Just several decades ago, restaurants, hotels and roadside eateries were banned from selling food during Ramadan until Iftar time. Prior to that, for decades, upper-crust hotels and restaurants were allowed to serve meals discreetly, and there were no elaborate spreads in deference to the month. So were the modest semi-open-air places for ordinary folk; they had the courtesy — without having to be told — to cover their frontage with a sheet or shamiana so nobody could be seen eating. After all everybody doesn’t — can’t possibly — fast every day – children, the very elderly, the ill, the weak, expectant mothers, labourers far from home, doing strenuous work, dependant on roadside eateries but without access to a place serving sehri.
Officialdom used to think of things like these once upon a time. Not any more. Even if they do, they’re too terrified or just not authorized to do anything about it. So people who can’t fast for health or other reasons have to re-organize their lives as best as they can. Many can’t though. The city has ballooned to 22 million, and the traffic jams have become longer – as much as two hours long. Many reach home late for iftar; many have to choose between losing their ride and getting a bite on the road.
Religious charities are generous; they fling packets of iftari complete with dates and a fast-breaking juice into moving rickshaws and other vehicles without asking whether the passengers are entitled or not. In many areas, business communities spread out an elaborate iftar-dinner street-side for their workers who cannot get home, or have no local home to go to. The ‘langars’ continue to faithfully cater to the jobless or penniless. That’s the upside.
And then there’s the downside. Some of the most offensive series of advertisements on 20 foot billboards have been increasingly dotting main roads in cities over the years. Junk food and drinks which doctors don’t recommend, especially after fasting, are psychologically elevated to top billing by the media. In a country where half the population doesn’t get enough to eat, how is a hungry person who consumes barely enough to keep hunger pangs at bay until the next meal, expected to feel about the mouth-watering food adorning the hoardings in full, vivid colour?
Most of these people are not able to read the ‘deals’ on offer- what do they know that the cost of a single kebab in a bun surrounded by chips and soda costs more than they make in daily wages – on days they do get work and wage. Is the yawning gulf between our haves and have-nots something to plaster across giant posters? — That too in Ramadan?
Billboards appear in public spaces. Public spaces belong to and are viewed by rich and poor alike, although the better-off (and the government and politicians) act as if everything is meant for them alone. The same junk food messages are indeed meant only for those who can pay. But those who aren’t, can’t avoid seeing them, or escape being acutely conscious of their deprivation. Is that decent or is that thoughtless imposition?
The enthusiasm of advertisements and television sponsors, to commercialize food and festivity in this month, suggests that they are convinced (rightly so), that perceived piety is a highly saleable commodity. They are less introspective about intent or belief. Holiness too, is a business, and there is no respite for television viewers any more. Every second equates thousands of rupees. Previously, the azaan was presented on the television, usually over a still photograph of a holy place. Now, it is squeezed in between colourful commercials of families feasting on laden tables, gulping down food and drink as fast as possible. What do these images do for the spirit of Ramadan, especially when attempting to inculcate it within children?
The idea seems to have come from channels marketing modern religions in America which have made good use of the medium for at least half a century. Anything can be molded into infotainment. Television doesn’t need a fixed venue for its audience. It has far greater outreach. An actor with the gift of the gab, provided a script, will deliver whatever performance is required – whether a play or a sermon. Acts of charity and philanthropy too are put on open display. A generous donation (probably from the advertising budget) from a big company enables a new life or helps a family or a community, complete with introspective background music, some applause, some self-approval. Weren’t we taught that deeds of charity and goodness are not to be flaunted but carried out in private?
There may be nothing wrong with the fake, but good Samaritanism, but the mixed messages sent out can be confusing.
Is this all just a natural part of globalization? Is the assimilation of pop culture and commercialism and business interests with religion, just the next step of the process? Even so, it seems unpalatable. It seems like an indignity to faith; surely belief should be isolated from capitalism. Surely, it shouldn’t be allowed to feel like the creeping corporatization that has already taken over too many aspects of our lives, and reduced the value of the individual in its blatant attempts to mix religion with show business.
The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.