Then there was the 2008 Ajmer blast. “There was a difference of barely a minute between our cannon fire and the bomb blast at the dargah that Ramzan evening and for some time, people thought we had loaded a real shell in the cannon. However, a police investigation rightly ruled it out,” Khan says, smiling, going on to talk of another Ramzan, when she fired the cannon even as the mortal remains of her niece Ruqsar awaited cremation, something that earned her more praise among locals.
Her smile suddenly drops. “The cannon is my pehchan, my identity. Nobody dared raise their voice when my father was alive,” she says, breaking down. “Humare ghar me mard yehi hai (She is the man of our family),” says Shehnaz Bano, Khan’s sister-in-law, ruffling Fauzia’s hair. “She takes care of us. We never needed a man here to do chores like shifting stuff around or running errands,” says Bano. “She does what any boy would do. When there are long power cuts, she calls up the electricity office to enquire. She doesn’t like to cook,” says mother Asiya. “People are jealous of her. Somebody fed her something and her health has been deteriorating for years now. She gets thinner every year. The padlock is a mannat to restore her health,” says her mother.
It’s now 6.10 pm and at the dargah, the qawwali singers have reached a crescendo: “Ghareeb Nawaz, tum toh ahle rasool ho, rasool ho Khwaja…” Unlike other shrines, the one at Ajmer is a more inclusive space for men, women and transgenders. Syed Zainul Abedin Ali Khan, the Dargah Diwan and the spiritual head of the shrine who is said to be a “direct descendent” of Moinuddin Chishti, says, “Khwaja Gharib Nawaz (Moinuddin Chishti) educated his daughter Bibi Hafiza Jamal in Sufism, he taught her like he taught his sons. But look at what is happening today. We have aalimah (the educated), we have followers of Sufism, but it isn’t like it was before.” Meanwhile, at her home, Fauzia has regained her composure from the events of Thursday morning, when her cousin had blocked her hand as she held the incense stick to fire the cannon. “Those wanting to stop me aren’t any chief ministers or district collectors. How dare they? I’ll see how they stop me next Ramzan, when the cannon comes to my home.”