Friday, January 30, 2009

Haseena, the child woman - Final?

I have to leave and get up to go but I want to help her. I tell her I will be traveling abroad for 2 weeks and ask her if she will let me help her when I return. She turns and looks at me strangely again, the weariness returns on her face. What help? She asks cautiously. I smile. I want to enroll you in a school, so you can study and stop this terrible work you do. She regards me despairingly, just as a mother would a trying child. And who will feed me? And provide money for that dog at home? It must be a special type of hate, the way she says it, full of venom and hatred. I wish you would not call your mum’s husband a dog. I can arrange for your meals and clothing taken care of. Your step dad will have to look for money someplace else. She snorts her laughter again, a lengthy one. You are very naïve, takla (bald) uncle. I have some advice for you. Leave me to my fate, for you do not know the bastard snake I have at home. He will kill you if he finds out I am talking to you and you are giving me money. You are a good man, go back to your family. If you really want to help me, give me some more money, I will buy my freedom someday and disappear from Mumbai. Before that snake strikes me to satisfy his lust; you understand what I am saying, don’t you?

Embarrassed, I promise to look her up again upon return and also promise to think over giving her more money. To escape. Where are you going, bald uncle? She asks suddenly as I leave, traveling where? Her face is so curious and childlike, the question so full of longing to be somewhere else, I think about my Zainab and feel pain in my heart. I am going to Dubai and Burma and Thailand and Singapore, I reply. Baapree, the child cries, you will go on a big plane? Are these places far?

For a cheeky young girl who thinks me naïve and calls me bald uncle, Haseena is special. But I am worried about her. If I were to give her money, where will she go? Will she be able to escape her step dad? I could give her 5,000 (about USD100) or even more but will it solve her problem, a child of 12? I think and worry about her often during the 2 weeks I am away…

I am back to India and eager to go visit Haseena again; have 10,000 in alms rupees ready for her. I head out towards the awakening city and turn the corner where she is usually huddled up, churning up garbage. But the spot is now gone and where there was an easy, empty corner with piled up garbage before, there is a 7 foot high wall, completely cutting off the corner. The wall runs along a wide area of the corner lot with warning signs here and there, warning trespassers of possible persecution. My heart skips a beat and I jog around the wall in the hope of finding her elsewhere; she is nowhere. I cross the road and ask the banana vendor. Gone, he says, the owners of the land kicked her off the grounds. My heart sinks. Do you know where she may be? Do you know her parents, her mother, her father? The guy shrugs his shoulders carelessly and ignoring me, tends to an approaching customer.

I am so upset; I worry about her all day. Where would she be? If I could only get her the money at least. I try again today; no luck. I could kick myself; I should have at least given her my home address, not even 5 minutes away…

Where are you Haseena, my child, my woman child? I wish you well and earnestly pray that you find happiness wherever you end up.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Haseena, the child woman, part 2.

That is a nice name, Haseena, I say.

She stops her prodding and regards me, suspicious and wary once more. Hey, hey, I say, alarmed by her ready and vivid assumptions. I mean no harm. I am old enough to be your father; I have a daughter your age. She resumes her attack on the greatly diminished pile of garbage. We make an unlikely pair and are subject to curious glances from people walking about on this busy street. At one point, the banana vendor across the street ventures over and speaks to Haseena in Marathi, asking her who I was; she tells him to mind his own business. Hurt, he returns back to his seat and stares at us sullenly.

Why are you not in school? I ask. She snorts in laughter, a sharp intake of air through the nose and barring of cracked, uneven teeth, it is a laugh without any warmth. Here is the story of Haseena as told to me over 2 meets. I must admit I paid her INR100 (about USD2) every time I met her, and she opened up to talk nicely. For a girl of only 12, she had the street smarts of a person most mature.

She is Haseena Sheikh, about 12 or 13 year old, she’s not too sure, living with her mom and step dad in a hovel across the sea from Andheri in Malaad. Her natural father abandons her and her mother the day Haseena is born. Her maternal grandfather dies a month later and her mother begins a career with garbage heaps soon after; she has to eat and there is enough money in garbage if one works hard. Her mother marries a close cousin, a divorced man, a haraami (a bastard, her words). Haseena spits at every mention of her step dad. Haseena is put to work at age 5; her step dad needs the money for tobacco pareeki and the local brew. She has to meet a daily quota so she has to work 3 garbage collection points; her step dad has paid the local mafia for the privilege to work these. You seem to hate your step dad a lot, why? I ask. Haseena spits once more, uncomfortably close to where I am seated, the blob accurately targeted towards sparse shrubs nearby. Haraami, kutta...he has eyes for me, for my jism (body); he tries to watch me when I bathe or go to the toilet. Haraami saala. Spit, spit.

What about your mother? I ask her. Beekar auraat (useless women), she replies and snorts in laughter at my shocked look. She married that kutta (dog) because she had the hots for him, now he eyes me and undresses me with his eyes and she does nothing. She is trapped, you see. She loves him, can’t leave him because my dad left us and she is afraid she’ll be alone if he were to leave as well. So she sacrifices me and lets him ogle and harass me. I feel so miserable at her bitterness and misfortune, I want to weep!

Haseena wakes up very early, fetches water from a public tap and prepares for dinner, chopping onions and vegetables that her mother will cook into curry that evening. She cleans up, not that there is a lot to clean and has breakfast of tea and pau baaji or leftover dinner from last night. Her first stop is here, where she will work for about 2 hours and then 2 more heaps in other parts of Andheri before heading home to misery and the eyes of her step dad following her every move. What does she do with the sorted garbage? A tempo (motorbike converted into a compact truck) comes by and hauls it away to where she knows not.

To be continued….tomorrow?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Haseena, the child woman.

It is a mere 10 minute walk from my home behind Yari Road to Bank of India and I cherish the cool morning walk to it every time I have to go there. The dogs have tired from scavenging heaps of dumped garbage last night and their bellies are full; they now nap. The walk gives me a change to see urban India wake up; the sweeping from roads its muck: filthy pieces of dog poop, discarded sachets of Paan Paraag and her sisters concoctions, plastic bags, etc. Unfortunately, stain patterns from paan and tobacco spit, on the street and the boundary walls cannot be swept away, even with sharp, strong brittle brooms of the street cleaners; a curse that will stay on during my lifetime, for sure. Cute kids in smart uniforms being dragged to bus stops by harassed mothers, vegetable and fruit vendors sprucing up their wares or shopkeepers flicking dust and grime off old merchandise with a sharp jerk of cloth duster.

I see her again, this girl child, busy sorting out trash with her bare hands as I pass the little corner where garbage from the neighborhood is discarded. She is quick and efficient; newspapers, plastic, cans, clothes and others go into a semi-neat pile around her. A hooked, pointed iron prod gripped on her left hand loosens the trash while the right hand moves to do the sorting. I am intrigued; she can be no more than 9 or 10 perhaps, a little older than my Zainab. Why is she not in school? Poor, of course. But to do this every day? I can smell the putrefied stink from the heap from where I stand observing her about 20 feet away; what about her? I have encountered her every morning at least twice, thrice a week and have always been captivated by her presence.

Today, instead of walking by and away, I pause by her. She senses before she sees me and tenses, at once afraid. She turns and is on her feet at once, the iron prod raised, as if in self defense and startles me; I step back hastily and hold my arms up wide and smile, indicating I mean no harm. She still does not let her guard down, and has her weapon up, ready to strike.

Namaste, I say in Hindi, and fold my palms in an Indian greeting. Do not be afraid, I will not harm you. I jut want to ask you a few questions.

She regards me warily as a bead of sweat starts to descend down her furrow to her chin; she wipes it off impatiently. She is strikingly pretty but grimy; her face is dark with grime, her fingernails a mess, her hair under a duppatta filthy and clothes grubby. The odor of rot and decay is strong and hard to take and I try hard not to let my disgust show on my face. But her eyes, they are piercing and intense as she looks me up and down; assessing, calculating risk, my danger possibility.

What do you want, she demands, I do not do dhandha (I am not a prostitute). I am shocked and stunned by her response; not only is her voice of a much older person, she is not a child in knowledge of the streets. Perhaps it is the shock on my face and the sheer embarrassment I feel at her assumption that she relaxes and lowers her weapon, squats back to her work and starts attacking the pile of trash again. I am unsure what to do and ponder my next move for a moment. There is a pile of discarded concrete blocks towards an open field very near where she squats and I head there, pulling my attar laden handkerchief out, keeping it close by, just in case. I sit on the blocks and watch her work for a while, breathing in from the handkerchief; she tightens her duppatta around her and ignores me, attacking the pile in front of her with determination.

What is your name? I ask. She does not answer; I assume she has not heard me. Just as I am about to repeat my question, she answers, in the same adult voice, so softly, I can barely hear her.


To be continued….soon.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Burma calling

Burma, or Myanmar for those that like being politically correct, evokes conflicting and exotic paradigms, shaped by what we hear in the news or Internet; well, it is both. It was a nighttime landing, so save for the simmering lights of airport terminal building and a scattering of city lights, I had no clue what Rangoon looked like. I was in for a very pleasant surprise indeed. Not only was the airport terminal spotlessly clean and modern, the people I met with were so friendly, I thought we had landed at a wrong country perhaps.

The Burmese smile a lot, all of them! From the immigration officials to the street cleaner to the gardener tending flower beds and shrubs in the streets, they would pause from their tasks and bare betel nut brown teeth in an infectious smile. And the young always defer to their elders, always. I liked Myanmar from the first go.

The streets were relatively clean and well maintained, the traffic unchaotic, the pollution (always an issue with me) tolerable. Traders Hotel in central Rangoon was a delight, it's service impeccable and the free sumptuous breakfast incredible. Was this the poor and starving country I had read about? I am even more convinced poverty has nothing to do with cleanliness. Hear that India?

Although the average poor guy in the street has his work cut out for him earning a decent living, I saw no degrading poverty anywhere. There were some child urchins but nothing compared to the beggar menace of Mumbai, where I live. Burmese eat tons of paan, yes the intoxicating kind and her populace have permanent stained teeth. However, I did not see a single person spit or mar a pavement.

The military junta of Myanmar is a disciplined lot and you see this discipline in the people and in the systems that work and are largely efficient. However, the ordinary person's life is tightly regulated and there are no civil liberties. You could go to jail for the flimsiest reason and any protest is brutally put down; no dissent is tolerated whatsoever. We were not allowed to travel to the cyclone Nargis affected areas by the military.

Internet access is tightly controlled at official places, like our hotel. I paid USD 2 for half an hour on the net only to have access to Yahoo mail and Hotmail portals blocked! Go down the street and pay USD 0.50 for an hour and the smiling owner routes to a server outside Myanmar and you can access anything your heart desires. Go figure!

I gorged on tropical fruits; giant size guavas, mangoes, Indian almonds (khungu), jack fruit (fenesi), khunazi, sorry, I do not know the English equaling name. And the incredible seafood! I also took full advantage of the incredible massage services available. You could get an hour worth of foot or body massage (or others) for about USD 5! On our final night in Burma, I went along to the massage center at a hotel and both Mujaahid Sharrif who I was accompanying and I settled down to an hour of bliss with two strong guys kneading, pulling and stretching our bodies.

What we did not know is breaking of wind in Burmese society is acceptable behavior. At the time I was settling down to the pleasure of having my body pampered, my masseuse let out a laud and startling ripple. Huh, I thought, may be an accident and let it go, only to be replaced by another go in about a minute. Mujaahid could not restrain himself and convulsed into laughter, and the two masseurs joined in. When a third fart was let out, I became alarmed, at this rate, where would it end? While Mujaahid and his entertainers amused themselves, I decided to teach the guy a lesson and join in. Alas, my system was uncooperative, however much I tried. I let it pass...