Sunday, August 22, 2010

Leh, India – The skies rained misery. Part Two.

Part Two. Death, decay and despair.

The district of Ladakh in Indian Kashmir is beautiful, simply beautiful. Kargil and Leh comprise Ladekh with a combined population of about 300,000 people spread over a very large mountainous area. The religious (mostly harmonious) divide is 52% (mostly Shiite) Muslims, 45% Buddhist and 3% others. Very much like the Hazaras of central Afghanistan, people of Ladakh share similar facial characters, both probable decedents of Mogul stock. The views of this entire region, especially from the air, never fail to take my breath away; this happens again as my flight, avoiding traitorous mountains tops, banks steep to make her adjustment for landing.

But there is murkiness that obscures this beauty this time; mud. I can see the destruction easily, tons of slimy mud that descended from surrounding mountains when clouds burst over this tourist town on the eve of August 6. Within minutes, most of this picturesque town was covered in smoldering goo of mud and water, killing at least 200 and leaving thousands homeless; 500 people are still reported missing.

I am met outside the airport terminal by Syed Rizwi and Ashraf Ali from Imamiya Mission and Imamiya Trust, both very active in relief efforts for the victims currently underway. It is still early, 8AM, the streets deserted and eerie. I smell rot and decay all around me as we drive to the hotel I will sleep the one night. And then there is the fine mountain dust from dried up mud, dust that is omnipresent, filling my already congested lungs and setting me up for allergies right away. The damage I see is devastating, unbelievable and bone numbing; I cannot even imagine the horror of it all as the disaster would have unfolded. Entire neighborhoods washed away, people, homes, building, cars; all picked up and washed away by the advancing mud, as if mere toys.

I refuse tea that my hosts insist; it is Ramadhan and they fast. We talk about relief efforts under way and how CAI can assist before embarking on a tour of the most affected areas. It is painful to see so much destruction, so much misery, so much despair. The Imamiya group is struggling to help families of 19 killed and 9 still missing; however, the biggest challenge is lost livelihood from inundated and wasted farmlands and washed away / destroyed homes that will have prolonged affect on the livelihood of so many more.

I meet 2 individuals; both named Hussein Ali, grieving by freshly marked graves at a remote village of Schuzbo in Phang, outside Leh. One Hussein Ali lost his wife and all 3 children and the other a wife and his only child. Both are grief stricken and inconsolable; I am unable to do anything but hold them, there is nothing I can say that will dull the pain anytime soon. The scenes are horrid with bridges, homes, land and roads that have simply disappeared in thin air. An Imambargah, wrecked, its concrete walls small stones and dust and twisted iron. The Sheikh, Gulam Hadi, a petite, frail man frets all the time. What will happen now? How will we complete Ramadhan? What about Muharram? We cannot rebuild here, we must move… He is however, astonished I have come to take stock and ask after them; cannot stop parting with duas for me; he makes it all, oh, so worthwhile.

This scene is repeated everywhere we visit that long hard day. My hosts insist I have some tea at least; we are welcomed into a home nearby and agonizing sweet tea served. As I try to drink the steaming, extra strong, sweet liquid away from the gaze of my fasting hosts, a mournful anguished wail from a grieving woman fills the air and I freeze. The sound is so painful that I leave the tea alone as men folk shush and kindly rebuke the source. The door is shut to block out the sound but I still cannot make myself drink the tea.

Late that night, spent and exhausted, I commit CAI to rebuild 5 completely lost homes and clean / repair 10 at the cost of about USD30k; I’ll think of ways coming up with funds from our magnificent and kindhearted donors. Later. Somehow. Insha’Allah.

Click here to see the devastations in Leh.

Blog concludes.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Leh, India – The skies rained misery. Part One.

Part One. Perhaps this is why Pakistan is in such a mess…?

Reports are pouring in about death, maim, unimaginable anguish and heartbreak for peoples of Pakistan and Leh, going through devastating flooding and mud slides that have cost so many lives and destroyed so much. Even though it is Ramadhan, I cannot sit still; as head of an organization dedicated to try and help in exactly such disasters, I am on the move; I make plans to fly to Leh via New Delhi (only possible air route), obtain a visa visa to Pakistan in the process. I call Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi; the person in charge of visas tells me if I can bring a letter from US Consulate in Mumbai (I am a US citizen), Pakistan High Commission will grant me the visa. Next day, I visit the US Consulate and they give me a generic letter stating there is no objection in me visiting Pakistan.

New Delhi is a mess, hot and sticky with traffic so messed up in preparation of the (un)Commonwealth Games now so much in disrepute, I feel the city will need genuine miracles for the games to commence. The Pakistan High Commission is about an hour from the airport and I reach it after some trouble; the rickshaw driver a little upset I don’t know the exact location. The place is heavily fortified and I reach the visa counter after having being carefully scrutinized by different sets of armed security men. I find myself to be the only one in line; a pleasant surprise. The widow that separates me from the person inside in similarly fortified with steel bars, the glass pane is one sided, I cannot see anything or anyone inside except the balding head of a person bent on reading something. Hello, I say in greeting; the bald head does not move. Hello!!! I shout a little too loudly. The bald head rises ever so slowly and a set of eyes regard me in irritation. Bolo, kya hai, says invisible lips for I cannot see anything except the man’s eyes; I feel very uncomfortable, feels I am talking to somebody in a neqaab. I explain my reasons for a visa and slide my passport and other papers through a slot to him; the head falls again and I am exposed to a barren pate once more.

The head stays down for a while and I seriously feel the guys fallen asleep when he pushes the papers back towards me and the eyes reappear. Sorry, I cannot grant you a visa. The letter from US Consulate is not specifically asking us to issue you a visa. I am stunned, unable to speak for quite a few seconds during which the head falls back again and I am exposed to white pink scalp once more. I swear, had that window been open, I would have slapped that thing silly; it would give me immense satisfaction. I protest verbally instead; loudly. Window Number One , says the bowed head and I am dismissed.

Feeling bruised and smarting from the insults and brush off, I go looking for Window Number One which turns out to be the main entrance for Consular Section. I explain my predicament to a more sympathetic male attendant who rings for somebody and I am met with assistant Consular Kamal. Kamal is an emaciated, well groomed polite young man, with a thin face and a wobbly Adams apple that seems to have a mind of its own. The man has very little to say; he mainly listens to me, takes my documents and advised me to call him in about three hours; he will discuss the merit of my case with the Consular and let me know. Ah, there is hope, so I return to the airport and check into a nearby hotel.

I call Kamal three hours later and I am told he is out of the office, call back. I call back five times; Kamal is either not in his seat or busy. I fret; he has my most important documents and being Ramadhan, the Commission offices close at three and I am flying out of Delhi very early tomorrow. When I finally get to him, he is abrupt, not so polite. You please go to the US and apply your visa from there; they happy to give you a visa, not possible from New Delhi. You are a US citizen, not Indian. Instinctively, I go on the defensive, but… but you guys promised, I am a US national but I live in India, I have given you my resident permit, I have come all the way from Mumbai for this, it makes no sense for me to fly all the way to the US just to get a visa…. There is a pause; I can just hear Kamal breathing at the end of the line; I am so mad I could just reach out and strangle that Adams apple that must be dancing away at the end of the line. After what seems to be an entirety, he speaks, You wait, commands Kamal, you talk to the Consul.

There are clicks and humming at the other end; I despair the line will be cut off. India, you see, has very good cell phone technology but woeful land lines, as stable as Kamals Adams apple. A commanding, crisp voice, not unlike an Englishman with a stiff upper lip identifies himself as Akram, and how can he help me. I try and stay calm and relate my predicament to Akram in a pleading, emotional manner, that I am CEO of CAI, residing lawfully in India, do a lot of humanitarian work in India, Afghanistan and elsewhere and wish to go to Pakistan and possibly help there. There is a pause while Akram, I guess, digests this data. Our discussion and demeanor is straight downhill from that point, with the conversation going something like this:

Akram: Well, I understand you want to help Pakistan, but I have no authority to issue you a visa.
Me: You are the Consul General; surely you do have the authority and can make an exception for the betterment of suffering Pakistanis. Please understand I am not a visitor to India, I LIVE here so I have the same rights to a visa an Indian national would have.
Akram: Really, so you want to teach me the rules of visa issuance by Pakistan, do you?
Me: Well, it makes no sense for a resident of India to travel to the US to obtain a visit visa for Pakistan. Does that make sense to you Sir? You are in your position because you have a good education and can make an informed, rational and wise decision. I am sure you will agree with me? I’ll tell you what, you issue me that visa, only 3 days visa and I’ll donate the USD2,000 it will cost me to travel to US to get the visa (It’ll cost me much more but since I am intrinsically a Wania, might as well try save some bucks) to the flood victims of Pakistan.
Akram, after a long pause: Well, that is very generous of you, but no, you will have to go to the USA and Pakistan will be happy to grant you a visa. I am sorry I can’t help you. I will have your documents waiting for you at the reception, please pick them up.
Me, with my blood pressure at unprecedented high levels: Can I appeal your decision? Is there anyone else that you report to that I can talk to, anyone else who can help me, who has the authority to grant me the visa?
Akram, with a mocking laugh in his voice: Not even Obama.

The line goes dead. Oh, I am so frustrated and disappointed, I could cry. I take a rickshaw to the High Commission with a heavy heart and my lungs filled with New Delhi motor vehicle fumes. The receptionist hands me my documents with a kind sympathetic expression on his face. I return to the hotel and wait for very early tomorrow for my flight to Leh. Ya Allah, I tried; I tried very, very hard.

Next stop Leh…to be continued.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Ye hai mera (H)India….

Sirsi UP, India, site of CAI sponsored school and orphanage:

Just as I decide to leave the relative comfort of the orphanage, it begins to pour. The school bus has no air-condition, so the windows must stay down or I risk being suffocated in the heat and humidity that is all powering this midday early August. So I get wet and wetter as the rain intensifies.

The distance between Sirsi and Samble, an administrative center of sorts, is only about 10 kilometers but the drive is a fight for space in the narrow tar-top that leads us there and school bus driver is as aggressive as any as we near my destination, the District Registrar of Moragabad. You see, I have to register a Power of Attorney given to Lozi, our school administrator, so that a piece of land I have purchased in Sirsi can be registered in my name without me having to come all the way from Mumbai during the month of Ramadhan. Simple little exercise, so I thought.

When we do get to the building that has the Registrar Office, there is no parking in the packed streets and it is raining profusely. Well, there is no choice so I bravely, but very carefully, run the 300 odd feet to get to the building. Discarded plastic bags and bottles, cigarette butts, tobacco paan sachets, a discarded used condom (eeekh, yes, that’s a condom all right!), wet and miserable stray dogs and a lone monkey, its behind red as a Washington apple greet me as I turn into a filthy narrow lane that leads to the Registrar’s office. A few steep steps up and a string of open stalls line the building, lawyer’s offices, perhaps 20 of them, eagerly wait for customers. They are full today, people seeking shelter from the downpour; I join them, frantically trying to shake water from my soaked clothes.

Lozi assures me all forms are ready, typed, checked and rechecked; we won’t have to wait too long - he is oh, so wrong. As I try to stay calm in the crowded lawyer’s “office”, amongst the dampness and smell of unwashed feet and untamed armpits. Lozi advises me the lawyer is seeking shelter elsewhere due to the rain, he should be back soon; my God, “soon” could mean an eternity in India. We wait for about 20 agonizing minutes in the dampness and smell, I slapping persistent flies away in irritation and anger while those around me watch me closely, probably wondering why I am so agitated; why, they don’t seem to mind the dampness and flies at all! When the lawyer does come, he folds his hands at everybody in respect and wants to give me priority but my file has disappeared in thin air! Another 10 minutes go by; the file is finally located on top of a support that holds up the office walls, an assistant felt that was the safest place against the rain. My signatures, 10 of them, are taken, I am fingerprinted and we are ready for registration.

We troupe up to the Registrar’s office, a dingy, airless, pan stained hall with a dingier smaller room inside where the Registrar sits, smoking. I am told to sit inside this room while we wait for the documents to be recorded. I enter into a cloud of cigarette smoke and a nasty stench of stale tobacco; a pair of eyes behind thick, heavy lens regard me cautiously. I do Namaste; the man wags his head through the cloud of smoke and finishes his cigarette, discarding the butt on the floor and stamping it dead. A garland portrait of Mahatma Gandhi sternly frowns down at us from the wall above the smokers head, perhaps not too happy with all the pollution.

In the hall, something is amiss; Lozi and the lawyer are frantically gesturing and arguing with the clerk about something. The stench in this office is nasty, so when another cigarette is lit and the man gets busy with new visitors, I escape to the hall and fresher air. Lozi has a pained, embarrassed expression on his face, explains the clerk has made a mistake and stamped a “wrong” page of the POA; will have to fix it. I go back down to get some fresh air; the rain has abated. Exactly opposite the entrance, atop the wall that fences the building, sits the monkey with the red behind, observing everybody and everything. It eyes me uncaringly, I look at it warily. Not wanting to be near an animal that is an expert and wily thief, I try to shoo it away. It is unmoved, stares at me defiant, mocking, as if laughing at me, then bares vicious looking fangs; I hurriedly retreat back up.

There is another argument developing between the lawyer, Lozi and the main Babu (clerk) about the amount of facilitation (bribe) I have to pay to get the POA registered. The Babu, seeing I am not “native” to UP, is asking double the amount, about USD26; Lozi is adamantly refusing; the lawyer agrees with both parties, depending on whose argument would benefit him. The Babu argues that he has expedited the POA matter, seeing I was a guest and that “seniors” above him want a bigger cut every time. He waves the thousand Rupee bill in the air and cries in agitation. See that man inside? He wants a bigger share. And his boss, and his boss’s boss, all the way to the top. How can I divide this thing so many ways?! Still, with a hurt, sour look on his face, he carefully folds the bill and adds it to several others in a memo book, then notes down my contribution below a long list of names in the log. Our job done, we leave the building, I leading in a hurry to get out of the suffocation I feel. The monkey is still there, observing everybody, everything.

I choose to return to Sirsi on Lozi’s motorbike so I can pass by and inspect the land I have purchased. I pled Lozi for some strong chai, so he stops at a grimy little restaurant along a busy intersection. Everything about the restaurant screams a warning for me to stay away. Outside the restaurant, atop a wooden crate, sits a samoosa maker, next to a skillet dark with boiling, bubbling grease full of samoosas that are scooped up by eager customers as fast as he can fry them. He sits cross legged, barefoot; one big fat dirty toe with an overgrown nail full of grime acts as an anchor to a pile of thin pastry pockets that he fills with a mixture of boiled potato mix and spices. He has not a care in the world at the unhygienic, appalling picture he paints and his customers either don’t care or are pathetically insensitive.

I want to drink some boiled tea, with all germs killed, I reason, so partake in the delicious brew. A mound of tiny boondhi, with flies and bees swarming all over it catch my eye and make my mouth water. I ask the guy to give me some from the middle core, hopefully untouched by the flies on top. The guy behind the pile looks at me strangely but complies so I enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. I have a month fasting coming up, the calories will take of themselves, no? Perhaps?