I get mighty irked when airlines claim my flight is delayed because their incoming aircraft is tardy. I don’t care an ant’s ass if your aircraft is late. What if my car got snarled in traffic or had a flat tire and I was checking in late? Would they wait for me then? This flight by Jet Air from Mumbai to Katmandu is thus delayed, souring my mood. This is the third consequent time Jet has done this to me, blaming an errant incoming flight, so I am in no mood for the flight attendant’s pleasantries. Hurt, the poor girl retreats with an injured look on her face, and I feel regret, but my ego will not let me apologize to her until much later.
I am going to Katmandu as CAI has received an SOS from some Afghan refugees who have fled their country due to persecution and are now in dire conditions. Katmandu, from the air, looks lush and serene, very much the same I found it some twenty plus years ago when I last visited Nepal for trekking the Annapurna Circuit. The airport is the same except I can swipe my passport and get an instant fifteen-day visa for US$25. The lady immigration officer is ancient and peers at me with myopic eyes, pasting the entry voucher upside down.
Tourist ho? American ho? Not Indian? Okay, tourist. No hanky-panky ho. No ganja, ho. No teenage girls, ho. Only clean massage, ho. Okay, ho?
There are several instant retorts that come to mind, but I flash her a wide evil grin instead. That makes her instantly suspicious, but there is nothing she can do, so she thumps my passport rather violently and waves me through, a disagreeable look on her aging face. After purchasing a local SIM card and a prepaid taxi ride, I walk out to balmy weather. The taxi driver, a very burly Nepali who reminds me of Gurkha guards, deployed to guard American Embassies or Consulates overseas. He breathes stale breath towards me then inspects me from the rear view mirror, gauging me. I know it’s coming, the inevitable question; I don’t have to wait long.
You from, Sir? Tourist? Business?
I don’t answer, hoping he’d take the clue and leave me alone. No such luck.
You like girls? I have cute girls. Young…
This is not turning out to be a nice day. For me. Do I emit an image of a Casanova? If I was irked before, I am now livid.
No, I don’t like young girls, I like boys.
I don’t think I would have gotten a more startled reaction if I’d slapped the guy. He swears and swerves, nearly misses a motorbike riding pillion. He concentrates in steadying his nerves for a while, clutching the steering wheel and staring ahead. He then laughs out aloud. Once, twice and then non-stop, bawling out guffaws, exposing large eroding stained teeth, shaking his head and thumping the steering wheel in front of him. He laughs until he eventually tires, regarding me through the rearview mirror now and then.
Babre, Sir, you are joking, na? I know you joking. That is so funny…
But I am in no mood for mirth and maintain a deadpan face. He takes the cue and shuts up. Katmandu is not unlike many urban Indian cities; unkempt and gritty, with undisciplined traffic and very unhealthy levels of smog. Signs of the recent devastating earthquake is evident in holes between buildings where structures collapsed, killing over eight thousand people. My hotel is in a nicer, touristic part of town with tons of shops selling cheap junk that bag-pack tourists from the West get conned into buying. Nepal makes, some time ago, a decision to move fifteen minutes ahead of India. Imagine, I have to adjust my watch to be nine hours and forty-five minutes ahead of home; I guess some intellectuals are mere dingbats instead.
Mohammed Dawood, when I meet him the next day, is an unassuming man of about forty, in deep dilemma. His and thirteen other families flee from Kandahar in Afghanistan and are now stuck in Nepal. UNHCR has recognized all these families as genuine refugees fleeing threats to their lives but will give them no legal status. This means these people cannot work, transact legal transactions or even venture out at night. I meet with six of these families at Dawood’s modest home. We reach the house after going through crowded lanes of people, all in a festive mood for a Hindu festival. Dawood is well known by his neighbors; they greet him affably. Women in gaudy red sarees dance aimlessly to music so loud; my teeth vibrate in protest. Dawood spits in disgust.
Everything here is najjis, all meat haram. We eat meat once a month if there is money, and I have to travel a couple of hours to get halal meat. My children are sick and tired of all this. Still, I am thankful. At least our lives are safe. We would have been all dead if I had stayed back in Afghanistan.
His house is bare, but one room is dedicated to an imambargagh where the group gathers for religious occasions. Dawood, the apparent spokesman for the lot, has learned to weld, works illegally but is paid a pittance for his labors, if at all; his last employer did not pay him at all. All six families have a litany of wants, all legitimate. I am overwhelmed, cannot help with everything, obviously, but CAI takes care of unpaid school fees for all the kids at risk of expulsion for entire 2016. CAI also helps with outstanding rent for these six families present, since the landlords are fed up with nonpayment and threatening imminent eviction.
It is the situation of the children that is painful to see; they are woefully thin, and I see some signs of malnutrition. Their eyes light up when I present them with cookies and cake I buy before I get to the house. Some start tearing the wrappings and eating the treats immediately, ignoring admonition from embarrassed parents; I tell them not to. Ten-year-old Fatemah tells me she is happier in Nepal than Afghanistan; there are no bombs or guns here. I arrange for all the families to eat meat during the coming Eid and more later. I leave them with a heavy heart, after a modest lunch of rice and potato curry.
I am not sure what will happen to these hapless people. The UN will probably eventually resettle them insha’Allah; this is their hope. When, nobody can tell. There are refugees here that have not seen any movement in their status the last three years.