Friday, January 29, 2016

It's Gas, Sahib, Bad Gas

It has been very hectic four weeks on the road; living off suitcases, sleeping erratically, eating subpar airplane and restaurant foods across India and Afghanistan. Inaugurating two schools, housing projects, butting heads with contractors in tentative Dari while shivering in sub-zero Kabul weather, fretting over and juggling perpetual precariously low CAI cash flows, cajoling donors for funds, listening to orphan girls in Kabul proudly show off their newly acquired English vocabulary…all in a day's work, for lucky me.

Back in Mumbai, I get an all clear (for now) from doctors frowning over my medical tests, so I seize upon a few personal days off, to rest, rejuvenate and contemplate. I have a free two-night coupon for any Taj resort property in India about to expire, so I cash it in, paying for the required third night. Apart from the cloudy medical opinions from my sometimes-ambiguous medical professionals (aren’t they always?), life’s good and I have no reason to bellyache. The doctors are guardedly optimistic; I still actively workout, eat like a horse and feel (and look) like a trillion (okay billion) dollars. Alhamd’Allah.

Coorg is a remote resort in Karnataka, about sixty air minutes from Mumbai, renowned for spectacular geographical vistas and ideal for some serious solitary reconnection with nature; I head there. I land in Mangalore, the nearest major airport city and take a rickety cab for Coorg. The cab driver, an eccentric old codger really, who speaks broken Hindi and no English, frequently thumps his chest and burps away audibly, filling the confined cab with noxious, toxic garlic fumes. He peers at me from the rearview mirror, shakes his head, flashes red gudka stained teeth my way, makes a face and quips, It’s gas, Sahib, bad gas, in Hindi. I glare at him, but swallow hard and fervently pray that the bad gas does not start affecting other ends of his body. I have to bear his assaults and listen to loud ancient Hindi and Kannada songs all the way to the hotel, about three hours away.

The hotel, The Taj Vivanta, once we get there, is spectacular.  It is set deep in a forest, and all I see is vibrant green. I have the cab door open before it comes to a complete stop, startling the old man, but the need for abundant fresh air outside is immense after the 3-hour garlicky confinement. The air is cool, filled with sweet frangipani (and raat-ki-raani at night), absolutely pollution free and the landscape, stunning; I hear birds chirping and water gurgling. An attractive young teenage hostess, Arti, greets me and sprinkles a few drops of holy water on my head; for luck and long life, she mutters. I’ll need both; I mutter back. It might be my imagination, but swear I sense her politely restrain the tweaking of her pert nose on smelling all that garlic on me. I am offered all sorts of gimmicks to enhance my stay, including a private dinner for two overlooking an expansive valley from where the view can only match what could be paradise. Only for Rs. 25,000 (about US$370 in today's conversion rate) Arti demurely murmurs, making it sound as if it’s a must do thing and I’d be a fool to decline. But it’s for two people, I mockingly exclaim, playing a smartass, unless you want to join me for the dinner? Oh, I don’t mind Sir, Arti glibly retorts instantly, least unruffled, I’d love to have dinner with you. What night should I reserve the dinner for, Sir? I’m not sure how I get out of this jam, but I do, declining the offer red-faced and wanting to kick myself. Hard.

My secluded cottage is not a room, rather, a den of luxury; everything first-class, with a romantic private fireplace room included; lavishness overdone, for me. Apart from my room and the bathroom, I don’t use any other part of the cottage during my entire 3-night stay. What makes it worthwhile, however, is the view from the bedroom. The cottage in perched on top of a hill with a grand view of the canyon stretched below, as far and wide as my eyes can see. Arti tells me there are animals out there; wild boars and deer and elephants even, beyond the range of bordering hills.

I splurge the three days in contemplation, trekking, exercise, working on my current novel and taking in the abundant wild nature as Allah has first created it; indeed, I feel very close to my Creator here. I crave this solitude sometimes, especially now, as I fight the demons trying to destroy my body. A brief gloomy dip in my mood - what if I do die from this? Followed by an immediate recovery - how often has Allah, in the Quraan, shown me the parables of the life cycle, especially in regards to nature? He creates, He nourishes, He terminates. The greenery before me will surely wither and perish, only to take hold the next life cycle. Such is life, no? I revert to my Imam's advice on confronting life’s battles – That stars shine their brightest in the darkest of nights - Imam Ali (A).

The service here is incredibly super; when I hesitate to order a non-vegetarian dish, the head Chef, a Hussein Ali, personally comes by to assure me all meats are 100% halal. This property has 63 cottages and all are fully booked, this being the ideal time of the year to visit India. The mode of travel between cottages and various restaurants and the lobby is by chauffeured golf carts, since the extreme terrain can be difficult or hazardous by foot at night. I meet my fellow holiday mates only when I go for meals or to the gym or to swim at the main building. They are an assorted group of very wealthy Indians and a few foreigners who can afford the US$250 / night price tag. An overwhelming number of them are Gujaratis, so the dining area is full of the familiar language; conversations about business deals and how much money can be made from the bearish stock market by the men and common gossip of shopping, clothes, jewelry, Bollywood and mean mother-in-laws or stingy, unfaithful husbands from the women.

I leave this sanctuary refreshed, energized and heartened, head for Mumbai and then home; there is so much to do. I look forward to seeing my Zainab; haven’t seen her for almost a month; miss her terribly. I have a different driver taking me to Mangalore this time, one without evidently gassy or loud music issues; I am much relieved. I’ll be home Tuesday, insha’Allah.

Friday, January 15, 2016

CAI’s India – Through My Eyes - Riyaz

CAI’s India – Through My Eyes - Riyaz

Like everything else Indian, the extremes in everything can be overwhelming, and the weather is no exception. I land in New Delhi to balmy weather conditions, quite nice actually. The last time I was here in January, why, I almost lost the feeling of sense in my tush! Blame it on global warming I suppose.

Riyaz from Vancouver has joined me this time, and he has the following to say:

A packed week of traveling on planes, trains and the crazy roads of India with Yusufali of Comfort Aid International (CAI) is coming to an end. I leave India having met so many nice and hospitable people, and seeing all the great work that CAI is doing throughout India helping those less fortunate with education, housing, and humanitarian work.

I start my trip in Sri Lanka, visiting a just completed old age home and the first eight residents moving into it. There is a huge need of nursing homes for poor elderly throughout Sri Lanka and India. The first phase of homes will accommodate 24 residents and over time the property can be expanded to 72 residents.

The first stop in India is the opening of a school CAI has built in Sikanderpur, which is a five-hour drive from Delhi. The area had an urgent need for an English Medium school for our community, and CAI embarked on this project in 2014. The school will start with five classes in April when the school year starts and will eventually have 1,000 students operating in two shifts. Aliakbar Ratansi from Alimaan Charitable Trust from Mumbai (CAI works with them in India), and Ahmed Dossa (the architect and gratis contractor) also joined us on the trip.

The next stop is Sirsi, another four hours drive - the one thing I learn to do in India is catch up on my sleep on the long and bumpy car rides. CAI is involved with several project here - a school that has between 1,100 and 1,400 students, a medical clinic, staff administration building, and a 34 boys orphanage aged 5 to 18 which is built on 9 acres. We stayed at the facility, and the kids were very pleasant and hospitable - we got a chance to spend time with the children going for early morning runs, playing cricket and badminton in the afternoon, and having a meal with them in the evening. The school was originally started in 1996 and was in need of repair and expansion. CAI helped with the renovation and expansion of the school, adding complete tiling, a computer lab, physics lab, chemistry lab, biology lab and a library. The total cost of operating the school on a monthly basis is $10,000 that educates over 1,100 students. A large part of the expense is staff costs and diesel (operating 13 school buses moving students from surrounding villages to and from school). The operation is very well run, and the students are very well behaved and speak English well. This is a great investment in helping the youths get educated so they can escape the poverty cycle by getting good jobs when they graduate and also further their education.

We visit Phanderi next, about a two-hour drive from Sirsi where CAI completed a housing project four months ago that has 20 new houses that were distributed to needy families. We call on some of the houses; many have four or five people living in a single room. This is a great help to the poor who previously lived in tatters, flooded and rat infested hovels.

A short distance away in Phanderi we visit Az Zehra Girls School. A rudimentary school was opened in 2006; CAI helped with the extension in 2012, tiling the old wing, adding an entire new annex, computer, physics, biology, and chemistry labs and a library. As it is Sunday, we do not get a chance to see the school in operation but meet with the school principal and the administrator who provide us an update on the school. The school currently has 600 girls, many of them would not be receiving an education without this facility.

On the way to Sirsi, we stopped in Awghanpur where CAI is constructing a house that was attached to a center that they built in 2010. The next stop is Kundarki where CAI has constructed six houses for the homeless. We visit one house where a grandmother is looking after five daughters (the mother had passed away). Two of them are deaf and dumb (age 18 and 22), and the whole family is very fortunate to have a house to live in, thanks to the donors of CAI. Back in Sirsi, we visit the Sakina Girls Orphanage, home to 24 girls between 5 and 15 years of age. The day ends with a barbecue that the administrators arrange for both the girls and boys of the orphanages in Sirsi.

After visiting the school in Sirsi and giving them a talk on the value of education and helping those less fortunate next day, we leave for Mehmudpoor where CAI has a 70 home housing project under construction. 17 of these homes have been completed, and distribution of the homes will start shortly - the balance will finish this year insha’Allah. Our next stop is a housing project that was completed in 2015 in Sirsi - 50 houses that have been completed and distributed to needy families. It is very satisfying seeing old people who had medical issues, families with little children, and those less fortunate being able to have a decent house for their family.

That evening we take a five-hour train ride to Lucknow and then a five-hour car ride to Hallour. We attend the opening of a school that CAI has built, and some of the classes started a few months ago. The school session officially starts in April, and there should be about 600 children attending the school this year. 

We then visit a non-CAI school project in Lucknow that has over 2,000 students in session over two shifts. Also, there is a technical college where students can learn to become plumbers, electricians, draftsman, beauticians, computer programmers to name a few of the trades and the placement of the students in good paying jobs is virtually 100%.  This is an area that has immediate impact and takes families out of the poverty cycle.

After arriving in Mumbai, we visit Sakina Girls Orphanage, which is home to 45 orphan girls. CAI is looking to acquire 2 additional 500sf apartments so that 25 poor orphans waiting for a place can have a home. The cost of these in super expensive Mumbai is US$350k.

Also, we visit a number of homes in the slums of Govandi area where CAI has built hundreds of homes. I saw a home under construction where 10 people will live in an area of 200sf.  At least this home is now tiled and solid, not the dilapidated ones before CAI donors stepped in.

As I depart India, I have a huge appreciation of the great work that the team at CAI is doing - helping so many people in education, housing, orphan and widow care and assisting them in getting out of the poverty cycle. Without the assistance and the financial support, they receive from their many donors, the life of many people would be considerably different.


I am so blessed, humbled and overwhelmed with the super supporting emails, messages, and calls I have received regarding my ailment that I am stumped for words. I knew there would be startling reaction to the Blog (, but did not realize it would be so awesome; alhamd’Allah. To have so many of you that pray for my health and wellbeing is soopa special; may Allah bless you all.

Some of the reactions were very emotional, and I apologize if my piece caused you discomfort or pain. Had it not been for CAI’s wellbeing and concern, I would have not been so forthcoming regarding such a private matter. For me, however, CAI takes all precedence, as I feel very protective for its successful future. CAI is to me, like, to a woman, an unplanned and wary pregnancy that is soopa shireen afterward. Also, there are simply too many vulnerable lives that depend on CAI for survival. It would have been unfair to you, the donors, to be exposed to rumors and third party speculations.

Thank you all, again, sincerely, from the depth of my overcome heart. I welcome and cherish your valuable prayers, caring and encouraging words. These supplications and the treatment I am under will turn the tide and I’ll eventually, insha’Allah overcome, be izzne’Allah.

It will be quite impossible to individually respond to the 250 plus email messages received, but more seriously, the exercise will emotionally bankrupt me; I hope you will pardon the unintended impoliteness.

To those of you who ask about my third novel, I can’t promise you a timeline except health and travel commitments permitting, I should have it to my editor by the end of the year insha’Allah and an eBook version soon after that.

I ask the Angel of Death for more time. He looks at me in surprise. More time, he asks, a twinkle in his eyes, why, come, Allah wants to give you eternity.