interviewed at Townsend Rd, Kolkata
Februaru 25, 2015
Aditi: Tell us your name, the place of your birth and how you happened to choose the fakir way of life.
Moslem: My home is in Balura, under Tehatta police station, P.O. Tarunipur, District Nadia. As a sixteen-year old kid, I used to regularly visit this place called Pir-Talaa (1) where sadhus would assemble. I used to visit this place on Thursdays. That is how I slowly began to develop a sense of devotional attachment to Baul music. I am unlettered and have never received formal education. All I have is the knowledge which was passed on to me orally by those sadhus. Slowly, I developed a keen ear for music, began singing Baul songs and eventually became a singer. I would memorize these songs and gradually, a numerous number of these became nestled within my heart. Now, even if I sing continuously for twenty-four hours, my supply of songs will not run out. These songs flow from within me.
I also initiated myself with a guru. His name was Ghiasuddin Biswas and he happened to live beside my house. His guru was also a man from Tarunipur named Pratap Pramanik. I started roaming around the streets along with them. My parents were angered and called me a vagabond. They would constantly chastise me and even refused to give me rice. More and more, I started travelling with my guru and participating in congregations of sadhus. Eventually, I distanced myself from my family altogether. I travelled to Murshidabad, Dhaka, Pakistan, Mymensingh, Barisal, Chittagong, Meherpur and various other places. I was not yet married then. I became so intoxicated with Baul music and this way of life that whenever I would hear about a congregation of sadhus gathered somewhere, I would immediately go there. My parents, by now, had given up on me completely. However, they did give me some money and asked me to build a separate house/ establishment for myself. After all, they were parents. They thought that if I were to die, they should at least be able to bury me. Yet, if I were to die on the road somewhere on any of my travels, they would not even be able to receive my body. So they were keen that even if I wouldn’t return to the family, at least I should have a home nearby my ancestral house. My father bought me a small piece of land. I built a hut there and surrounded it with bamboo fencing. Yet, each time I was gone for about a month or so, I would return to see that these fences had been broken down by miscreants. My guru finally advised me to find a girl to marry. So I found myself a girl and got married. However, we still had no means to provide for ourselves. I was living the life of an ascetic, and my parents had already refused to feed me, let alone feed my new wife. It is then that I finally took up the alms bag and started doing madhukari (2). People would give us some money, and sometimes a cup of rice. I wanted to be remain completely immersed in sadhana and refuse familial ties altogether. But that was not meant to be. My wife became pregnant and I was saddled with an added responsibility. I began to weep before my guru that I had failed in my sadhana and I had failed to become a true Baul. My guru consoled me and told me that whatever had happened was good, and my wife had received a guardian through the child, someone who would look after her eventually if I were to leave one day. I named my son Lalan Mondal. I continued my music and the life of madhukari. Slowly, I also began accumulating disciples. This Wednesday we have a mahotsava (3) to honour the death anniversary of my father. It is an annual event which I observe. My surname was Mondal. Now, I am known as Moslem Fakir. No one calls me by the name ‘Mondal’ anymore. People see me and exclaim, “There goes Moslem Fakir!” I had never even been to Kolkata in my life. It is only recently, over the past couple of years or so, that other sadhus have been taking me there. I do not know any place apart from where I was born and grew up in. I have trouble walking as I am pretty old now. The others bring me to Kolkata and I come. I even struggle on stage. My body trembles and I hold the microphone stand for support. Successive governments, be it the earlier ruling party or the present one, have never paid us any attention. It is the almighty who looks after us. Such is my life, O Mother! (4) The path is good. I think that out of all the belief systems in the world, this is the best way of life. But I could never attain complete success in this path. I became enmeshed within familial ties.
Within Islamic cultural practice, there are four ways— Shariat, Tariqat, Haqiqat and Marfat (5). Within Hindu cultural practice, pranayam (6) and bhajan (7) play an important role. In Islam, you have to offer regular daimi namaaz (8). All of these practices are geared towards materiality. In order to fully comprehend the inner metaphysics, you need the guidance of a guru or mursheed. The human body is instinctual like that of an animal, a dog. It functions based purely on instinctive behavior like that of a dog. The guru has to guide you into rising beyond the material body. The word Marfat refers to the act of killing (mar) these instinctual desires/ cravings of the materialistic body— envy, spite, sexual desire, anger and intoxication. One has to inculcate a certain attitude of indifference. Such a philosophy goes beyond religion and caste. Even Adam was a human being. There is a famous Lalan song—
The Brahmin, the Chandal, the Chamar and the Mochi (9)—
Are all cleansed by the same water!
The water is the same; all human beings are the same; the seed (10) is the same, the mother is the same. Within this Baul way of life, you see mursheed, mureed (11), mathor (12), chandal/ dome, scavenger, rag-picker, all cook together and eat food from the same plate. But the Bauls and Fakirs have no proper place within either Hindu or Muslim societies. Hindus are very conscious about their caste.
Aditi: What is your full name?
Moslem: I used to be called Moslem Mondal at my father’s house. After I took to the streets, I acquired the name Moslem Fakir.
Aditi: What were the techniques that your guru taught you?
Moslem: I am not allowed to speak regarding those. I have been proscribed by my guru against doing so. In any case, you will not be able to follow any of those techniques. You need to be initiated with a guru first. Only that guru can slowly guide you on this path. The body is a system which needs to be known. There are fourteen tiers and twenty-nine houses within it (13). But it is difficult to explain these esoteric practices to you. There is a saying, “Don’t speak about your deeds to others/ you are yours alone.” In order to know these, you need to first hold the hand of a guru for guidance. The guru will gradually initiate you. This is not like any other form of education where you can learn by reading a book. This involves your own body, and ways of controlling, disciplining and illuminating the body. You need to set a trap in order to perceive the supreme one. There is someone called god. You have to perceive him. “The back of the mirror is opaque, the glass alone cannot contain your form/ you first need to perceive your Self/ in order to perceive Narayan.” (14) The back of the mirror has to be opaque in order for the glass to reflect the image. There has to be a material object behind the mirror. The body, too, is an object which is opaque, but is necessary to contain the mirror that reflects the supreme. But you first need to discipline this material body. This is the main framework of our sadhana/ practice. You still have time to learn and know. It is difficult to obtain a human life. You need to pass through a ten million births in order to obtain this life which is capable of attaining liberation.
Aditi: How do I learn these?
Moslem: Initiation is only possible through a guru. You have to become a disciple.
Aditi: How long does this learning process take?
Moslem: That depends completely on you. Those who are diligent can learn within a year. And some will never learn, even in a hundred years. “Devotion and Dedication are the seeds of love/ for the Almighty to perceive you.” You have to let go of commercial practices and material needs, within which most of us are immersed today. You have to undergo sadhana in order to become a sadhu. All of you are too much preoccupied in materiality and hence fail to comprehend. There is a supreme being, whichever name you call him by, and it is only the guru who can teach you the correct way of attaining him. You need to practice sadhana. “That which we have never seen/ Is always right in front of us/ Ignorant, we push it off to the left and right/ Yet it encircles us.” Maybe you may not have perceived it. But it is perceivable.
Aditi: Have you perceived?
Moslem: I cannot say that. It is like shouting aloud that I have ten million rupees. It is wrong to even ask these questions. You are so educated. Yet, you, just like everyone else, has pride/ ego. And this ego brings about your downfall. If everyone in the world realized this, they would all become ascetics. Most believe in god, but cannot perceive him. It is because they are incapable of setting the trap. In order to ensnare the bird, you need to first set a trap, O crazy one! It is not through shrewdness that you can catch the bird. You need to know how to set the trap. Don’t you first need to pick up a pen in order to be able to write? Even an orphan or a very poor person is capable of such learning! But shrewdness is not the way. All great men including Lalan or Shiraz began by first being ignorant. None of them chose the path of shrewdness. You still have time on your hands. At least you can make a start and maybe you will end up learning just the first letter of the alphabet. There is no end to learning.
Aditi: Were your parents also fakirs?
Moslem: My father had a guru. He was also received some formal education.
Aditi: Did you ever go to a school?
Moslem: No, I used to tend to the cows and the fields. Early each morning, I would take the oxen to plow the fields, as instructed by my father. It is only once I started my visits to Pir-Talaa, that I started feeling a pull towards this way of life. I realized I needed the guidance of a guru. And as I mentioned before, I found a guru who happened to live nearby. He too was a farmer. I began travelling around with him.
Aditi: Do you perceive any difference among your audience then and now?
Moslem: Earlier there were no microphones, and you just had the iktara. We used to congregate and perform in the open, below trees and in bamboo fields. The sadhus would perform with just their duggi and iktara and we used to listen. People in those days would never accept rice or any other food from a fakir. There were very few of us in those days. Today, you have big festivals and melas. Even the government organizes a few of them. When I was young, things were different. Two or three fakirs would congregate and sing, a couple of people would come to listen, they would all cook rice and eat and that was more or less how things were like. Now, you have big congregations such as the Lalan mela. You have committees that organize these.
Aditi: Do you prefer how things were then or how they are now?
Moslem: I am comfortable with both. My inner matter prevents me from seeing anything or anyone as bad. My brothers will not have me. Even I do not go to their houses. I will not commit any crime or misdeed. I go out of the house early in the morning. Some kind mother offers me tea and a few vegetables. I will return home, eat these and rest. I refrain from visiting any neighbour or relative. I live the life of a mendicant. When I feel like, I simply pick up my duggi or iktara and start singing. I do not care what time of day it is. I am immersed in my own self. When I sing, the song takes hold of me and it begins to rain heavily inside me. I only have Allah. No relative, neither my father nor my brothers, have ever cared for me. Only Allah watches over and looks after me. I only have Allah as my support. I cannot seek any support from the material world which has turned its back on me. Allah will watch over me. Even my own son does not look after me.
Aditi: Why is that?
Moslem: He has no need to be served by me. He has discarded me. He is no longer mine. Kun Fayakun! (15) A gun has its weight because of the bullets inside it. Once the trigger is pressed and the gun is emptied of its bullets, it becomes light. We are like that gun. We are born today and we die tomorrow. No one will accompany us in death. When I die, people will weep for a couple of days for their own selfish reasons. My wife may weep as her support will be no more. But she should seek her support in Allah as I cannot render the kind of support that He might. This house may remain, these material things may remain but none of these matter. So Durdu Shah writes,
There is no need for another’s love
It is your love that suffices.
Your love alone that has driven me crazy!
There is truly no need for another’s love. No human being, police or law-keeper, can harm me because I am correct before the almighty. I am an old man, unlettered and blind. But the knowledge bestowed by my guru is my staff which supports me when I walk. I shall be able to find my way anywhere. I don’t crave money or any material object. I get to eat every day, just as any rich person with 500 bighas of land gets to eat every day. Both of us will turn into earth one day. So why compete?
Aditi: Tell me something about the Baul ceremonies which are organized in your village.
Moslem: There are many events which are organized. There are three events that recently took place. A Baul event is scheduled for the Twelfth.
Aditi: When did you first come to Kolkata?
Moslem: It has been two or three years that I have been regularly coming to Kolkata. No one knows me here. Nor do I know anyone. I feel a bit intimidated to come. I will ask you one thing Mother, embark on this path, and fulfill what you are destined for. It will do you good. Building a cemented house will not give you anything. I have never done so. Such things are useless. You and I both eat the same rice; we both inhabit the same world. And yet, you cannot obtain a vision of the divine, no matter how many times you may invoke the name of Krishna.
The one who knows how to call,
The Lord answers to him alone!
The Lord lets himself be caught
Within the heart that is true!
You have to know how to call him and he will respond. He will surround you and follow you everywhere. It is the disciple who holds the thread by which the Lord is bonded. If you are a true devotee, he will cross mountains and forests to come to you and surround you always. If your love is true, even if you were to abandon the Lord, he would not abandon you. He is tied to you by your devotion.
How does the unknown bird enter and leave this cage? (16)
Catch the bird! How will you? You will have to set the trap, through your faith, and latch onto him. If your faith is untrue, even if you were to break your head, he wouldn’t come. So Mother! You still have time! I may be unlettered and a village simpleton, but I understand these basic things. There are true fakirs in our village. People only run after money in big cities. I have no need to run after the almighty. He runs after me! What is the un-known bird which I have kept as pet within this cage? Who resides in this body-house? Have wisdom from these words!
I bear the tattered rag on my neck,
I have traded my caste to fill my stomach,
Alas, where will you abandon me and go?
I dare you to come to me!
For I am the devotee at your blessed feet!
Let me comprehend your justice
If you give me pain, I shall accept it within my breast,
As long as I draw breath.
You will have to undergo a lot of struggles to attain him.
Aditi: Isn’t the path very difficult?
Moslem: Yes! Only by passing through these struggles, will you attain the divine. He is indeed there and he awaits our call.
Fulfilling the devotee’s desire
Who utters his name,
The Friend-of-all will arrive
Pulled by your devotion!
He doesn’t reside among devatas or celestial beings. As Lalan says, even the devatas crave a mortal birth. Why would they wish to descend to the earth as mortals, to that Ganga the waters of which are used in their worship? What is their need? You have to understand how blessed you are to have obtained this human birth. The devatas who we garland every day and before whose altars we burn incense, too, crave a mortal birth. Adam is every human being on this earth. Each of us is Adam.
Aditi: Has your son also chosen this way of life?
Moslem: He has not yet embarked on this path. He lives abroad.
Moslem: In Saudi Arabia.
Aditi: What does he do there?
Moslem: He works as a cook in a hostel. He lives on his own. I have told him he doesn’t need to look after me, but after his own self. I beg for alms. We are two of us, me and my wife, and a small cup of rice suffices for us both. I need to simply travel to a couple of houses to obtain that. Why should I care for more?
Aditi: Is your son married?
Moslem: Yes, he is married. But I don’t care for anything familial. I sleep on a broken bed, eat my rice, perform my music and am content. I can even go to bed after having only a cup of tea. What do I need money for? I speak from my heart. Mother, you need to look inside you. Spectacles cannot improve your inner sight. If there is an opaque object behind your mirror, the eyes will automatically gain their sight. Spectacles are for bhodroloks. We need to open the inner eye first! You need to practice sadhana in order to toughen the durability of the opaque object to better the reflection. Yes, sadhana is the only way of attaining happiness and fulfillment. You need to conserve that which is inside you, not let it be dissipated. One may love to eat, but there will come a time when food will no longer interest you, be it meat or curd or sweets.
Aditi: Can you tell us the similarities and differences between Bauls and Fakirs?
Moslem: There is no such difference! This path has existed since times immemorial, no matter which name you call it by- Aul, Baul, Sai or Darbesh! (17) It is much later that people begun theorizing and writing, realizing that these are all ways of life which deal with the disciplining of the body. Unless I cannot conserve the object/ seed, I shall not be able to pursue my sadhana. How can you know the way? You have to search among people and seek out a guru who can guide you. The guru may initially refuse you for the first few days, then, driven by your curiosity, he will ultimately accept you as a disciple and initiate you. You have to convince your guru through your questions— what happens when we die? Does our body live beyond death? The guru will eventually tell you— “Mother, observe and seek a while longer! It is only when you are absolutely certain that I shall initiate you into this way of life!” You will have to convince him to give you the weapon; you need to convince him first that you are capable of bearing it. It is only then that the sadhu will tell you the way and give you a certain set of practices. You will have to practice these and report to him after five days or so. Once you start practicing these, you will begin to realize the difference such practices bring to your life. You will narrate these to the guru. The guru will then give you another set of practices.
There was a girl once whose mother became very sick. They were mendicants without any money and she was sitting on the streets when a doctor happened to pass by. On asking her what was wrong, she narrated how her mother lay at home, afflicted by a fever. The doctor gave her some medicines free of charge and also asked her to give coconut water to her mother the next morning. The girl had no money to buy a coconut. So she went to the village headman’s house and asked for a coconut from their tree. She told the headman that her mother lay sick and she wanted the coconut for her. The cruel headman told her to climb onto the tree and pluck one for herself. But the little girl was too small to climb the tree. Desperate and helpless, she began weeping below the tree when a sadhu happened to pass by begging for alms. Seeing the little girl cry, he asked her what was wrong. When she had told the sadhu her story, the sadhu gave her a mantra to chant. As she began chanting, the tree suddenly lowered itself and she found she could easily reach out and pluck two coconuts. She went home and fed one to her mother. The village headman, when he found this out, went over to her house to ask her how she had managed to pluck the coconuts. She told the headman that a sadhu who was passing by had given her a mantra on chanting which the tree itself came within her reach. The headman wanted the mantra from her but the girl refused. The headman kept coming back to her but she kept refusing him. One day, the sadhu happened to be passing by again, and the girl narrated to him all that had occurred. The sadhu asked her to give that mantra to the headman adding that even if she were to do so, he would be incapable of retaining it. The headman, when he received the mantra from the girl, kept on chanting it, but the tree would not lower itself. The headman chastised the girl for giving him the wrong mantra but the girl maintained that she had given him the correct one.
The morale of the story is that you need to be capable of bearing the fruit and the tree itself will come to you.
(1) Literally meaning a place where Pirs or holy men congregate.
(2) The word madhukari comes from the word madhukar, which refers to bees collecting nectar from flower to flower. The term is used in a broader sense to refer to the act of collecting alms by travelling ascetics.
(3) Grand congregation.
(4) A common way of addressing an unknown lady.
(5) The reference here is to textual Islam versus a more heterogeneous mix of practices which fall under Islamic cultural practice. Shariati Islam refers to strictly textual interpretations of Islam which put primacy upon the Q’uran and Hadiths alone. The latter three— Tariqat, Haqiqat and Marfat Islam refer to a diverse range of practices which draw upon a range of religio-cultural discourses. Sufi, Fakir, Dervish practices focus not so much on the Sharia or written word but the latter three modalities of practice.
(6) A kind of yogic mediatation.
(7) Devotional songs.
(8) Daily prayers at stipulated regular intervals.
(9) Refers to the caste-system within Brahminism. The Brahmin or ‘twice born’ (dvija) is hailed as the purest and highest caste within Brahminical hierarchy; the ‘Chandal’, ‘Chamar’ and ‘Mochi’ are seen as low castes. The ‘Chandal’ or ‘Dome’ seen as the lowest of the low, is born out of the union between a Brahmin woman and a Shudra man. Considered absolute Untouchables, they were entrusted with the task of burning dead bodies and completely ostracized by society, living almost entirely outside human community. Even their shadows were considered as impure. The ‘Chamar’ or leather-worker and the ‘Mochi’ or shoe-maker were also considered low castes, though not ostracized to the extent that the ‘Chandal’ was. The Shramana faiths- Buddhism and Jainism in particular- strongly opposed the Brahminical caste system.
(11) Mursheed- teacher; Mureed- disciple.
(12) One who cleans toilets and sewers, also considered as an outcaste.
(13) The Bauls, like other tantric yogic practitioners, conceive of the body as having two forms: the first form is the material or gross body (sthula sharira) made up of the skeleton, muscles, organs, etc., which has nine or ten openings or doors— ears, nostrils, eyes, mouth, anus and the sexual organ. Within Baul esotericism, the tenth door may often refer to the female sexual organ.
The second form is also an invisible subtle body, called sukshma sharira. The Baul conception of the subtle body for the most part resembles that of the Hindu and Buddhist Tantras. The Bauls adopted from the Tantras the system of chakras (centers) arranged along the spinal column from the perineum to the top of the head.
(14) Narayan or Narayana is the Vedic deity often hailed as the supreme god. He is also commonly referred to as Vishnu and is part of the holy trinity- Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
(15) An Arabic phrase that occurs in the Q’uran. It translates as “Be, and it is!”
(16) A famous song by Lalan.
(17) These, along with the Kartabhajas are usually believed to be the Sahajiya sects, though they are often not acknowledged as such.
Recorded at Townsend Rd, Kolkata on February 25, 2015
Interviewer and Director: Aditi Sircar
Camera: Jesse Alk
Sound: Koustav Sinha
Camera Assistant: Rajib Kuila