Give Me Money, And I’ll Build You A School
India in general and Mumbai in particular, where I am now, is in crises mode. Prime Minister Modi’s well-meaning and noble-intended, but hasty and ill-planned ban on the Rupee 500 / 1,000 currency notes has bombed. Badly. The poor are panic-stricken, and many fat-cats are left to deal with dirty underwear. It would be so funny ordinarily, to see people with ill-gotten wealth squirm and scramble to get rid of or exchange the worthless paper. The tactics they use are creative, clever and comical; the social media is buzzing with incidents of busted antics. The new pink Rupee 2,000 is snazzy, but most vendors will not accept them; there is no change.
There are several near-riots at bank ATMs, with police latti-charging unruly crowds, with frustrated masses hitting back, making the cops beg for mercy. These cash flow crises have not affected the super-rich, of course. You won’t see them in the stretched serpent-like lines outside all banks I pass by, wilting away under the relentless sun. No Sir. These dudes have alternate arrangements, as their hoarding is the in millions, even billions of Rupees. I hear whisperings that the banned bills can be exchanged for 70% or even 50% of the value…with proper bank connections.
In Bengaluru (Bangalore), an ex-Minister, a devoted father (I guess), spends (you better be seated) Rupees 5 billion – about US$73 million on his daughter’s wedding. CAI helps marry poor girls in India as well; this amount would have paid for 146,000 marriages. Proves wealth does not always equal brains and decency, no?
Some five flying hours away from Mumbai, Singapore remains almost the same as I left it four years ago; super clean, super-efficient and super-pricy. A 2-bedroom 3,000 sq. ft. apartment is a cool three million Sing dollars – about US$2.3 million and a Toyota Corolla is a stomach curling US$60,000. I am here as the guest of JMAS, with whom CAI is currently working on an education project that requires due diligence and compliance work. The infrastructure and logistics of this city-state work like a fine Swiss watch; precise and efficient. Everybody lines up, for everything, no exceptions. You pay a hefty fine for chewing gum, jaywalking, littering, crossing the line…all controlled by thousands of cameras, using state of the art technology. If there were a gadget to detect the inappropriate passing of wind, why, I’ll bet that would have been deployed as well.
My weakness in Singapore is seafood; something all humans must partake when here. On the second day, I find myself free for dinner, so I head out to the Newton Food Center at the end of Scotts Road, about two-third mile away. Since it is Singapore’s ‘winter’, like May in Orlando, and less humid, I walk over. Still, my t-shirt has patterns of vague sweat-shapes by the time I enter the crowded and noisy courtyard with at least fifty food hawkers, each one waving me over; there is enough food here to satisfy all the hungry children in Yemen. There is Malay, Indian, and Chinese food, but seafood dominates. I find a halal stall after some trouble, but I am still cautious. I ask the lady waving me over if the food is genuinely halal.
Mista, she glares me, pointing to her headscarf, I tell you is halal, the sign hea (here) says halal, the goven-man (government) cettify (certifies) its halal, all seafood is halal, I am a Muslima, this sign hea says no pok (pork) no lad (lard), and you still ask me if halal? You are a vely (very) suspicious man, la.
I surrender and sit down to lip smacking, finger licking pepper crawfish, spicy kangkong greens, steam rice and hot Chinese green tea, sharing a common table. Everybody, including the Gooras, discard their plastic utensils and dig in with their fingers, sniffling and sweating the spicy dishes down. The lady gets an assistant to take over, takes a break and comes sits by me, sipping from a steaming cup of tea. She tells me she is resting her tired feet.
I am Singaporean Malay. Where are you flom (from) in India?
No Ma’am, I am not Indian, I live in Florida.
She searches my face disbelievingly, so I add I was born in Africa, but my ancestors are Indians. She is still dubious, especially after I tell her I have also lived in Dubai, Houston, Toronto, Austin, Mumbai, Orlando…
So did you vote? The elections?
Yes, I did.
You voted for Donald Duck?
It is my turn to stare at her. I open my mouth to correct her, say it is Donald Trump, not Duck, when she and the others sharing the table erupt in voracious laughter. The lady snorts and laughs until tears roll down her pudgy cheeks.
I am joking Mista, la, don’t look so offended, la. But you must admit your new president is a cattoon (cartoon), la?
I am not sure if I should respond to the question, so I stay mum and continue feeding my face until I am bloated with seafood; the walk back to the hotel is laborious. As time-pass, I challenge myself to find litter on the pathway I walk; any litter. But apart from fallen leaves, there is absolutely nothing. As I near the hotel, I feel thwarted; not one piece of litter. But my patience is rewarded shortly when my eyes hit jackpot; I see a cigarette butt. I am ecstatic; Singaporeans are humans, like me!
I am in Chennai to meet with my Indian editor, Vandana, at Notion Press, who will be editing my 3rd novel for Indian content. This book, to be published by July 2017, will insha’Allah raise US$100,000 plus, all profits (100%) to benefit the 460 worldwide CAI sponsored orphans. Surprisingly, I have no problem in getting change for my Rupee 2,000 bill for the taxi ride from the airport; I wonder if Tamil Nadu has got their act straighter.
It is while waiting for my Uber ride back to the airport for my return flight to Mumbai the same afternoon outside Notion Press that I meet Danish. He is 11-years old, a daily wage laborer, shoveling building pebbles onto construction trucks and so thin, I can see the outline of his ribs through his skin. There is a filthy green colored taweez, thoroughly soaked from sweat, that dangles from his neck. I watch him for a while and venture over to talk to him.
He pauses when he sees me approach, breathing heavily. His face is flushed and sweat drenched, a booger dangles from his nose. I feel immediate disgust but force myself to smile at him; he looks at me suspiciously for a second, spits and resumes his labor.
What is your name? I ask him in Hindi.
He grunts, says nothing, so I repeat the question. He pauses again, an irritated look on his face. He looks me from top to bottom, decides I am harmless.
Danish, he says, my name is Danish.
You do hard labor, Danish, I say. Don’t you get tired?
Danish spits again and blows his nose, thankfully dislodging the unsightly bugger from his nose. His eyes tell me how ridiculous he finds my question.
I mean, why don’t you go to school? I ask hurriedly, embarrassed by my stupid question.
Danish shrugs his bony shoulders. He must generate a lot of spit, for he spits once again. He rubs his fingers in the universal sign of money. He says he has no money so has to work to eat, him and his widowed mother and his younger sister. He would love to go to school if he could and become a jawaan in the Indian army.
My Uber drive arrives and hoots, so I hurriedly say goodbye to Danish and sit at the rear of the car, shivering as the cold air-conditioned air hits my skin. I glance at Danish, but he is back at work shoveling, probably dismissed me as a nut case from his thoughts. At an instinct, I tell the startled driver to stop and turn around. He makes a face, but reverses and I run towards Danish, who has stopped work and is watching me. I thrust five 100-Rupee bills in his hands.
Buy your mother and sister and yourself a nice meal tonight, you hear?
I leave, since I will be late battling the deadly Chennai traffic to the airport, an hour away. I watch Danish from the cab again. He is still leaning on his shovel, staring at the Rupee bills, a puzzled expression on his face. I smile inwardly, feeling slightly better.
Give me money, and I’ll build you a school – anytime.
39,000 feet up in the air, somewhere between Mumbai and Dubai:
I receive a WhatsApp message informing that the last avenue I have to get to Yemen is closed; it is simply not to be; my spirits plummet. Although thousands of starved children are receiving much needed CAI donated milk, my wish to personally see the project through has been denied. Everybody says it’s much too dangerous, that risks to life outweigh the benefits. Although I am deeply disappointed, hurt and angry, I have to leave it to Allah’s will. He knows I tried. Very hard.