Friday, January 20, 2017

Sabah Wants A Divorce

My role as CEO of CAI brings me in contact with a lot of people, of varying characters, in many countries, mostly the poor and desperate. These people, overwhelmingly women, because it is the fairer sex that is sadly the most qualified poor and desperate, especially in India, seek me out. For help, Baba...! Somehow or the other, they get my local cell number, and the calls begin within a short time after I land in Mumbai.

The very fact that I am regarded as some sort of a savior to their many problems and issues make me immensely uncomfortable. I am a softie to human sufferings, even after almost twenty years in this field. You’d think a heart would harden and apathy take over from the constant barrage of misery that I come across, some of it savage and of inhuman sufferings. But playing a human god is not my cup of tea, thus the acute disquiet when I am asked for help. Even on occasions when CAI donors can help, and this gives me profound, immeasurable joy, the gratefulness in their eyes and the way they look up to me makes me intensely uncomfortable.

However, there are some very entertaining and enlightening cases that I have encountered over these years. These can be cocktails - irritating, confounding, frustrating and hilarious at the same time. I narrate a tale that happened in Mumbai, India during 2015, when I was there for prolonged medical tests, staying at the Leela Hotel. You may enjoy this episode.

I’ve had a long, tiring day at the hospital, with doctors asking me the seemingly most mundane questions and nurses inserting foreign objects into some real unholy places of my body. I had to drink four liters of water for a bladder scan, and the old hag who prodded my swollen bladder did not care for my hollering that I would not be responsible for cleaning up if she were not gentle. So later, as I try and rest at the hotel, harassed with multiple trips to the bathroom to pacify my overactive bladder, the hotel phone rings. It’s a breathless bellhop, and the sneer in his voice speaks volumes.

There is a young lady in a burqa to see you Sah, should I send her up?

I wreck my brains to locate what burqa-clad lass would be seeking me out but draw a blank. I tell Breathless that I’ll come down; better practice ehteyaat.

I use the bathroom the umpteenth time and head to the lobby, where a pair of eyes watches me approach. It’s pretty disconcerting to have a pair of comely kajal clad eyes regard my every move while I have no way of reading her face for clues; any clues. As the entire front office staff dart curious glances my way, I lead Comely Eyes to a coffee table in the adjacent foyer.

I can smell the stale body odor on her, even from the distance between us. The niqaab she has on has seen better days and her calloused heels don battered, worn down shoes. Sabah is eighteen, with major marital issues, and she startles me with a request to help get her a divorce. I’ve had peculiar demands earlier, from others, seeking to benefit from CAI, but this one is new. While I try to gather my wits around me, I ask her how she knows about CAI, me or how she knew where I stay. Her eyes register fear for perhaps a second before she studies her fingernails on her lap.

Hamee maloom paraa, is all she’ll divulge.

Sabah was married off at age sixteen, to a cousin almost twice her age. Her father had promised his wannabe son-in-law a trendy motorbike as part of the dowry, a contract broken by the poor salesman working in a Banya shop earning less than US$100/month and supporting a family of five. Sabah’s husband quickly loses interest in his young illiterate wife and rekindles an on-off affair with a former beau. Sabah’s mother-in-law harasses with demands as well, since Sabah miscarried a fetus once and now has trouble conceiving; MIL wants no less than a grandson.

While I sympathize with Sabah and feel her pain, her requests are way beyond CAI’s mandate or my league. So, I send her away, with advice that she should contact her local aalim for directions and guidance. And since she’s come all the way from a distant suburb, I give some money for her train rides home. Her pain distresses my mind all that day, however.

I must stay put at the hotel next day and await my test results, before returning home the day after. So, I plan to catch up on my reading and watch an in-house movie perhaps. I am settling in with my book after an excellent Leela breakfast when the phone shrills, startling me. The bell-boy, sounding exasperated, informs me two burqa-clad women wait to see me; should he send them to my room? What the…my heartbeats begin thumping away.

It’s Sabah again, looking lost standing on the cold marble floor lobby, but there is another, almost identical twin with her. This one’s eyes are plain, older and mature; it’s the mother. I feel irritation and anger build up and want to rebuke them for bothering me, but their decorum dictates I control my temper. The mother echoes Sabah’s story from yesterday and insists that I intervene and help.

Aree, she grates, my daughter has no future with that vermin and will have no chance of a future if that bastard impregnates her. My husband is useless, a neekamma, he agreed to give away his daughter to his sister’s son because of rishta, ignoring that both his sister and her children are najees parasites of this earth. Please, sahib, get her a divorce before it’s too late…

I open my mouth to protest and excuse myself once more, but the mother, in usual UP modus-operandi, will not allow a word of mine in. The volume of her tone increases and lobby faces begin to gawk our way.

Aree Sahib, our local aalim is a neekamma as well, he has been paid off by the boy and will not recite the talaak unless you tell him. He’ll listen to you; you guys are powerful, and he can’t refuse you. Sahib, my daughter is still a baby, save her life, please…

The tears begin, and so does my misery; Sabah apes her mother. I can’t stand waterworks, especially from desperate, vulnerable women. I wait until they get to grips with their emotions and then gently but firmly explain them my predicament. The mother blows her nose rather violently and then dramatically beats her forehead with her palm.

All right then, if you don’t want to help her with her divorce, then you take her away with you to Canada. She’ll destroy her life here in India. Take her away and treat her well, that’s all I ask. She’ll be of use to you, you’ll see. She is hatti-katti, strong, works like a horse. You won’t be disappointed…

I wait for my heartbeats to stop behaving erratically before I open my parched mouth.

Why would I want to take your daughter to Canada? I ask, bewildered. I live in the US.

Whatever, she says nonchalantly, shrugging her shrouded shoulders. US, Canada…all same. She blows her nose some more, eyes lighting up in hope at my question. My Sabah can fit in anywhere. Perfectly.

I leave for home the next day. Alone.

Now that I think of Sabah’s predicament, I feel regret not being more helpful. I should have, perhaps, offered to buy the motorbike for her husband and win her freedom?

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Am I Going Bananas? – Ali Yusufali / Mascara Not Needed – Navshina Savory

Am I Going Bananas? – Ali Yusufali

2017 New Year’s Eve finds me in Mumbai, yet again, after my stint in Myanmar and Sirsi and Agra and Delhi. Our UP schools have been enriched by the Savory’s, the educators who traveled all the way from Vancouver, Canada to train the school teachers in new and innovative teaching methods. After Sabira Remtullah’s efforts, from the UK, who did similar workshops last year, this is a concentrated effort by CAI to provide premium opportunities for CAI remote school teachers to advance, personally and professionally – a fantastic bonus for our students.

I deposit Maaha Zainab, who has spent time with the orphans in Sirsi and toured the Taj Mahal in Agra, to her Nana’s and various aunties care in Andheri. I now have a couple of days to concentrate on losing the extra weight put on at Sirsi and Agra and complete pending CAI compliance work.

Rupee demonetization notwithstanding, Mumbai is in a party frenzy, preparing for the coming of 2017 tonight. The usually drab streets have a touch of color and pomp. The Leela is no exception. The lobby is decked out in gaiety, ads urging me to join in and welcome in the New Year, with or without alcohol, only for about US$250 or US$200.

On the way to my room from the gym at about 11 PM, achy and sweaty, I pass the lobby, jam-packed with crowds of revelers, many already sloshed and teetering. There are men in uncomfortable suits and sari-clad women, some who seem to have forgotten they now have flabby and ugly bellies; ugh. Since I am now a recognized regular at this excellent hotel, I get wished a Happy New Year so many times I want to barf. I get stopped by the lobby manager, who facilitates me once more and pumps my hand with so much gusto, I begin to worry he’ll dislocate my shoulders. My genuine smile now becomes a lot fixed and painful to maintain; I escape to my room.

As the bells toll and the firecrackers explode at midnight outside, polluting the already severely foul Mumbai air, I begin to fret about myself. Am I abnormal, or is this world getting batty? I have just witnessed the results of a brutal genocide of Myanmar Rohingyas, more than half of the earth is mired in wanton violence, the world faces a perfect storm of adversity with the current geopolitical makeup, what is vile is right and what is logical is evil according to the mainstream media, trying Trump days lay ahead. Yet, the rest of mankind erupt in bizarre ecstasy because 2016 is now 2017. Am I bananas, missing something?

The next day, Sunday, I go out for a movie at Infiniti Mall. The sun above glares with the same intensity as yesterday, the yukky air smells identical, and the beggars along the rickshaw ride to the movies look as pitiful. Should I be happy because today is the first day of another year? Am I mental for not feeling euphoria? Should I see a psychiatrist?

The movie theater is jam-packed; Dangal, it’s an Amir Khan production. Prime Minister Modi’s seemingly smiling face lights up the screen, promising toilets for every village soon; better days are in the offing. I am forced to stand up for the national anthem, which bugs me. India shining, nationalism and patriotism is great; at school and civic functions and gatherings, perhaps. I have come to see a movie here. And paid for it. But the film is superb and inspiring, an Amir Khan classic and a must watch for the entire family, especially aspiring girls.

It is while I am at the airport with Maaha Zainab, applying moisturizing cream to my stubborn dry skin, waiting to fly to Dubai and grace Aliya Yusufali’s wedding that I figure out I am okay, my marbles are intact, I am not insane, I don’t need a shrink. There is this rather famous astrologer in India who makes splendid money predicting the future to people with ill-gotten money and deficiency of common sense. His columns make it to the local papers at the start of every year, and millions read their fate for 2017; I am no idiotic exception. He predicts I will finally begin traveling the world, that my oily skin will get better and that I will win over the heart of the damsel I have secretly coveted for eons.

No Sir. It’s the world out there that have their marbles askew; I am fine. Alhamd’Allah.

Mascara Not Needed – Navshina Savory

We weren’t sure what to expect or what we were in for. However, the opportunity to help is always something that is a blessed opportunity for our family. So, we decided on an adventure to Sirsi, India as part of our winter vacation.  As high-school educationists from Vancouver, Canada, my husband Andy and I, along with our children Yusuf Hussein, 11 and Maryam Zainab, 9, are entrenched in the world of teaching and learning.  Our family sees every opportunity as a learning experience, and our focus is always on youth. We see the investment we make in the young people of our community as critical to the sustainability of our faith and the preparation of the coming of the 12th Imam. An offer to train the teachers and meet the orphans of CAI projects was not to be missed.

We landed in New Delhi early AM December 19; disoriented, lacking sleep, but full of excitement and trepidation. Inexperienced travelers, we found ourselves highly frustrated with the organized chaos at Delhi Airport; long immigration queues and delayed luggage (8 pieces checked in - goodies for the orphan, children and teachers).  A bad WIFI did not let me connect to our hosts waiting outside. It was a relief and elation to spot Ali Yusufali and Asghar Ali (Administrator at Bahman School) 3 hours later. I was afraid they’d left, and we would have to turn to the Canadian High Commission for rescue. We were finally off on the 6-hour journey to Sirsi.  The car ride was as comfortable as one can expect. Luckily, due to our complete exhaustion and a mid-way stop at a wonderful “Dhaba” for Fajr Salaat and the best tasting parathas and yogurt I have ever eaten (even my picky kids devoured them), our commute seemed shorter than it was. 

At the Dhaba, Aliakbarbhai Ratansi from Mumbai joined us. This was our first time meeting him, and he quickly came across as a kind, generous and wise man with class and decorum worthy of someone who gives selflessly. His acumen in dealing with hundreds of requests from those seeking aid will be an inspiration for our family always, and we look forward to crossing paths again soon.

Even at that early hour, the boy orphans were waiting eagerly for us and showered us with rose petals and bouquets of flowers; I honestly thought I was entering the pearly gates! This greeting was just a foreshadowing of the love and hospitality for the next several days during our stay at Zehra Boys Home (ZBH).

My task was to work with the teachers of the school to provide Professional Development Workshops, to improve their teaching practice. Bahman Public is in Sirsi and has approximately 950 students. Andy’s work was to provide guidance and recommendations regarding a maintenance schedule for the school and orphanage buildings. Andy, along with Yusuf and Maryam, presented the entire school a wonderful science show. Experiencing science in such a fun, engaging and accessible way to connect and was very well received by the students and teachers.

Given the many unknowns regarding the teachers’ history, working with them had my stomach filled with butterflies…. although, they were “Flying in Formation” because this is the work that I love. With my husband Andy, a 20-year convert to Shia Islam at my side, being his usual confidence booster and spreading his annoyingly consistent optimism, things got off to a wonderful start and remained so throughout our stay. 

Most of the children at Bahman school come from poor and illiterate homes. The teachers and the school, are for many, the only haven of hope and positive modeling this generation will experience. The work and resources that the donors of CAI have put into the school is an amazing gift to the entire community of Sirsi. The work with the teachers was wonderful. Working with individuals whose life’s work is dedicated to investing in children is a true gift. This was the constant message that we wove throughout our presentations to the teachers. The work that teachers do matters so much in the lives of their students. I am excited about continuing these educational conversations on-line until we meet with our new teacher colleagues again.

We were housed at the ZBH, which is located on the same property as the school. The 28 boy’s orphans are the purest examples of kindness, generosity and joy that my family has experienced. With the structures, routines and expectations espoused to the boys through the work of CAI and direct caregivers Naseembai and Anjumbai; the boys have a sense of dignity, a dream to create a better future for themselves and their families. The boys are the finest examples of believers, and this shines through their smiles. Despite spending a short time, we grew very close to the boys. My family and I played with the boys, helped with their studies, worshiped with them, ran with them and just talked with them. Yusuf Hussein and Maryam Zainab learned that it truly is “better to give, than receive”.  Missing Christmas holidays became less an issue for my mixed breeds. Ironically, we all learned the true meaning of Christmas when we didn’t celebrate it this year.

We also visited the CAI constructed Sakina Girls Home (SGH) and shared a meal with the orphan girls. SGH provides housing and schooling to about 30 orphan girls who otherwise would not have had the opportunities of a formal education, love, safety and security.  They were lovely and gracious, and it took everything out of me not to take each one home.

One of the most impactful things we saw were the housing projects, also supported by CAI.  The “houses” were shocking, to me. In my sheltered Canadian upbringing, I was not prepared for the poverty I saw.  They were about a 200-sq. Ft. structure of concrete, one bedroom, one toilet, one bath and a tiny cooking kitchen. These houses were of the most basic type I could imagine. The alternative, I learned, was being homeless. These projects at least had a community, running water, private toilets and power. The children of these homes attended Bahman school, allowing a hope of a better future.

Our time at the school and with the orphans was too short, but made the most impact in our lives to date. Leaving Sirsi, for me, was painful and gut wrenching. For an Inner City, high school Vice Principal, who daily deals with drugs, weapons, fights, colorful language and unpredictable situations, I am not a ‘touchy, feely, wallflower.'  I’m tough and crying is not helpful in my daily work. The experience with teachers, students, orphans and our hosts made me a cathartic mess…but, it felt wonderful to feel such love. 

Two days before leaving Sirsi, I stopped wearing mascara (no point, tears just messed it up) and caressed the hands of children, giving little hugs and words of encouragement about the importance of education. Andy, Yusuf and Maryam all shared special moments all in their way, making sure their tough ‘mom’ was okay. There were many exchanges of gifts, WhatsApp numbers, well-wishes, tears, of course, and even promises to return.

Thank you to Yusufali, Aliakberbhai, Asgharbhai and all the others that made this experience possible. We are inspired by your vision and pray that you and your families reap the blessings of Allah SWT so that you continue to create better generations for India’s poor.

For those of you wondering what to do this with Blog, I say, GIVE!  Your time, talents or financial resources. My family experienced, first-hand, the impact CAI has on the lives of impoverished children and families – they change lives, making the impossible, possible.

Thank you, CAI for the fantastic opportunity.