Saturday, December 20, 2008

Irrational anger?

It is almost end of 2008; what a year! It is 7 months since our move from Houston to Mumbai; a move many in my family and friends feel is a mistake. Favoring their rational is the recent senseless and brutal attack of November 26 that killed and maimed so many. However, we are beginning to settle, Maaha Zainab is busy with her friends and I am getting into a routine which is so busy, I am beginning to think I will not have enough time to complete my mission before I die...

What really amazes me is the illogical ranting by what I, until recently, believed to be a professional and balanced Indian press. The daily headlines and fine print against Pakistan, for perceived or real harboring of militants and implicitly in the attack is bizarre, to say the least. While I can understand the patriotism the reporters must feel at the brazen attack at their symbol of wealth and elite landmarks; there must be balances with some common sense, surely? How about admitting India's errors (there were oh, so many), put in progression plan to minimize the impact of future possible attacks (you will never be able to stop them until there is resolution to the Kashmir issue) and move on?

Here are some issues I have with the press:

1. They allege that ISI (Pakistani spy agency) left clues of their involvement - as if either of the spy agencies would leave clues after an operation in either countries. Give the respective agencies credibility of having at least some intelligence.
2. That India should bomb Pakistan because the killers were Pakistani nationals. It would then figure that USA should have bombed the hell out of Saudi Arabia because almost all 9/11 attackers were from Saudi Arabia; the US bombed the hell out of Afghanistan. I have a suggestion: why don’t India go and bomb the restive border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan; perhaps they can do a better job of eliminating Al Qaeda and the Wahabees than Pakistan?
3. Lets face it; 10 determined killers were able to infiltrate the borders of India, then proceed to kill and maim hundreds of innocent civilians and then, amazingly, hold the country to ransom and make fools of security personnel and elite commandos for 3 days before being overcome. I shudder to think what could 1,000 radicalized, determined Muslims do? Violence begets violence. This Mumbai massacre was permutated by animals; so was the destruction of Babri Masjid and its aftermath; so were the massacres of Gujarat. These animals roam free as leaders of States within India and there is not a word of protest from the press. Muslims in India must be assimilated and treated as dignified equals for there to be sustainable progress in taming the enemy within.
4. There remains a lot of outstanding questions that need answers; questions that have been asked by the media and others that the State and Union authorities have no plausible answers. How could 10 killers armed to their teeth slip into a country without getting any attention? It makes no sense these men were able to come in, stay in Mumbai hotels for 2 days and then disburse to the 4 - 5 locations and begin shooting without being noticed. Once the shooting began, why the responses so pitifully slow? So disorganized? So uncoordinated? Why the top cops were send on a wild goose chase only to be killed?
5. Here is what bugs me the most; almost all attention is and has been paid to the elite and rich killed at 5 star hotels. Were the people killed at the train station less humans? Conveniently dispensable perhaps because they were poor? So it hurts when the cream gets whipped up, yes?

It has been an interesting year, all right. I look forward to 2009.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Mumbai Train Ride

It is 21:30 and I want to return home to Andheri after burying my friend Aliakber's dad at the Masgaun graveyard yesterday. My friends suggest I go by train, since it after "rush" hour and it would be fastest. There is some sort of a Sufi Urus festival going on in Mahim, they say, and the traffic would be terrible. Well, for those of you not familiar with Mumbai, a cosmopolitan cocktail city of almost 13 million, there is always a festival going on somewhere and the traffic is almost always terrible. Still, the prospect of sitting in a hot, smelly cab for the usual 90 minutes it takes and likelihood of delays due to the Urus makes me consider the train; perhaps my eight year old Maaha Zainab will still be awake for me to horse around with. However, my last escapade with a local Mumbai train from Bandra to VT (Chatraparty Shivaji now) in 1996 cautions me. I vividly remember the pain and torment I went through that day. My good friend Badami reassures; It will be okay, it is past rush hour, and I will accompany you; I relent.

The 10 minute walk to the station via a Muslim slum gives me warning signs and my disquiet increases as our walk progresses. Mr. Badami is oblivious to the obvious signs of poverty along the way; the wet, littered streets as if it has just rained, the sounds of humanity in crowded place as they jostle for non existing space to maneuver in tiny, cramped hovels, the carefree laughter of dirty, half naked children as they chase each other amongst the squalor, precariously very close to 2 way traffic that miss them by inches, men bathing in public, their lower bodies covered in soap studded lungis, the acrid smell burning of firewood mixed with that of garlic and onions and spices and rotis...and shit. The smell of all omnipotent shit of Mumbai; you can’t escape it, ever; it follows you around like a shadow, if it is cloudy during the day, it will make sure it catches up with you when the moon shines bright at night.

Luck is not on my side; this is nothing new, luck has been very reluctant to befriend, being reclusive throughout my life, gracing me with its luxury very occasionally. 2 trains to Andheri have been cancelled, so we have to wait for the next one which will be by in about 15 minutes. This has gotten Badami Saheb nervous; for he keeps assuring me (and himself in the process, perhaps?) that "rush" hour has passed and I'll be fine. When the train does come in, sounding and looking wounded, tired, it's packed; people crammed inside and many more clinging to whatever they can at the entrance. Badami Sahem hustles in and I follow, using him as a shield. In the struggle and myhem to get in, I get an elbow on my nose that makes my head spin and eyes water, I feel suffocation settling in. Miraculously, I find myself inside the cabin, pinned in between a pot bellied man oblivious to the world as he bobs his headset head to old Hindi songs that is audible over the rattle of rail tracks and a very dark Tamil whose visible armpit hair I desperately try to keep my head averted from. It is warm, made warmer by the crush of bodies and the stench is unbelievable. Between the garlic fumes from the pot bellied hero who mouths lyrics, to stale sweat, to hundreds of body odors to unwashed feet, it hits me very hard and I feel like swooning. At the exact moment, a miracle occurs and a man shoves himself out of the middle seat and into the aisle preparing to get off at the next stop and I get squeezed into the vacant spot and out of danger; I begin breathing again.

I am now confronted by a feeding mother who stares at me unseeingly as her baby gets nourishment while another child, not much older than the one on her other lap, sleeps fitfully on the other as the train sways him side to side. The obvious father, a protective arm carelessly thrown over his wife’s shoulders sways to the rhythm as well, jerks his head up every time we stop at a passing station only to nod of to a dancing sleep as soon as the train starts moving again.

Mercifully, this all ends in about 40 minutes and I reach Andheri in one piece, with a sore nose and very crumpled clothes and terribly desperate for fresh air. I hire a waiting rickshaw, the driver speeds through the relatively light traffic and I get the cooler wind effects on my face.

At home, Maaza Zainab is still up and in a playful mood so I enjoy...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Mumbai massacres

Humans became animals on November 26 when a few of them got together to gun down innocent people traveling in shabby trains or dining in upscale restaurants in Mumbai. Supposedly from Pakistan, these murderers sneaked past horribly inept Mumbai port security to launch an audacious attack at the heart of Mumbai’s hospitality, to its elite and upper crust. Mowing down over 170 people in cold blood and then kept the city hostage for over 3 days, while the entire city, country and the world watched in horror and awe as the supposedly elite commandos and pathetically untrained and under armed police battled it out with ten well trained, well armed, unmoved killers bent on a single motive - to slay and destroy any and everything in sight.
I was out of the country but called to calm my eight year old daughter’s fears and insecurities everyday. But how could I explain the seemingly senseless brutality that got captured onto hundreds of cameras and repeatedly beamed to all television clued audiences in the country? What could I say? If it was beyond me, a well rounded and seasoned man of 51, what could I say that would calm or comprehend an eight year old mind? Maaha Zainab had already seen more than her share of human violence and tragedy in our short six months stay in India. The bombings and killings in Gujarat, in Delhi, in Bangalore and other cities between June and October in India shook us all, shook me hard. I began to seriously wonder if our move to India was a wise one.
Reprehensible as this attack on the innocent was, I cannot but know beyond doubt that violence begets violence. It was precisely because this particular attack targeted the rich establishments and its clienteles that it got more than the usual attention of the press and, especially, the top brass. Past atrocities were equally, albeit less passionately, condemned, yes, but easily, conveniently forgotten. Who can forget the Babri Masjid atrocities and who can ever forget the anguished cries of pregnant women who were either cut or burned alive in the Modi spearheaded culling of Muslims in Gujarat?
Then, it were the politicians who masterminded the massacres and got away with murder, scott free; now, young savage thugs, under a religious cover or otherwise, be they Indian in India or Pakistan or Pakistani in Pakistan or whatever, who will get away with murder.
I for one, Muslim or otherwise, am ashamed of what we humans have become, ashamed of humanity that can be so feral and savage. Or have been trained to be, forced to be so. For, looking into my daughter’s innocent face, I am absolutely certain that humanity cannot be so inhuman.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


I once lived in a country called Lalaland, a finger sized oil rich kingdom clusters on Middle East map. Then, it was a good place to live, though there were teething issues common with all new states. It was relatively cheap, the money I earned was good and went a long way, there was decency among its people, strong ties to past traditions and Islam and a Ruler who was shrewed but very balanced and generally fair; it was a blessed country.

Then the Ruler died and Lalaland became even more prosperous, developing so fast and so hard, it amazed the new Rulers and threw them into a heady frenzy; even the sky was not a limit. Whatever that could be done bigger, better and flashier was taken on. Money poured in, modesty out, the country was prostituted to the highest bidder. A healthy population feeding on fish and dates for thousands of years took to fast food and welcomed diabetes and hypertension epidemics. Whites and Arabs became immune to laws of the land; native were seldom apprehended and Whites had their hands slapped and given suspended sentences for even serious offenses. Rulers marred new, more modern, more powerful wives, Liquor and prostitution, unheard or strictly controlled ago, went public and flourished.

Bizarre episodes of greed and patronism fueled amazement and anger which was quickly suppressed and soothed by easy money and power. Consider:

1. A car registration plate with number 1 was auctioned for USD 1,000,000; other numbers like 5, 10... sold for similar crazy sums.
2. The Ruler won every horse racing and endurance event he raced or fancied.
3. Half baked laws were put into place only to be rescinded in a few days or amended so many times, nobody knew what it was supposed to fix.
4. The State (or some pot bellied, pot smoking cousin of a cousin to the Ruler) decided where people slept, how many families lived together, who was or was not permitted to give a ride to a college to work...
5. A country boasting of the richest of rich saw labourers sleep in chicken coops; rape and forceful detention of maids from poor countries rampant and plight of labourers so dismal, it made Saddam Hussein seem an angel.

Still, people from all over the world flocked to Lalaland, undeterred. New building got taller still, cars fancier, jam packed roads jam packed some more, glimmer and shine glitterer, deals dirtier, rotten morals rotted even, the West got aped open armed and I migrated back to the US; had to keep my sanity.

Now, there are signs of the dam busting; property prices correcting to 20%? Layoffs a word actually spoken, people actually leaving...

What next? Look out...the shit is going to hit the fan.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An invite for a private Mujra dance

I am going to Houston; it is very far away. Just the thought of flying 19 hours it will take me to get there from Mumbai via Dubai gives me the shudders so I block the thought out of my mind; for now at least. Emirates Airlines is getting ready to depart when the seat next to mine is occupied first with a rather sturdy scent of cheap perfume, then the tingling of ornaments and then the presence of a girl-women face that regards me for a second before getting to settling down.

I regard my fellow traveler; a dark, pretty but knowing face like a sly fox. She settles down and then gives me a brilliant warm smile. Kaise ho uncle, she asks and my face darkens. Did she just call me “uncle”? I am allergic to being called by title, especially one that denotes (elevated) age; I respond with a tight thin smile that lets her know, I hope, that I am not amused. Then she rubs it in, would you please mind my bag while I go to the loo, uncle? Nothing will happen to your bag, I tell her rudely, go. She registers a surprised, hurt look on her face but gets up and goes away. I eye the small bag and consider hiding it just to be mean but I don’t fancy being arrested either.

She smiles her thanks upon return and settles down once more, heavy bangles of gold tinkling all the time she moves and layers of gold chains on her neck an instant attraction for an eye. She gets busy studying the movie guide and magazines and I lose interest in her. It is while we are eating our meal that she gets talking again. The omelet is very dry, she laments, but proceeds to clean up everything on her try in half the time it takes me; not bad for a person quite slim and petite. I am going to Dubai, she tells me, to entertain. My interest immediately piques; entertain what? She turns towards me and her eyes laugh. Men, she says. My interest elevates even more but fades much faster as my mind processes ideas. Oh, no! I shut up.

It is not what you think, she says, disappointment (and disgust?) evident in her tone. I am a mujra dancer; she says, a good, respectable, years of hard work and trained mujra dancer, just like any actress in Bollywood, even better, perhaps. You watch movies, uncle? There she goes again! Sometimes, I respond, my wife and kids all the time. Ah, you see uncle, I am just like any of them actresses, like Kareena and Katrina, but much hard working and better, only they get all the glamour and rupees. I act as well, and I dance and make people happy, especially ugly and lonely men. Especially in Gulf countries, where men live without their wives and are very lonely.

Interesting, I tell her. What about abuse, is she not abused by the men she entertains? Only if you let them, she says with a firm tone, a clenched fist that pumps in front of her for emphases. I never let men abuse me; they respect me, give me money, lots of it, she caresses her gold adorned fingers to indicate the universal sign of cash, and want to be with me all the time. They even want to marry me, especially the Arabs, you see. But they become quiet when they find out I am Hindu.

Do you go to Mujras, uncle?
No, I growl, I do not. Perhaps you should, she says enthusiastically, come watch me. I will dance for you. She gives me a name of a place in Dubai where she will be dancing for the next 2 weeks and invites me. Come uncle, really, you will enjoy. I will dance for you in a private room and please do not worry; you do not have to pay me either.

Baab re baap…

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The business of fear

I am on my way to Afghanistan, my ninth visit there since 2004. Unfortunately, it is only Indian Airlines that fly to Kabul from India, from New Delhi at 07:45 AM. So for me, living in Mumbai, it is a night in New Delhi; no big deal except for the hassle. The flight to Kabul itself is uneventful, the usual mixture of mostly businessmen and security personal on the flight. Astonishingly, it lands on the minute, at exactly 08:45AM Kabul time; some of the better known and classier airlines need a time management lesson or two from IA.
The immigration officer makes an error on the stamp he thumps on the passport, realizes the date is yesterdays and glares at me as if I am at fault. He then hee humms, scanning pages within the passport, as if looking for a solution for his mistake, furiously scratches his scalp cap and finally decides to just correct the error by hand. Happy with the solution, he grins at me, revealing a missing tooth, blows garlic fumes at me, hands me my passport and jerks his head, indicating I can go.
If you think your city is polluted, visit Kabul; I feel, see, smell, and taste it immediately our vehicle enters the very heavy chaotic traffic on the streets. My throat contracts, eyes water and breathing is more labored within five minutes on the street. Nothing new, things have definitely not changed.
What has changed in Kabul this time is the element of fear; it is everywhere. It is in the air, in the shifty eyes of policemen who man security checkpoints all over the city, in the attitude of hotel staff and even the man on the streets. We get stopped three times going to our hotel and then twice again when we drive towards Chandawaal. Kabul is like a fortress now, my every movement scrutinized and controlled.
Herat, near the Iranian border to the West is a little better and I get to relax a little bit; short lived as I return to Kabul in two days for my return trip to New Delhi / Mumbai. Our Engineer Basheer drives me to the airport early, just in case. Good thinking, for security is blocking entrance to the airport, no cars allowed in, no exceptions. I have to walk two kilometers, lugging by bags with wheels. I have to hurry; I have little time for pity towards others who are still figuring out how to get to the terminal with loads of luggage and children and the old.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Indian psyche

I am back briefly; will be gone again tomorrow, off to constant danger and the anguish of a forgotten and abandoned people...

India has come a long way; gone are days of dour infrastructure and endless red tape; why, you can actually apply for a passport and get one in a week, you can have your choice of flight with first class airlines that are compatible or better than any in the West, I am writing this blog on a high speed broadband line. Yet, consider this:The supreme court of India actually intervened to stop the culling of stray dogs...the supreme court!

On my return flight from London last week, I had a white family of 4 on the left hand side and an Indian family of 3 on the right, both set of parents with really good looking infants on their laps. The time and attention given to the White families kids made me want to vomit; the only thing these flight attendants did not do was kiss their assess. I did not observe anyone of them even saying a remote "hello" to the baby of color.

Why do movie actors of India insist on wearing dark sunglasses at night?

West Andheri, a reasonable upper middle income neighborhood, where I live, stinks. I mean really, really stinks; enough to spoil your appetite if the prevailing winds were to travel across a sewer collection pool a few miles away. The prevailing winds have a tendency of blowing across West Andheri from the pool just when you begin dinner.

Diwali mercifully passed on last night, without making me deaf. I thought I was in a war zone with powerful firecrackers booming through the night like tanks in a battlefield. I swear the Indian Army will be in a state of utter confusion if an enemy were to attack during the cover of this festival. Let’s fervently pray Mumbai Municipality Corporation clean up used paraphernalia mess from the streets soon.

About Afghanistan when I return...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Of Indian pilots

The idea that I, a paying passenger, need not know what is going on, sitting in the middle of a runway for half an hour without any explanation whatsoever, must have to do with Indian mentality and their pure patience, I guess. I was returning to Mumbai from Srinagar the other day, the flight was delayed 2 hours and when I finally landed in Mumbai through rather turbulent air, I was made to sit on the middle of a runway for some 35 minutes while other airplanes raced past me either landing or taking off. Through all this, the pilots remained mum. This is not an isolated case; it is common for all Indian pilots to keep their thoughts to themselves, for this has happened to me having flown all carriers in India.

However, here is something odd. As I cruise through some 35,000 feet over land, and at times through turbulence, these same pilots come alive. They tell me they are soooooo sorry the flight has been delayed. You know why? Because the incoming flight was delayed coming in! As if I care! You are late, you are late, period. Would the pilot care if I arrived late with an excuse that my ride to the airport was late in picking me up? Then he informs me that we are flying through turbulence, as if the coffee sloshing around in my cup has a mind of its own. Then he continues telling me we are headed south to Mumbai. Hello? I sure hope so, that's where I want to go! He continues, saying the outside air temperature is -50F. So? Should I be concerned what the outside temperature is?

And then, after we land, when we have to wait and wait, when I do want to know what is going on and when we'll start rolling again, the bloody guy nods off...go figure!

Saturday, October 4, 2008


I am going to Malaad today. Just like Govendhi slums about which I have talked quite a bit on, Malaad is a sprawling slum that is home to thousands of very poor Muslims who clamor for every inch of vacant space.

I am prepared. Good comfortable shoes to overcome slippery surfaces, loose clothes for it can be suffocatingly hot in the sea of humanity and a hankie with a good dose of perfume for I have puked in the past when the municipality comes along to clear backlog of human filth and garbage from open severs sometimes; the hankie gives you breathing air.

I am going to distribute zakaat ul Fitr to 20 most deserving families - about $65 or less per family, depending on size. I have received the zakaat late from few donors in the US ; otherwise I had distributed the bulk of it in Mumbra a few days ago, on Eid day.

Malaad is not too far away from where I live, some forty minutes by rickshaw and boat; I smell it before I see it, a now familiar gut wrenching stink of open sewers and human waste. I go around narrow lanes swarming with people; women cooking or washing clothes, children playing of defecating into open sewage gutters, dogs trying to scavenge whatever discarded which is not much and the ever present, agony inflicting flies, swarms of them. They sit on you, your entire body, and have a way of finding their way up your nose if you let them.

I visit the 20 tagged families and am invited to their hovels, offered tea and tales of misery and sadness. I listen, try to be sympathetic to the complainers and smile at the ever present semi naked kids. Then I give them their dues and leave with vague promises of future help with their needs - housing, education, medical...

I flee as soon as I am done, relieved it is over. I reach home depressed, only to be cheered up some by the antics of Maaha Zainab, my oh so mature soon to be 8 year old. But it has been a sad day...

No blogs until Wednesday as I am off to a remote village in Madya Pradesh to see if CAI can assist a local community purchase land for burial; they have to use other collective graveyard and there have been issues (and fights) about Aliyun walliuallah….

Friday, October 3, 2008

Dog poop

Its been a struggle for years; especially since the start of my stay here in Mumbai - avoiding stepping on dog poop while walking the streets of Mumbai. This city has hundreds of thousands of stray dogs that roam the streets. The local municipality can't touch them for fear of offending sentiments of minority religious and animal rights groups. Frankly, they give me the creeps and I stay terrified I will be tender meat for one of them soon. A pack of three came after me last year when I was jogging towards Juhu Beach; it was only the intervention of an idling watchman with a danda that saved me that day for he banged the cane a couple of times and on the pavement and the hounds thought otherwise.
Anyway, I was walking towards a small park for my morning run very near to my apartments and it still dark. I passed a couple of sleeping dogs and I was so intent on cursing them that I walked right smack in the middle of a pile. I cursed out aloud and that got the two sleeping ones instantly awake and interested in me. I was hopping on one foot and hopping mad. As I cursed the culprits and their mothers and others in in their family, other dogs joined in to watch me dance. One must have thought I was doing a morning ritual for it began howling. With amazing speed that stunned me, others picked it up and all of a sudden I had about 20 hounds howling very close to me.
Needless to say, my blood pressure gusshed and I bolted with the pack close behind. I would have been mince meat if the park full of early morning walkers and joggers was not but 10 yards away...