By Sunil Kataria
NEW DELHI (Reuters Life!) - For Imrat Salaam, the holy month of Ramadan couldn't have come at a tougher time: the weakest monsoon in decades has hiked food prices, and her eldest son, the main breadwinner, lost his job in the economic downturn.
The start of the fasting month, the holiest in the Muslim calendar and which began on Saturday in most countries, is usually a joyful occasion, but the mood at the Salaam household in Delhi's old quarters is somber, as the family is unable to put together a decent meal to break their day-long fast.
"We cannot afford anything more than a handful of dates. Even fruits and vegetables have become very expensive," said Imrat Salaam, as she struggles to care for her paralyzed husband and seek work to earn some money.
"We can't tell others that we cannot afford a feast or a proper meal. We will quietly break our fast with some dates," the 49-year-old told Reuters, fighting back tears.
"Iftar," the fast-breaking meal eaten at sunset, is a family and community affair for which many Muslims stock up on food and supplies weeks in advance.
This year, however, prolonged dry weather and insufficient monsoon rains have pushed India to the brink of drought, putting pressure on food prices and energy supplies.
Food prices in India have already risen more than 10 percent year-on-year, with the cost of lentils, a staple legume, doubling in recent months. Sugar prices have increased 40 percent as output has fallen, and potato prices have nearly doubled.
Muslims who are physically able are required to fast from sunrise to sunset every day of the month of Ramadan.
Mohammed Saleem, a shopkeeper selling sewaiyan, a sweet vermicelli dish near the historic Jama Masjid Mosque in old Delhi, said business was unusually subdued ahead of Ramadan.
"There are fewer customers and they're buying less," he said.
"Everything has become expensive. All our ingredients have also become expensive -- sugar is costing more, oil is costing more. This year sales are much lower as compared to last year."
Mohammed Shahid, another resident of Delhi's Muslim-dominated old quarters, also said Ramadan would be subdued this year.
"Many people have lost business, income has not increased but expenses have risen, costs have risen," Shahid said.
However, faith keeps some Muslims hopeful.
"Allah is great and will provide every family with a decent meal at the end of the fasting days," said a woman who only gave her name as Meherunisa. (Editing by Rina Chandran and Miral Fahmy)