"City life is millions of people being lonesome together," this quote by famed American essayist and poet Henry David Thoreau aptly summed up life in Bombay for me. This metropolitan, where streams of humanity glided like inanimate logs in the river Jhelum in our childhood was a big a contrast to the downtown Srinagar – my birth place; where swallows flying across trafficless roads, with loops and rolls like sabrejets, provided companionship even to a lonely mendicant from a distant village. Where, goatherd, his flock with bells chiming in their necks in the wee morning hours cheered up barefooted devotees on way to the Astana and the temples on the hillock in our neighborhood. Notwithstanding, having endured the 'culture shocks,' and my love for then tolerant city the mass of lifeless people on its roads rushing towards the Church Gate and Victoria Terminus Railway station always disturbed me. They bumped into each other like droves of hoofed animals- having no consideration for old and ailing. To catch up a train they pushed their way like a proverbial blinded oxen in a ring. In this city, no one had even a minute to spare without material gains. In this bizarre scenario of rush for big money, the only major silver lining for me was the small Kashmiri community, trading in the metropolis and some doing menial jobs at various docks. The busy Kashmiri trading community; some owning big showrooms in the high-end market places and five star hotels, some visiting customers with their precious artifacts and rugs at their homes not only offered monetary support to patients in distress but also volunteered for doing the social work.
In the metropolis, the annual Haj pilgrimage was one of the most important events for the Muslim community that stretched over months. The departure, as well as arrival of the pilgrims, were significant for the voluntarism it generated in a section of the Muslim community in and around Muhammad Ali Road. The four-story Saboo Siddique Musafirkhana, in Crawford Market with its arched windows, domes and beautiful stonework avidly bearing stamp of Muslim architecture known for scores of years as gateway to Mecca overnight turned into a center of activities. Those days, most of the pilgrims sailed to Mecca by ship. In 1983, when I arrived in Bombay, the Kashmiri coolies working on the docks often mentioned names of three vessels Mohammedi, M V Akbar and Noorjehan that carried pilgrims to the Jeddah port, the two had already been knocked down, and only M. V. Akbar was operational. Those days, it was a three months journey to Mecca and back. From Srinagar to Bombay Central, it was three days journey by road and train; six days stay in Bombay and eleven days travel by ship to Jeddah, same period on the return.
It was a big commotion – a melee when a special train packed to capacity with pilgrims arrived at the Bombay Central Railway Station. From railways station, the pilgrim were carried in open carriages to the Musafirkhana. Some top Kashmir handicrafts businessmen, in advance, volunteered to assist the Haj pilgrim on their arrival, during their stay in Bombay, on their departure and return. On their arrival, most of the volunteers received them at the railway stations, to ensure comfortable lodging of the pilgrims stayed with them late in the night and visited them almost every day- and attended their problems.
The Saboo Siddique Musafirkhana, during the Haj, was managed by the Executive Officer of Haj Committee, an appointee of MEA. In May 1984, when confrontation between the government in Srinagar and New Delhi was at the worst, politics also took a toll of Haj pilgrimage. The Haj pilgrims from the state had boarded the train at Jammu and while it was chugging towards Bombay; the Haj committee informed that the Musafirkhana had no space to accommodate the pilgrims from Kashmir and asked the state to make arrangements. Interestingly, one top officer sniffed like Marie-Antoinette – if there is no place in the Musafirkhana put them in five stars. Nevertheless, it were again the Kashmiri volunteers who suggested meeting some Muslim organizations in Bombay. I remember, we called on a Kashmiri imam, who had been living in Bombay for many decades, it was through him that the Haj pilgrims were accommodate in some Jammat Khanans and Masjids…