On the road again, travelling directly from Orlando to Mumbai via Dubai, saving me eight hours if going through New York; thank you Emirates. Now if you will occasionally fumigate your seats so bugs will not eat your customers alive like they did me on this flight? I land in Mumbai severely jetlagged but a five mile jog at the hotel gym and seventy pushups perk me up temporarily and I can sleep a good five hours before my flight early next morning to the remote parts of UP where the majority of CAI projects are already in operation or taking shape.
So this current trip will Insha’Allah take me to various places in India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and to Dubai. I’ll be travelling by air, train and the automobile, of course. Prakash, the young lunatic driver from my last trip stands by his vehicle, grinning at Aliakberbhai and me on arrival at Lucknow airport. I immediately feel heart palpitations; his driving had nearly made me najis the last time. This guy is the most reckless driver I have ever driven with. Yes, he is good, very good with his car, but a harebrained individual nevertheless. I have no say or choice in this arrangement, so say a prayer and try and catch up on my sleep all the way to Hallour, five hours away. We return to Lucknow that same night, after inspecting the CAI sponsored school. Prakash manages to run over a stray dog instead of a human being; that’s progress, I guess.
It is from here in Lucknow we take a first class train to Sirsi, another place in UP where CAI is very active in, at one next morning. Travel by train in India if you can, it is the best way to savor and appreciate the country. The Lucknow train station is a standard metro station in any Indian city; loud, crowded, dreary and with the inevitable smell of ammonia – human piss. My spirits dip while we wait for our train at the platform. I think it is jetlag perhaps, but the heat, flies and smell takes a toll as well. A meandering solitary cow releases a stream of piss on the platform, startling nearby waiting passengers who scatter to avoid the splatter and scurrying cat-sized rodents on the rail tracks below send shivers of apprehension up my spine.
But I am pleasantly surprised when the train rolls up to the platform; on time. By law, there are only two classes of travel in Indian trains; first class and others. No third class officially, but they exist; I see cabins packed with crowds of humanity roll by, many sleeping over each other. Our cabin is not Emirates first class, but I am really impressed with the cleanliness of our super cooled air-conditioned cabin, with four bunk beds, all equipped with crisp fresh white linen, a laundered blanket and a clean firm pillow neatly packaged and sealed. Since our cabin is not fully occupied, we have it all by ourselves. I lock the door, set an alarm for salaat four hours away, cover myself with the warm blanket and die a temporary death.
I spring awake five hours later with the pain of a bursting bladder and my phone letting me it is salaat time. The toilets, one eastern and the other western, are relatively clean. They actually have disinfectant liquid soap. The challenge is doing my job without soiling my clothes, what with at times a violently jostling cabin; praying is a similar challenge, holding on to the bed railing is the only solution. Alhamd’Allah, we arrive Moradabad well rested; Sirsi, our destination is only about ninety minutes drive away.
Both our orphanages, girls and boys are doing exceedingly well, the Sirsi school for 1,200 poor students is thriving, both the Phandheri and Sirsi housing projects are complete and seventeen of the seventy Mehmoodpur homes are finished as well; all is well. The only hiccup comes when a massive chipkalli (gecko) regards me with curious eyes, as I get ready for bed that night. I jump through my skin in fright and a scream escapes me. The orphanage caretaker comes running and the chipkalli is toast.
The next morning, sitting on the prayer mat, thanking Allah for all His blessings for the successes of CAI projects, a mournful naat penetrates the early morning air. The orphans have returned from fajr salaat and as routine, have gathered in the hallway for mandatory naats and other prayers. The orphan boy reciting the naat has a striking voice, mournful and haunting, wants to make me weep. The naat is beautiful, composed by our own Allama Iqbal. It has all the yearnings of quality values Allah can grant a man, of perfection, of all things good in life. My eyes give way and hot tears of gratitude and hope plop on the prayer mat.
You may have already heard it of course, but take a listen again anyway.