I land in Mumbai to the chatter of very little except for the heat wave gripping most of the country, especially in the areas I am to visit the next few days. About 2,500 (last count) people have died from the unprecedented almost 120F furnace created by the current summer ball of fire. I don’t notice it much in the one day I stay in Mumbai, since I pass all the time inside a nicely air-conditioned hotel, recuperating from a jarring jetlag, flying all the way from New York.
It is not until Aliakberbhai and I land in Lucknow, UP that I feel the real impact of the heat; the outside of the airport is a suffocating oven. Yet, taxi drivers mill around the airport exit hustling for a customer, seemingly unaffected by the heat that dulls my senses and makes me want to almost swoon; I guess they do not have the luxury to moan or bellyache; they have families to feed; I tell myself to shut up. Still, the inside of the taxi bakes me silly by the time we reach the hotel, leaving me queasy and in a poor dispensation, since I have a senseless argument with the hotel receptionist regarding a trivial but principled matter of a few rupees. Later on that day, when the thermostat says it's 104F, we indulge in some famous Lahori tunde kababs and sweat some more.
The drive to Hallour next day, where CAI is constructing a handsome school for about 600 plus poor children, is a menacing experience, with our driver fancying himself to be the Indian version of James Bond. He sways the car every which way, accelerates, brakes, overtakes, curses and honks his way all the 180 miles and 5 hours to Hallour. He is very good at what he does; my worry is other drivers sharing the road may not be as adept.
In Hallour, it’s past zohr sallat time, I ask for prayer space and am led to a Kerbala compound. In rural Indian Shia communities, a Kerbala is a priority, regardless if there are no schools for kids around for miles. These people will invest in a Kerbala, with elaborate and pricey replicas of various shuhadaa (a) graves, even before they’ll build a mosque. These poor people expect others, preferably foreigners, to invest in a school for their children. Khoob. A boundary wall separates the Kerbala from the street, leaving some 25 feet of raw dirt full of moist najaasat, thorns, possible germs, insects or worse. I am instructed to leave my shoes at the gate and walk these 25 feet to the Beit us Salaat. I rebel and rebuke this man who insists that I relinquish my shoes here. He simply reveals paan stained teeth, shrugs his bony shoulders and repeats the fact this is Kerbala, so no shoes. It’s simply too hot to argue; I fume and painfully hobble the distance and recite my salaat while sweat drips from the most intimate parts of my body. I simply refuse to believe the shuhadaa (a) of Kerbala would have envisioned, from us, this absurd show of adoration for their sacrifice.
Kheyr, the school is coming up nicely and should be ready for inauguration first week of October 2015 insha’Allah, enabling 600 odd children, many from very economically challenged farming families to attend school and obtain a quality education for the first time. It is this prayer and hope that stops me from committing certain manslaughter on people with blind ideologies that decapitate, impede critical thinking and blunt progress within the Muslim ummah and our communities in particular.
The next few days are an arduous blur, trying to keep my sanity in check within the heat, discomfort, non-stop sweating and blood-sucking mosquitoes. The sun radiates repressive shimmering rays onto the baked earth, which then bounces off the heat into the air. Even the simple act of breathing makes me sweat and lethargy sets in as soon as I step out of the relative cool of the Sirsi orphanage or from the car. We fly from Lahore to New Delhi and then drive to Sirsi, Phandheri, Sikanderpur and back to Delhi, inspecting various CAI ongoing construction projects, another school and a 70 sadaat home project among them. I am happiest when I am in our air-conditioned vehicle, for even the air-conditioner at the Sirsi orphanage seem to take pleasure in spluttering and coughing to a stop every time there are power cuts (and there are many) or when power surges (and there are hundreds). These constant surges conk off my MacBook Air charger and I feel like weeping from the frustration. There are no Apple products for sale in this part of India. At any price. I am left to conserve the remaining power by using the MA for emergencies only.
All this complaining and whining about the heat gives me pause to reflect, however, as I sit in the vehicle and stare at the passing countryside. With this heat, Allah makes all the food that we eat ripen naturally. Mango trees are pregnant with their fruit, corn stalks will be cut down and harvested in a few weeks and the street side markets are bustling with ripened leeches, melons, papaya…all super sweet, all made possible by this relentless heat. I can afford an air-conditioned car, a room with an AC, albeit a mean and grouchy one. On the other hand, I see farm laborers toiling under the sun, day construction workers, their faces gaunt and mirthless, baked a dark chocolate by the sun, ferry dirt and bricks at the CAI housing site for US$3 per day, the rickshaw pullers, legs with no visible muscles but solid as steel nevertheless, strain with the weight of their loads…what audacity do I have to complain and moan?
Still, it is a relief to land back in Mumbai where the temperatures are a more respectable 90F and there is a hint of approaching monsoon in the air.