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?