We are inseparable, India and I, I think. Why, I was here just six weeks ago. I am back, thanks to an incompetent real estate agent who forgot to take a signature in the presence of Land Registry last visit, an absolute must. Well, I am here now, bemused at the ruckus created by skyrocketing onion prices. This absolutely must ingredient in any Indian meal has the country in comical frenzy, passionate subject of many discourses. With prices at five times they were just a year ago, there is talk of incumbent government at grave risk of losing the next general elections if prices don’t come down in a hurry. It is joked poor suitors gift their fiancées engagement rings mounted by a (dehydrated?) onion ring.
Sarfaraz, driver with Al Imaan Foundation in Mumbai sits in a car under main Andheri Bridge, desperately trying to reach a mechanic who can advise on how to restart the stalled car. Volumes of cars and motorbikes scream around him, making conversation with the repairman almost incomprehensible. A rude rapping on the windscreen startles Sarfaraz, who looks up to see a stern cop-face glaring at him.
‘Aree Saala, what do you think you are doing sitting in the middle of a road talking on a cellphone? Move your car this instant and let me see your license!’
Sarfaraz, who is up to his wits by now, suddenly jumps out of the car, startling the potbellied cop, who registers a look of panic for a second.
‘Why don’t you move the car if you can?’ he shouts back, offering the wary cop car keys. ‘Its broken down and I am trying to call a mechanic!’
Thus ensues a shouting match that Sarfaraz surprisingly wins, refusing to pay a sliding bribe of Rs. 300/200/100/50 ($1=Rs.61). The drama ends with a wishful look of lost opportunity from the cop, when onlookers help push the vehicle to a safer place.
Sarfaraz drops Aliakberbhai and I at the airport early the next morning; we are off to visit CAI refurbished and maintained Shia Boys Home at Matia Burj just outside Kolkata. It is raining profusely at Kolkata airport when we land, with long queues at the taxi booth. We are rudely advised no taxis are available as the city is under water; Matia Burj is at least ninety minutes drive away. Aliakberbhai’s contacts come in handy and a friend comes to the rescue, dispatching an SUV that arrives an hour later. True, Kolkata city is in knee-deep water and the ride to the orphanage becomes tedious and at times, rather daunting. People wade in water everywhere; there is water in every street level home and business. We pass several wedding mandaps, all inundated with water; the poor couples must be ruing days when they ate directly from the pot? Shabbir, the adept driver navigates through the mess and delivers us safely outside the orphanage four hours later.
The Shia Boys Home at Matia Burj is off a horribly congested narrow lane; a butcher proudly exhibits hanging carcasses of skinned goats, blood still dripping from them. Several decapitated goat heads form a neat line on the storefront, dead glaring eyes stare at me accusingly. Three live goats are tethered nearby, huddled together, as if this show of solidarity is going to save them from certain impending doom. The orphanage was built over a hundred years ago. It resembles a mini fort, with thick concrete walls and Victorian design.
About thirty boy orphans from shockingly poor families call this place home. Oh, what a rebound from pathetic conditions I first met them some nine years ago, when wearing a pair of pants was a novel act for most of them. They are now in the process of acquiring a well-rounded secular / Islamic education in fine schools. They eat well-balanced meals three times a day, study, play, watch TV, indulge in horseplay as children will and naturally dream of a future life of dignity and wealth. CAI donors have / are doing their part in offering them this opportunity; it is now up to them to seize it.
The boys are happy to see me, even though I have neglected them; this visit is well over three years overdue. Aliakber and I review their progress with staff and manager Amjaad, the orphan’s mother and father in every sense. There are a few challenges of course, so we put in place possible solutions. The place needs a serious scrub and paint job, a few minor repairs and a new refrigerator; an implementation action plan is put in place.
We dine with the boys, who are in a relaxed mood, being Saturday night. Next morning, after a sumptuous breakfast of fluffy hot poories, omelets, aloo choole curry and fresh, artery clogging malaai, we go to distribute your amaanat to the poor and destitute of Matia Burj.
All the poor and destitute live in cheap, drab apartment complexes put together in a hurry for maximum investment returns. I cannot tell these apartments, built so close to each other, are separate units. For example, I clearly see and hear, from the orphanage guestroom, a plump woman chop onions and fling the rinds from her kitchen window to the alley below and beautifully sing along a Manna Dey song from a radio or TV. He died yesterday and all stations overdo tributes to him thus.
We visit four families going through tough trying times; all in dire need of some housing support, least they end up in the streets. Since these families have teenage daughters, CAI decides to extend support by building them inexpensive rooms on open corners of willing, unscrupulous apartment owner’s properties. Highest cost US$1,000, maximum size of room 160 square feet, housing a family of four. We also make arrangements to feed an invalid family for one year and other charitable distributions. Donor’s sadeqa and radde-mazaalim funds well spent, insha’Allah.
Visiting the poor and destitute is, for me, an upheaval of emotions I struggle to control, even after all these years of repeated experiences. Walking through narrow streets thronging of jostling humanity and energy, the perplexity of senses hits me. First thing I smell is shit; from open sewer lines that run along all structures. This is combined with various other odors; I smell the aroma of frying pakooras and parathas sizzling in open tawwas. I smell nauseating decay that emits from heaping piles of week old garbage now being forked into filthy municipal trucks, I smell goats and cows and dogs and unwashed human sweat, and body odor and cheap perfume from burqa clad women.
I see harassed faces hurrying to work or other errands, even this Sunday. I see children play in the filth of alleyways, chasing after each other, oblivious of ever-present flies. I see kids make a beelike at a bhel poori vendor, to a cheap street goola vendor, eagerly sucking on colorful sugary ice-lollies. I see flies that gleefully make merry on uncovered paratha dough, waiting for its turn of agony on the sizzling tawwa.
The greatest damage of senses is to my eardrums; from constant honking of cars, busses and motorbikes. The noise pollution makes conversing on the streets impossible. It is only when I turn into narrower streets that talk becomes possible. But teenagers, all boys, seem to be having a party of sorts. A computer game room blasts Bollywood dance numbers to which few boys gyrate, angling their thin bodies to seemingly impossible angles. The decibels are so loud, my eardrums vibrate to the roll of drums from various speakers as the kids delight in the music and various games on offer.
But I smell, see and hear something more powerful than all this - in the people CAI donors try and help. I sense despair. The vacant look in eyes of a man who works endless hours supporting four daughters but have no home for them; all the money went into treating a dying wife. The daughters split into pairs and sleep at relatives while the man makes do at a friend’s house. Or the aged couple with six children, all teenage girls. The risteys come with a price of dowry the parents can’t even dream of forking out. Or the destitute sister whose body rocks with sobs as she relates her woes, sitting besides a severely jaundiced brother in a tiny imambargagh, the only place they could find refuge.
The purpose of writing this blurb is not a sadistic desire to depress. It would be the easiest thing for me to channel donor funds through third party and the job would be done, yes. It takes all faculties of senses, however, to actually feel the pain of poverty and destitution. A widow’s grief, an orphans need, a homeless parents hope for shelter, a teenage girl whose marriage hangs on a few hundred dollars... These real life experiences are irreplaceable, nay, necessary to bring me (us) down to earth from out lofty routines. It is my hope I am able to bring alive some of these experiences for you, insha’Allah.