Monday, February 22, 2010

A day in the life of Amjad Hussein

There are many people who make the success of what CAI is today possible and one such man is Amjad Hussein. I pay tribute to this humble, tireless and most critically, a kind man who genuinely cares for orphans and is their mother, father and everything else in between. Thank you Amjadbhai; for your total commitment and selfless dedication to the orphans of Matia Bruj and all others in whose service you have sacrificed so much of your life. May Allah (S) bless and reward you in this and afterworlds.

Cough. My name is Amjad Hussein. I was born in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, in India oh, some 59 nine years ago, son of a poor zari worker who fathered very many children. We had very little food to eat so all of us had to start earning as soon as we were able, so this meant tailoring apprenticeship for me at age 9. I worked hard and learnt to sew all kind of clothes but I was not fated to be a tailor. Circumstances (poor eyesight, marriage) took me away from Lucknow and I began managing orphanages for Najafi House based in Mumbai. I love taking care of children, supervise their activities and guide them; why, I like this so much I have been doing this for over 26 years. Cough, cough.

Sorry, I have this terrible cough. Here in Matia Brug, on the outskirts of Kolkta, India, it has been a bitter winter and I have been coughing nonstop for weeks now. I had myself thoroughly checked by a doctor, blood tests and chest x-rays, even for TB but the doctor just scratches his hair and says I am not diseased. Cough. Yusufali keeps on insisting I go for a full body check but I don’t know; I have given enough blood for testing and been prodded around as much.

About 5 years ago, I was reassigned to this renovated orphanage in Matia Brug. It is an old building, in ruins, well over 100 years old but built like a fortress. Now, it is a modern building with all facilities for the orphans that live and get educated here. The orphans, when they first come here, are a pitiful lot, some so backwards they cannot put on and zip their trousers. Cough. Why, I even had a mentally retard boy who drove me bananas trying to upgrade him; I had to let him go because he scared me silly, breaking into uncontrollable convulsions. Cough, cough, cough.

My day begins at 4:30AM with prayers for the boys; they sleep for another hour while I begin preparation for their morning hygiene and school bags. The first batch of kids go to school at 7AM, the second at 11AM and the rest 2PM. I supervise their teeth brush routine (they used up a whole new jumbo size one morning!), their uniform coordination, hair management and breakfast before seeing them off. Cough. By the time the first batch has gone and I have my breakfast, supervision of cleaners, laundry management, cook management and day’s lunch / dinner ration distribution, the next batch is ready for attention. The same routine follows afterwards and I stay on my toes until 3PM when the building is humming with activity again. Evening hours are filled with homework, tuitions Islamic school teachers; tiffs and brawl refereeing. Then come evening prayers and dinner. Cough, cough. My aging legs and back begin giving me a hard time by then but I plod on. Cough. It is only after dinner tuition classes are over and the kids spent in their energies and retire to bed with mischief and tiffs that I relax a bit, around 11PM. I am hopelessly tired and after a complete tour of this 3 level building, I gratefully ease myself onto my bed for blissful, blissful slumber. The last thought on my mind is a prayer none of the boys will be sick tonight or wet their beds. Cough, cough…

Aliakberbhai of Najfi House and Yusufali of CAI are visiting today; here for inspection and advice. I have slogged all day, sprucing up the place and ensuring their comfortable (and complaint free) stay on the 2nd floor. I know they will be exhausted from the airport drive; Kolkota traffic is vicious, confusing, lead heavy and sometimes dangerous. It is also a very polluting city; the fumes from ancient cars taxes my lungs, cough, lungs used to toxic waste of Indian cities; Yusufali has American lungs, cushioned against many of our Indian cities ills, I have been told. While I have known Aliakberbhai for years and know his temperament, Yusufali is relatively new. This intense bald (self imposed?) man is relentless in insisting absolute cleanliness of the orphanage and stresses educational excellence of the boys as if there is nothing more important than beating geniuses out of these poor kids. Well, I am not a teacher of math and science and I can only do so much with ensuring good grades; the rest is with the boys and their tutors. Cough.

We sit and talk late into the night, my eyes heavy with sleep. The duo listen to a litany of complaints I have against the incompetent cleaners and some adolescent orphans whose hormones are on overdrive. They advice and counsel me, sympathize. I know there is so much they can do but it is nice to let off steam. Cough. I live a rather solitary life, the children are a joy but they are children after all. My family all live in Lucknow; my wife is happy with this arrangement and so am I but I miss my kids, 5 of them. So this time with these adults is a break although I wish they would hurry up and let me go rest my aching legs. It is a good thing they leave early tomorrow; I can do my own thing and be away from Yusufali’s discerning eyes. Cough!

As perceived by Yusuf Yusufali through eyes of Amjad Hussein - Matia Bruj, February 15, 2010.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Scared shitless in Nairobi.

I am in Africa, once again. Ah, the sheer joy of breathing the blessed air and refreshing color of its soil and vegetation to my eye. I tell you, I have been blessed to have travelled the world but Africa, East Africa in particular, is an icing on this blessing. It is very warm and super humid of course, but I have escaped the searing heat they tell me, the worst is over. Really?

Dar is the usual delight of an emerging and bustling city full of irreplaceable memories with its many restaurants so the balanced and sensible meal plan I have promised myself melts away with every succulent morsel of fruit and flesh that touches my temptress tongue. The mango season is in full swing of course but I have not tasted the Mouwa (spelling?) verity from Tanga in about 35 years. No problem, says my dear friend Murtaza Bhimani of Moraf Store in Dar. A phone call and hundreds of them are bused in and I am lost to mango madness for which my stomach takes me to task the next day. Madafus that cannot be beat anywhere else in the whole world quench my undying thirst.

I go to Zanzibar for a day and the Isle is in crises; there is no power whatsoever; anywhere. I stay at the Tembo Hotel and mercy in the form of generators rule the city. Many businesses have made fortunes selling generators, I am advised. Everything conceivable runs on them which makes diesel and others fuel scarce, exorbitant, with devastating consequences on inflation. Tourists, with tots in tow even, however, abound, amazingly taking the agony of heat and sweat in stride. I delight in lychees and local badaam halwa and eye my expanding midriff in horror, but I am helpless, I tell you, hopelessly helpless.

I go to Mtwara in southern Tanzania for a business deal; never been that south before. Other airlines should learn from Precision Air, the local private airline of Tanzania. You can fault them for eye popping airfares due to their overwhelming total command over air traffic in Tanzania but not their schedules. Boy, it departed Dar on the dot and why, departed Mtwara early! Now that is service. What I don’t understand, however, is immigration scrutiny at both Zanzibar and Mtwara entry ports within Tanzania; never had to clear immigration travelling within any country before.

I meet Pervez Vatchha, my step cousin in Mombasa for the first time. My paternal grandfather Yusufali, you see, remarried after the death of my grandmother and I vaguely remember Mama mentioning this to me. This lady had six daughters and all have children spread over Kenya. Pervez is the daughter of one such daughter and she is a gracious and hospitable host. The mogo chips, in particular, are out of this world, Pervez, asante saana. I get to present my case for the victims of Afghanistan atrocities to the local Khoja Jamaat there and the response is overwhelming. Thank you for your kindness and fabulous opportunity, Iqbalbhai Sunderji!

Then I go to the crime city of Nairobi; I have heard horror tales of open banditry, robbery and killings that have dominated her fame of recent history and I am nervous. I remember this cool, vibrant and breathtaking city from my childhood and am saddened by the adverse changes that have made her so unpalatable. But I have moments of happiness when I meet many of my step cousins there, especially Fareedoon Abdallah, a kind and gentleman who hosts me and Shaheeda Shah whose gifts to Maaha Zainab and Tasneem are met with much joy and delight back in Mumbai. Asante saana guys, you are special.

It is while I am being driven to the airport by Fareedoon’s driver that I almost collapse in terror and panic. The ancient Mercedes Benz air-conditioner is not working and I have rolled down the window to let air circulate for its uncomfortably hot. We get stuck in a jam due to an accident up ahead. I smell the shit before I see it. A short man, menacing, gesturing towards his repugnant weapon, his face covered in a makeshift mask, holds a pad of newspapers on which lie a mould of squashed feces, the stench of which immediately gag me. He barks something unintelligible, perhaps in Kikuyu. Before my mind can process the horror of what is happening, Francis, the driver, veers the vehicle to the left, probably over the thug’s foot and he disappears from view. Francis then accelerates up the hard shoulder on the right and bumps and hobbles over hard barriers past the accident site and back on the paved tarmac within seconds, then speeds towards the airport.

I am drenched in cold sweat, unsure what is accelerating faster, the Merc or my heartbeat.