Friday, February 26, 2016

Undesirable Handshakes

Mullah Mchungu has promoted himself to a motorized wheelchair; he zips into my living room as soon as I open the door, as if escaping an assailant. I catch a glimpse of a vehicle backing out of my driveway and speeding away, the grim face of a youngish woman full of venom behind the wheels.

DIL these days, taubah! Is it my fault I am almost an invalid? She expected me to help her haul this wheelchair from the trunk. Is she a bloody lunatic?

Oh dear, I groan inwardly, is this going to be another combative session with this old grump? The Mullah is talking about his daughter in law who has (happily, I assume, just to get him off her hair for a few hours) just dropped him off. I met him briefly at jooma the other day but did not have time to greet or ask about his health since he was busy greeting others at the center, having returned to Sanford after a long hiatus. I study him now; he looks okay for an 80 plus man, especially since he was almost ready to croak not so long ago. He still carries an aura of defiance, meanness and perpetual confrontation about him, but the nasty danda he carried around is gone, now that he can torment others with his wheelchair; I feel a bit safer.

Sallam Mullah, how are you? I ask. You look good. How was your flight over, other than it being long?

Never mind how I am. My hemorrhoids always tend to get agitated on these long trips. Other than that, I’ll somehow survive until the angel of death comes knocking. What is the matter with these modern girls? Have they no empathy for people like us? I wonder what Ali saw in her...

I shrug my shoulders, not wanting anything to do with his protracted family feuds. I busy myself with making him tea and preparing a plate of saltines and cookies.  As usual, the man says nothing until he enjoys and finishes the cuppa, asking for another, dunking the cookies in the steaming tea to soften them for his grinning dentures. Alhamd’Allah, the Mullah, like me, has seen the light and divorced from the use of cancer sticks, so I don’t have to mess around with taking him to the patio outside, setting him up with improvised ashtrays or tolerating, for hours afterwards, the lingering awful stink of cheap beedis around the house. It is also quite nippy here in Sanford this late February, and I have no desire changing from the little I am wearing, in the comfort of my warm house. The Mullah regards me quietly as I clear up, wash and stack the dishes to dry, giving me a creepy, uncomfortable feeling of a prey about to be pounced on.

You don’t seem to be a man dying, Kisukaali.  You look very healthy, better than last time I saw you. What is all this emotional stuff about you dying any day now?

I sigh, come over and sit by him, but not too close, just in case.

No Mullah, I say resignedly, I am not dying, not anytime soon anyway, I hope, insha’Allah. The doctors have detected a nasty intruder in my system, but they are divided on treatment and recovery, if at all. I am going through treatment and a strict exercise regiment. I feel completely fine, without any symptoms whatsoever.

Well, you have had many people scared, I included.

I’m sorry...

Kisukaali, tell me, what is your Hindu name?

I stare at the guy, startled. He has this uncanny ability, to change the subject and catch me off-guard. Has he lost his marbles, finally? Hindu name? The Mullah firmly knows I am a Muslim, so why the obviously silly and stupid question? I open my mouth to protest but the guy sneers at me and holds out a quivering hand, stopping my protest.

Yes, I know you are Muslim, but your forefathers weren’t, na? All of us Khojas have Hindu surnames, like Kanji, Walji, Hirji, Bhimji, Somji…I am a Whatyoumaycallit. What are you? You can’t be a Yusufali. So, what is your Hindu name, past Yusufali?

The guy has me stumped; I have no clue. I tell him so. Mullah flashes me dentures so white, the makers of Polident would want to hang their heads in shame. The guy makes me (and others) think he is smiling at them, but that is not so; the dentures are ill fitting, giving him a look of sporting a permanent goofy smile.

Ah, your forefathers were smart. They did not want to publicize their Khoja identity; that’s why they changed the last name and buried the Khoja one. He taps his forehead, winks at me conspiringly and repeats, Smart!

I want to give him a litany of reasons why my forefathers were far from being ashamed, rather, were mighty proud of their Khoja identity. But we’ve had this debate before, and I want to avoid another one.

You know Kisukaali, the Mullah says after a while. I thought you were different from the regular crowd, had some steel ones on you. But I am obviously wrong.  I come to the US thinking we Khoja’s might change from our adamant adherence to rituals that have no place in Islam. The education system in the West is set up to give us a more rounded schooling, one that thinks out of a box. I still cling to the hope this will change our young minds eventually, but I have my doubts. Old geezers like me are hell bent on transferring their mindsets to the new blood. I think our Imam (a), when he comes, soon insha’Allah, will find us still deeply stuck in useless rituals at our centers.

I am not going to fall for the bait the Mullah dangles at me; I remain mum. He repeats his act of shutting his eyes as if asleep; only to open them when I begin to fret and commence a rant that lasts up to the time his combative DIL returns to pick him up.

Kisukaali, I have lectured you at length about some of the useless stuff we do at HIC previously. Today I’ll just talk about our addiction to shaking hands. By Allah, it is an epidemic, I tell you.

I stare at the guy. Is he serious? What is wrong with shaking hands?

I have to shake hands with my salaat neighbors after fajr, after zohr, after asr, after magreeb, after ishaa, left and right, and over, some of us creating a nuisance, going the other way. Some nuts also turn around and shake hands with the people at the rear. It’s like a bloody traffic snarl in Mumbai, sometimes, I tell you! Some don’t want to wait their turn and thrust their hand across their neighbor’s belly. And then, and then, after it’s all over, you get up, make a line and shake hands with everybody. Again! What bakwaas. Even heroin does not have that strong an obsession! Thank Allah we are not a 10,000 community, else we’d have to spend two days a week just shaking sweaty, miserable hands…

I want to laugh, but contain myself with some difficulty. However, I point out to Mullah that shaking hands after prayers is a recommended deed, practiced by all communities, not Khoja’s only.

Exactly! We Khojas blindly copy other community’s traditions and then make it Gospel. A man goes to Mumbai, hears a dua he likes at a certain center in Pala Ghali, comes here and voila, it is incorporated into ours, like it or not. Let us all introduce our favorite duas here and see where we end up.

Hmm, Mullah Mchungu does have a point here, I think.

But Mullah Saheb, I start, not wanting the old man to have the last word...

Bah! Bas! Do you have any, even a weak one, hadeeth that says our Aimaas (a) shook hands after every salaat, then formed lines and people waited, in turn, to shake hands with each other? Share it with me and I’ll shake your hands until kingdom comes.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Suitable Rishta

Lubna Sheykh (name altered) is a rather assertive, rather plump, rather dark thirty-something, who works as a Guest Relationship Manager for the hotel I usually stay at Mumbai, near the Chakrappaty International Airport. Her most winning features are two deep dimples on her chubby cheeks that feature prominently, whether smiling (which is often) or scowling (which I have seldom seen) or chewing (which is frequent) and her bubbling personality. As a regular at the hotel, I get to see and talk to her quite often and we sit and chitchat sometimes; I naturally babble away about my baby – CAI.

Lubna is quite interested and impressed with CAI's global activities and offers to accompany me to Afghanistan sometimes, an offer I immediately rebuff, since that country is not ready for the gentler gender, in my line of work. The lady is affronted; I can see, since the dimples vanish, replaced by a steely look in the eyes and daring, challenging expression on her face. I guess Lubna is not at her senior position at the hotel by being meek and submissive. She calms down a bit after I tell her of the challenges travelling into remote Afghanistan entail, especially after she hears about the squatting in the dark when nature calls, with a lotta in one hand and a torch on another. She loses appetite for Afghanistan altogether after I tell her a harmless field rat startled me so violently once when squatting, I fell butt first on the frozen earth.

The lady has been bugging me to visit her home, for dinner, and meet her family. I assume she is being polite, but when she asks me again, this time, I agree and we decide on dinner at her place after her stint ends at 5 PM tomorrow. I want us to take a cab, but Lubna looks at me in astonishment. It’ll take us two hours and more in this rush hour Mumbai traffic. We’ll go by the metro and a small portion by train.

Ha! The metro is fine - modern, clean and air-conditioned, even though it’s crowded with people returning home from work; we have to stand all the way to Andheri Station, however. It is the local train from here to her home that is painful. The platform is swarming with so much humanity, it is difficult to breathe, even. Seeing me squirm, Lubna grabs my hand and barges her way close to the platform edge. She could take the ladies only section, which is a bit less cramped, but insists on accompanying me, as if a guardian angle. A train rumbles in, brakes squealing; the crowd surges forward, I am propelled forward involuntarily, despair I will lose my marbles, but find myself inside the tram, jam-packed like sardines, my face in very close proximity of an unkempt Sardarji; the guy has overflowing hair everywhere, including visible moist armpits. I gasp for air and look away wildly, seeking my guardian, since I have lost physical and visual contact with her. I feel a tap on my back and her almost laughing but assuring voice; I’m right behind you. This squeeze is only to the next junction; most people will get off for another line there. Hang on tight! Do I have a choice?

I am so relieved when the agony ends and we walk a short distance to her apartment; my clothes are a mess, crumpled in the crush, but, at least, I am breathing. We slog up three stories to Lubna’s apartment in a nondescript residential complex that has ubiquitous warning signs of every nature: ‘No outside car parking’ ‘No vendors allowed’ ‘No selling apartments without prior permission’ ‘No paan spitting’ ‘No eve teasing’…

Please don’t mind my mother, Sir, pleads Lubna as we plod up, she will complain to you about me a lot. She does it to everybody visiting. But she means well and is simply worried about me. Her age and the onset of Alzheimer are making her a bit eccentric.

No kidding. The mother is tall and gaunt, with large wild, frantic eyes; does not in the least resemble her daughter. It is a small but comfortable apartment. I am made to sit next to Mum, who sits under a portrait of a portly man who stares at me sternly; the face has Lubna written all over it; the Papa. A furious overhead fan stirs up everything unsecured, making the garland around Papa’s portrait dance drunkenly. Lubna hands me a cool glass of sweet coconut water and disappears to freshen up and change. Lucky her. I am all rumpled and bothered from the ordeal of the train.

Haa, Bete, so, are you married?

Mum asks suddenly, as I am gulping down the coconut water. The water enters the no-entry passage and it takes me a good while to recover from the coughing and hacking that follows; Mum is unruffled. She begins talking about Lubna, as if to herself, in a monotonous voice. Her Hindi is Hyderabadi, so is full of rich Urdu grammar, some of it beyond me. 

I raised her and Salim alone from age six when Ahmed died; Allah knows how difficult that was. But she is hard headed, this daughter of Ahmed’s. There were so many rishteys when she was eighteen and nineteen. From good, wealthy families. But no, she wanted to go to college. Some good that college did her. Look at her. Middle aged, dark, overweight and single...

I feel terrible for Lubna. To hear her Mum put her down like this is very sad. Apart from her weight and skin tone, she is really a terrific person. And to be privy to her Mum’s profound anguish about her daughter being single makes me feel like a snoop and I hate it. Mum looks at me.

Haa, Bete, are you married?

I cringe and want to flee. Where is Lubna? Surely it can’t take this long to change. What is she changing to, anyway? Mum does not wait for my answer. She continues.

No rishteys anymore. None. Who would want her now? Hai! What will become of her? I tell her to look out for any reasonable man who will marry her. Even a divorced man. Chalenga. Even as a second marriage. Chalenga. What choice does she have? My daughter? Hai! What will become of her? I tell her to go out with friends and meet people more. But no. She works long hours, comes home, sits around staring at the nonsenses on TV and eats junk. Pizza and chips. She has put on so much weight. Who’ll marry her now? Hai! What will become of her…

Mum stops and stares at me, a puzzled look on her worried face, as if she sees me for the first time. She opens her mouth and closes it. Makes a face and asks.

Haa, Bete, are you married?

Ya Allah! I am rescued by the arrival of Salim, Lubna’s younger brother, his pretty wife and their very pudgy infant son. Salim is like his mother what Lubna is to the late Papa. Lubna reappears and we have a superb Hyderabadi dinner that is loaded with three days worth of calories. Mum leaves me alone, busy fussing over Ahmed, the infant named after Papa.

I take an AC taxi back to the hotel. It still takes me over an hour with the trailing traffic snares but at least, I do not have to contend with moist armpits.

Note: As head of CAI, I am, mistakenly, sometimes, consulted by desperate fathers looking out for suitable rishteys for daughters past prime marriage age. Sadly, the culprit has always been the girl’s choice of education over early marriage. This choice has inherent pains – of age and merit. I have tried to capture this dilemma with this light but real story of Lubna here. This problem, however, is very acute, serious; I have, unfortunately, no answers.