We stop on a side road and Aliakberbhai, a devoted and selfless trustee of Al Imaan Foundation, cautions me to be careful of cakes. Cakes, I ask? He smiles. Yes, he says, cakes, shit cakes. You should be familiar with our terminology by now; he chides with a smile. I gingerly step down and immediately understand what he is referring to. These is human and dog poo-poo everywhere I look and to reinforce the unreality of the scene, two kids of about ten squat not more than ten yards from me, lost in call of nature, oblivious to the passing mass of cars, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles, humans and dogs. The stench is intense; overpowering, but I am well equipped; a liberally perfumed handkerchief comes in very handy.
We are here to visit a poor and destitute family; a young girl is to be married in three days and the family has no money for the marriage rites. I have funds specifically donated for the facilitation of such marriages but I must be personally hand over the money. Not that I do not trust Al Imaan, far from it. This is a personal commitment on my part, so I can experience the moment (and perhaps be gifted by dua’s from the recipient) and as an assurance to the donor that I was present when we made the marriage possible. Were it not for the help we are about to provide, this engaged couple will probably languish in limbo until either the groom tires and breaks off the engagement or the bride’s family goes into ever ending debt through a loan shark.
The father of the girl meets us shortly and I can instantly sense his embarrassment and nervousness; I give him an assuring smile and we follow him into the slums. My eyes are cast down, on the lookout for objects that I need to side step. I am aware of the hub of activity in the narrow filthy lanes we pass; music blaring from shabby, shoddy rooms, children, few stark naked, playing or quarrelling, the aroma of pakodas and other fried foods mixed with the stench from the open sewers. We suddenly enter a one man lane and I bang into the back of Aliakberbhai. The lane is totally dark and I am very nervous; I do not want soiled shoes.
When we reach the shack, we have to climb up a rickety staircase; it shakes violently with every step and I breathe a sigh of relief when we finally make it up. It is a 12 x 12 room, devoid of any furniture save two short wooden stools and a box crate, obviously used as a dining table. A few metal plates and other banged up utensils line up one side of the wall. A skeleton of a woman lies on bare floor on the other side, clearly in pain. I can see her one twisted leg and the grim twist of her lips whenever she turns her head to follow us with her eyes as we take a seat on the stools.
She is a grandmother of the bride to be. What is the matter with her, I ask? She is not well, the son tells me. But what is the matter with her, I repeat? He shrugs his shoulders; he does not know. The hospital needs money before they will admit her, he says, we do not have the funds. I feel immediate anger and the urge to rebuke him for ignoring his mother but cool down as quickly. Hearing the word hospital and doctor brings a piercing wail of mournful agony from the mother and I feel the hair on my arms raise. My heartbeat quickens and I suddenly feel very nauseous and have a sudden urge to leave.
We are given water and offered tea which we politely refuse. Aliakberbhai asks a few questions about the marriage plans and the girl is brought up. She is very young and pretty, only sixteen. She says salaam shyly and I give her the money; Rupees 18,000, about US $500. This money will buy the couple a bed, mattress and a cupboard perhaps, maybe even help in paying for the waleema. Perhaps. More importantly, it will afford the girl respect from her in laws and smoother live ahead. Insha’Allah.
We get up to leave but I cannot stand the agony of the mother as she whimpers on the floor. She is sayyeda and I have some sehme sadaat funds. I give about $75 to her and Aliakberbhai admonishes the son and orders him to have the mother urgently treated. I plead with Aliakberbhai to leave pronto and hurry ahead, but he is unmoved, practical. You might run away from here, but we have four more of such families to visit, he reminds me. I slow down.
When I finally reach my temporary home, the first thing I do is wudhoo and place my forehead on the soil of Kerbala and thank Allah for His bounties, for I cannot erase the agony of the mother from my eyes and ears.