I am a resident of a chowl dwelling near Malad, on the outskirts of Mumbai. It could be any low-cost housing that dots every major city in India, the location is not important. I live in a 15 x 12 feet nondescript dump with my wife, 2 kids, and my elderly parents. The parents sleep on a sturdy bed with a lumpy mattress in one corner of the room and the rest of us slumber on the floor, on makeshift beds made of thin foam pads that fit nicely under my parent’s bed during the day. There is a crude improvised kitchen at one end of the room and meals are eaten on the floor where we sleep at night. A claustrophobic cubicle mimics a bathroom outside and communal toilets are down a smelly alley.
I wake up every morning at fajr, say my prayers, eat a hasty breakfast that my dutiful sleepy wife makes and I am off to work, fighting traffic on my mortgaged bike. I park it under a flyover bridge with thousands of others and half run to catch the train that’ll take me to work. It is the survival of the fittest getting on the train. Thankfully, I am tall, well built and muscular, so I have an advantage over most of the crowds who scramble to get inside the not yet stopped train. Sometimes, especially in rainy monsoon season, I have to wait for a second or even third train before I can fight my way in. This exercise is a deathtrap, for I have witnessed more than a dozen deaths of poor guys who slip and fall hanging out of the overcrowded cabins.
I work as a call center manager and my job is to manage people. I am responsible for 30 employees who report to me. But I do very little core work of answering the phones that explain dumb Europeans or Americans who have called the toll-free number where to locate the power button on the new computer they have purchased. My job is to monitor and ensure that the employees are in their stations on time, that they answer the calls as meticulously trained, speak in the acquired ‘Western’ accents and give out aliases, never their actual names. The customer at the other end must never get the inkling that they are talking to an Aasha or Dinesh somewhere in India.
However, my job gets quite interesting as I get to manage the lives of unique individuals who mistakenly, innocently, assume that, as their boss, it is my responsibility to know the details of their private lives. This morning, for example, Juhi is being super emotional because she had a fight with her possessive boyfriend the night before and is having problems maintaining her accent. I have to be hard on her and tell her to cut the moping out and get back to work, accent and all. Mrs. Dixit will not be in today because her son swallowed a tile from Scrabble last night and almost choked to death. So, I have to cajole Rani from night shift to stay back and earn some overtime, which she is happy to do since she is saving up for her dowry. Roopa and Lata have a fight over the use of a more comfortable chair. Lata dishevels Roopa’s immaculately cut hair so Roopa uses her superior reach and slaps Lata silly. The assault ends up in a full-scale brawl on the office floor which the other staff, especially the men, immensely enjoy. I get them to get cleaned up and back to their phones; I’ll have to deal with discipline later. And so on. Always solving problems and resolving sensitive, sometimes very personal personnel issues.
My employer pays me Rs. 45,000/month (about US$700) for my efforts, working 60 hours in a 6-day week. I’m not complaining, since this pay is considered good money for Mumbai. I have no money to buy a home, so Rs. 10,000 goes towards the hovel rent. After paying the kid's school fees, grocery bills, utilities, the mortgage on my bike, my father’s medical bills and everything else, I save about Rs. 2,500/month. I’ve been saving this amount so I can make enough of a down payment on a 2-bedroom apartment that a bank can consider credible enough to fund a mortgage.
I am from a conservative poor family of 5; 2 elder sisters, my parents and me. My father, a devout Muslim and a retired bus conductor now, led an upright life, of hard work and honesty. Prolonged exposure to exhaust fumes and lead in fuel is causing havoc to his respiratory system now, so his coughing spells are an irritant to us and our neighbors as well. He always struggled to put enough food on the table, but never failed to fill our tummies at the end of the day nevertheless. He skimped and saved and got his 2 daughters married into respectable families honorably. He sold his ancestral home in UP so I could get a convent education; I can read, write and speak English fairly well, hence my job. He means the world to me and I would do almost anything to see his final days pass in carefree comfort.
Lately however, Abbu has been mighty fidgety, especially since he, together with the rest of the family, attend the majalis for ayyame Fatema (a) where this young, striking aalim, citing a ‘hadeeth’ as the source, claims that we are deemed to have left the fold of Shia Islam if we fail to visit the shrine of Imam Hussein (a) once every 3 years. There are other claims he makes, equally dubious and new, to me certainly, in the 43 years I am alive. Referencing ‘hadeeth’, he asserts that 2 heavenly angels in the sky hold up our planet, a claim immediately challenged by my 12-year-old son, at home. Poor boy, he is hushed and reprimanded not to question an aalim by my Abbu and my wife, both who take the word from the mimbar as absolute gospel. The aalim further claims that I am less of a Muslim if my eyes fail to tear up at the mere mention of Imam Hussein (a), doesn’t matter that his are bone-dry. My heart aches and agonizes at my Imam’s (a) trials and tribulations in Karbala and I used to be able to bawl at every masaayeb in my younger days, but the tears have dried up as I age, replaced by undiminished pain and agony; dignified, however, rather than emotive. But this seems to be a no-no in the eyes of this noble aalim. Anyway, I digress.
My greatest dilemma is Abbu’s insistence on going to Karbala asap, before a hunch of his impending death comes to pass; he certainly wants to die a Shia Muslim. I don’t have a problem with this, but our finances don’t add up. My savings and Abbu’s pension fund at retirement is close enough to muster a down payment on an apartment close to our chowl. It is a nice development – affordable, within my budget, the kids will not have to change school and my in-laws live close by, so my wife is supported and content. But since Abbu has heard this noble aalim cite the untested hadeeth, Abbu’s mind and heart are made up; he wants to go, come what may.
So, biting my tongue, suppressing the disappointment others and me at home feel, I am making arrangements for Ammi and Abbu to head out for ziyaarat in Iraq. Whether this aalim’s claim is credible or not, I am sure Allah will more than make up for the delay in acquiring our new house with the barakah of Abaa Abdullah (a).
Author: Anonymous. Unnecessary. Unimportant.
Bloggers note: This sage is of 2 different periods, 2 distinct peoples and from 2 separate continents. They are, however, very real, intertwined and pertinent. I have simply used my imagination to marry the two, hopefully, to make room for contemplative reflection.