In search of Peer Saheb

Journeys are not always about reaching a specific destination. This rings true even in the world of research, where the unforeseen turns shape a captivating fusion of questions, leading to stories we never expected to find. Looking back, it's almost as if the journey was carefully crafted to give birth to that precise story. My journey took a new direction on a sunny day in April. A day like any other in coastal summer, or so it seemed. 

On a fasting day of Ramzan, it was Mehak's mother who graciously greeted me at their home in Maldarwada, offering  a refreshing glass of kokum sharbat as a warm welcome. I hesitated to even take a sip, as I didn't want to seem disrespectful by consuming anything in front of those who were fasting with such dedication and discipline.

As I took out my gadgets to capture the stories of marine mammals on my trusty recorder, fate had other plans. Murphy, the enigmatic trickster, sprinkled his whimsical dust (like usual), and my recorder decided to take an unscheduled nap. Also my phone decided to join this riddle, misbehaving in the most puzzling of ways. It seemed as though the devices had formed a secret alliance to test my patience. I felt like a whale stranded on the shore, disconnected from the familiar depths of the ocean. 

In an instant, the advice of Mir ji, a musician from Pugal I had collaborated with last year, came flooding back to my mind, “Baat sunne ki hai'' (It’s all about listening). 

“Listen as much as you can”, I told myself. I tucked away all my electronic devices, choosing to rely solely on a pen and my personal diary to jot down the key points, all while immersing myself in the captivating narrative Ali ji - Mehak’s grandfather was unraveling.

Only a few days back, on a leisurely afternoon, I crossed paths with a fisherman in Majali. As I immersed myself in a dialogue with him to know more about the intricacies of his bond with the sea and its marine inhabitants, he shared a sentiment that struck a chord deep within me. With an air of casual familiarity, he expressed :

"Wo peer saheb hai na, wo hamara bhagwan hai". (You see, peer saheb  is our god)

His words flowed as naturally as if he were discussing his next door neighbor, yet, there existed an inherent connection that ran far deeper.

To hear him refer to the whale as "peer saheb" or “spiritual guide” was something I never expected. But what truly tugged at the threads of my curiosity was his claim that these very creatures were akin to divinity, to gods themselves. 

Having grown up close to the sea for most of my life, I had never encountered any reference to these mesmerizing beings dwelling in proximity to my hometown, nor had I heard any tales about their presence. It took a while for me to understand that the phrase "peer saheb" embodies not just a title, but a profound acknowledgment of the silent influence these creatures wield over the lives of those who call the sea their home. 

This quest to know the origins behind the phrase "peer saheb" took me on a journey that eventually led me to Maldarwada.

“We call it husseini machi ”, Ali ji murmured in a gentle tone. 

“Well, I was talking to villagers just 5 km from here, and they said that they refer to it as peer saheb;, I spoke with a hint of bewilderment in my voice.

“You know, various individuals hold diverse beliefs often rooted in the tales passed down through generations. Let me share with you the account I've been told—the narrative of Hazrat Yunus Ali Salam”.

Eagerly, I lent an attentive ear to his narrative, captivated by the gravity etched upon his expression.

“Once, prophet Yunus embarked on a journey by sea. As he boarded the boat, Yunus Ali found himself confronted by the boatman's revelation that a slave was present onboard. The boat's voyage seemed contingent upon this person's departure. Through the casting of lots, — Yunus Ali was revealed as the very individual in question. Subsequently people cast him into the waters.

As fate would have it, a whale awaited with its mouth opened, becoming a vessel of refuge for Yunus Ali. In a surreal twist, he found himself enveloped by the creature's colossal mouth, sheltered within its aquatic abode. 

It is believed that Allah communicated with the whale, instructing it to safeguard Yunus from harm. Without the benevolent grace of the almighty, Yunus Ali's story could have been marred by a different ending. Allah's protection was firmly in place, guiding him through the jaws of danger and into the embrace of salvation.”

“Is this the reason behind referring to whales as husseini machi ?” I asked. 

“Well, I don’t know the exact reason. We believe whales understand the language of the almighty. That’s why we treat these majestic creatures with the highest regard.”

This story instantly evoked a memory within me, recalling a serendipitous meeting at the bustling market of Karwar I had a few days back. 

It was there that I met a woman whose words wove an added layer of intrigue to the tale. In Konkani and Marathi they call these marine giants as ‘devmasa’. As we conversed, she shared an interesting story - a tale of whales bearing treasures of gold and pearls within their cavernous bellies. 

As the journey continued to unfold like the pages of a cherished book, another similar chapter emerged from the voices of the fishermen residing in Devbaug. They brought forth yet another name, 'devara meenu', a name that speaks to their perception of these majestic creatures as the embodiments of Vishnu, the divine preserver. In their eyes, whales don't merely navigate the seas; they glide as avatars of a higher power, entrusted with a sacred mission.

How could a whale bear so many names within a mere four-kilometer stretch? After all, getting a  glimpse of a whale is a rarity in itself, a  stroke of luck that only a fortunate few can claim to have experienced. 

Maybe it's a reminder that our interactions with the natural world are not just transactions, they're dialogues that bridge the realms of the seen and the unseen, inviting us to contemplate the mysteries that lie just beneath the surface. The tales we tell, passed from generation to generation, interlace with the delicate strands of local ecology, forging a unique connection that ties a community to its environment. 

These narratives, like pieces of a grand puzzle, came together to form a rich web of beliefs and traditions. Every story is a building block, playing a part in creating a larger mosaic that extends beyond the limits of culture and geography. As I traveled through the heart of these stories, I found myself immersed not just in tales of the sea, but in the depths of human imagination, where every word is a vessel of wisdom, a whisper of the enigmas that continue to sway within the waves. 

I’m reminded again that each story, whether sought or stumbled upon, is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. In the pursuit of one story, I embraced the unfolding of a few others.