Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Hairy Affair

‘Hair,’ my marhoom friend Shafiq Allaina, who was blessed with thick, almost unmanageable mane of wiry hair once disclosed at a Banyani saloon in Tanga, Tanzania, ‘is everything. Without hair, a person is inadequate, almost like a man without manhood.’ The Hindu barber, with a pate as shiny as a simmering desert wasteland, nodded his head sagely, strangely; Shafiq was a generous tipper.This was when I was about sixteen, a very impressionable age, and this fact, from apparent experts, filled me with indescribable dread.

The hair on my crown, you see, was thin and fine, especially at the tips. Any attempt to grow it fashionably long and over the ears, like then Bollywood actors, make me look comical, at best. The locks above both ears had minds of their own, they changed course and ascended to the heavens in defiance of gravity, instead of coming down to earth. No matter what and how much I tried, these tips were hell bent to frustrate me. No matter I spent an inordinate time in front of the mirror taming them, using water, expensive, high-priced sprays (there were no fancy gels then), various (smelly) oils and even spit, my hair stayed rebellious. If there was one issue we siblings clashed about the most, it was my time spent in the bathroom, in front of the mirror, disciplining wayward scalp hair. So I stayed in fashion sidelines, forced to content with fine hair cut well above the ears. Jeetendra from Bollywood would have been most disappointed; his most ardent devotee not even able to match his hairstyle, let alone pursue maidens around rose shrubs in tight fitting white pants, white t-shirts and matching shoes.

At about age twenty-one, dread was replaced with terror, absolute panic; not only were my scalp hair disobedient, they started abandoning me. Not one or a couple here and there, no-no, this was exodus. They came away in clumps on my towel after a shower, they clouded the white bathroom sink when I combed standing over it, they lay glinting with mischief on my pillow when I got up in the morning and they dropped on to my shoulders unannounced; I began wearing dark shirts, much to Mama’s annoyance, ‘It’s not Muharram yet, you know, and I’m still alive!’ She’d quip. For me, it could have been many Muharrams put together; such was my anguish. I feared the worse - no girlfriends, no marriage prospects, people calling me baldie, or taklo, or worse. If the time I took in the bathrooms was lengthy before, it was now eternities.

I tried fighting back against nature; buying the most expensive shampoos available in markets, stood inverted on my head for hours on the advise of my gym guru, applied raw egg yolk before going to sleep, rubbed fresh lime juice on my scalp…alas, the hair kept a-falling. All this did was deplete my savings, give me frightening headaches, have Amina Bhabhi look at me suspiciously when she saw the soiled pillowcases and kept my young nieces and nephews a fair (odor-free) distance from me. I would not allow anyone near my scalp, touching was sacrilege, would invite instant and furious rebuke. I hated the wind outside so the windows of my car never left their closed position, much to Mama’s ire. The mirror, any mirror, many mirrors, became my constant buddies; I disappeared to washrooms and cursed the fallen fuzz I met but blessed and prayed for long(er) life for those that hung on.

When I proposed marriage to a maiden at a very tender age, she accepted, much to my shock and surprise; poor her, little did she know she would soon be forced to defend her future husband’s desolate scalp with couplets like ‘koon kehta hai mera aadmi ganja hai, chaand pe khabhi baal dekha hai…?’ I was much relieved however.

Marriage revived by hairy fortunes – somewhat. Much latter did I learn hormones and hereditary played an important role in my scalp’s fortunes. With pressure off and hormones under control, my hair fall steadied and even spurted back some, so I enjoyed few years of respite from the battle. But I was on always on guard, however.

Then came Rogaine and hope for men’s vanity, mine specially, brightened considerably. I smiled more readily (which made my boss and coworkers look at me oddly), sang in the shower (which made my ex-wife eye me with suspicion), walked with a spring in my step (which made others warily yield way) and kept all windows in my car open in Minnesota winter (which almost gave my ex-wife a scary pneumonia, sinuses that she still may very well be suffering from). This euphoria lasted until an exasperated dermatologist looked at me in the eye and told me to stop being a fool, wasting money and dabbing into the unknown. He assured me my scalp and remaining hair were fine and opined that although Rogaine did help (some) men re-grow (some) hair, it also worked wholeheartedly in wholesome growth of hair on shoulders, the back, ears and buttocks as well. I swallowed hard, painfully, felt the floor spin and open up, swallowing last hopes of saving my hair.

It took hairdresser Maria, a divorced Hispanic mother-of-two from Austin TX, to finally install confidence in me. She was reasonably priced (you will not believe the money people pay for a haircut in Austin), very good, quiet attractive and worked a fair distance away, but both my nephew Sibtain and I patronized her. She would trim my hair short, the military way and then admire her labor lovingly. She once remarked I had a perfectly shaped head, which made me blush silly but when Sibtain revealed I was single and she made known her interest in dating me, why, I giddily floated in fluffy clouds. Wow, if an attractive gal like Maria was interested in me, who cared about an ever-expanding barren scalp?

Maria lost interest fast-fast when she found out alcohol was not part of my lifestyle and temporary marriages were not part of hers. ‘Santo hijo de MarĂ­a!’ she exclaimed, ‘even if I were to agree marrying you temporarily, I would have to be sloshed as hell…sober men are so very boooooring!’

After all this, it is now fashionable to sport a shaven scalp, ha!

I wish you lots of ready, happy laughter for 2012.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Baby Sultana's Eyes - The Aftermath

I seem to have kicked up a Minnesota style blizzard regarding my latest Blog - Baby Sultana's Eyes. Some people, mostly 'family members' imply, no, accuse me of fabricating a fairy tale, ha! Some say I used 'unpalatable' words like prostitute and brothel while others opine my description of (possible) Sultana's beauty excessively vivid. A lot more (enlightened and selective perhaps?) readers emailed compliments for a blog par excellence, not only for my writing style alhamd'Allah, but also, more importantly, portraying stark realities of life, especially concerning women of India. Regarding Baby Sultana's Eyes, strangely, the critics overlook my core message; a pitiable, seemingly impossible life saved, liberated, a lost soul returned to Lord’s worship, a budding life salvaged.

The story of Baby Sultana is absolute fact, like all subjects I cover in my Blogs; for imaginative inventions, I (try to) write fiction. Yes, I use vivid descriptions, only because the reader can image and taste events as experienced. If Zulaikha was a prostitute, what else can I write, she was not one? If she worked in a brothel, well, that is fact. If I found her face kind of familiar and exceedingly beautiful, it would be very silly and peculiar to describe her ordinary or otherwise, yes?

Now, I can choose to stay quiet and keep such memories and experiences to myself or write about mundane issues that 'censor' realities and this, perhaps, would make everybody happily hunky-dory. Alas, this is not my cup of tea, not my preferred nature. I write, and will continue writing insha'Allah, any and all subjects I believe makes life interesting, especially about people that have made an important impact, positive or otherwise, to my life. Just like my trip reports, I cover all (three) sides of a coin, the good, the bad and evil; of countries and mankind. This motivates, I believe, how we (can) play our part, however little or much.

I sincerely request all you who find my blogs unsavory to please use the "DELETE" button - liberally; I will most certainly be offended, not! Just spare me grief and (especially) do not question my right (or style) to write. Poa basi.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Baby Sultana’s Eyes - Final


I encourage her to leave the brothel, but she is scared of Khaala and the consequences; Zulaikha might have her face disfigured by acid by Khaala’s goons. I accompany her to a local but foreign affiliated and funded NGO for battered women who refuse help initially, but quickly change their minds when I assert myself and firmly tell them I will make it my business to propagate their existing attitude on my return to the US. Zulaikha gets shelter, few (used) clothes and one hot meal a day.

I see Zulaikha very frequently, at the spot in Chopatty Beach, for meals at restaurants and at my place in Bandra. Mrs. D’Souza goes berserk with surprise, consternation, disgust and ‘I did not think you were like this’ comments. Arguments follow, some heated, but I prevail in the end when I threaten to leave and demand return of prepaid rent and deposit. She relents then, but insists I keep my bedroom door open all times Zulaikha visits. I give Zulaikha (some) money with which she keeps her paan habit alive, warning her no further support if there is any ganja involved. I also visit the smelly, crowded and filthy alley at Grant Road where her life as a prostitute played out but cannot muster the courage to actually enter the building.

Zulaikha expands dramatically, rapidly, from a slim, trim girl to a chubby, plump woman with a healthy glow that all expectant mothers develop. Alarming is her vivacious appetite for food; she wolves down everything in sight and more, leaving my wallet uncomfortably thin. With no occupation, her presence at Mrs. D’Souza’s residence is by nine in the morning, sometimes even before I return from my morning run. She declares I am nuts I run, is wowed by my sweat-soaked attire; this concept is alien to her and suggests the spent energy would be better served pursuing other activities instead. Her early arrivals cause considerable disquiet for Mrs. D’Souza, who grumbles nonstop but still serves Zulaikha butter tea with cookies and freely dispenses advise on healthy pregnancy and childbirth.

I finish my book research by March 1995 and get ready to return home to US. I break this news to Zulaikha who takes it quite dramatically; she disappears. When she does not show up for three days, prompting a protest from Mrs. D’Souza even, I go look for her, rather concerned. She is neither at the shelter nor at the brothel; I ask a prostitute a street away from the building. Looking me up and down, lips revealing stained red teeth, she huskily tells me ‘She disappeared few weeks ago, maybe she has a aadmi, her child’s father? She’s expecting, you know? I’m available Hero, nothing in here.’ She pats her stomach, indicating a flat gut; I shudder and make a hasty retreat, with her cursing in Marathi at my rapidly receding back.

I find Zulaikha exactly where we first met, sitting on the bench at an almost empty beach. Her mouth is full of paan and a glazed look tells me she is high on ganja. As gently as I can, for I am not a very tolerant person to stupidity, try and explain all the horrible effects ganja can have on her child. I assure her I will be in touch from Texas, will help her pay the very subsidized nursing home bill where the NGO has registered her baby’s delivery and also help with money for the baby once born. ‘But what about the baby, Sahib, where will I keep her? What will become of her, growing up at a brothel where I will return after you leave? Why can’t you adopt her and take her with you to Amrika if you don’t want me. I will eek out an existence here, but not my baby. Please Sahib, marry me, I will make you the happiest man on earth, I know how to please a man, what makes them happy. Please Sahib…’ My heart hurts.

It takes me all day to calm Zulaikha down, this girl-child with whom I have so bonded and grown much fond of. I insist she return home to Muzafferpur, which is the only viable solution, an option she has steadfastly before rejected. I very firmly insist return to any brothel is not a choice, under any circumstance. It takes a while, a whole week, but she finally relents. However, she makes me swear on the Quraan she sometimes sees me reciting, that I would return to see her baby, and I concede. She says she will name the baby, if a girl, Sultana, after my long-lost first-born; claims she loves the name and as gratitude and love for her Sahib - me. In return, I make her promise she will begin reciting regular prayers, so she prays sometimes in my presence, a nervous, shy beginning but more assured as her Mama day draws near. Baby Sultana is born a preemie, arriving five weeks early, on May fifth, but healthy, thank Allah. Mrs. D’Souza agrees to keep mum and baby for three month after delivery, only if I pay her the usual rent; I accept.

I return about three months later, in June, when Mumbai is oppressively hot and humid, heralding the coming of monsoon rains. Zulaikha frets on the phone before I arrive, saying she is not convinced I will return, complains she does not want to travel with the baby during the rains and train tickets are hard to come by, so please hurry up. My first sight of Baby Sultana is a heart tug, especially when she clasps her tiny, delicate fingers to my finger and doesn’t let go. But a blast of shock is when she opens her eyes and looks at me; the hair on my hands leap erect, my heart palpitates. Cat eyes, a copy of her Mama!

I meet Zulaikha and Baby Sultana twice again, on my regular visits to India, in Mumbai; they take a train all the way from Muzafferpur. Zulaikha stiches clothes for a living from a sewing machine I purchase for her; she reconciles and lives with her now widowed father and married brother; both younger sisters are married. She has kicked her ganja habit, she tells me, but still indulges in homemade paan, baring red stained teeth and tongue as evidence. Baby Sultana is two when I last meet her, a replica of her Mama, babbling non-stop, coyly warming up to me when I shower her with gifts from the US. When I tell Zulaikha of my pending marriage in July of 1998, I notice hurt and sadness in her eyes. ‘Now you will forget about us Sahib, your wife will consume your life from now on.’ When I protest, she quips in defiance ‘Bah! I know…I am a woman. But don’t you worry; there are men who want to marry me as well…I have several rishteys pending. Perhaps I will accept one…’

The girl disengages our eye-talk and moves to sit next to the Arab man who pauses in his squabble with the Filipino salesgirls. He looks at the girl, I imagine, with love and tenderness, and then does something quite alien to his custom and culture. Very briefly, but assuredly, he reaches around and grasps the girl’s shoulders, whose face is expressionless still and addresses the Filipinos, ‘Show something nice for my wife, something very beautiful…’ The man glances at the (apparent) older wife, who has paused in her destruction of merchandise to glare at him. As if touched by live wire, the man let go his grip and gently, lovingly, whispers something in younger wife’s ear, who continues being expressionless, then resumes his tirade against the Filipinos.

I still stare at the girl, heart thumping and desperately hope she will engage in eye-talk once again; with all my heart, I force her to look at me, but I am to be disappointed. I leave, but with a heavy heart and worried, tangled thoughts. Can it be possible? Is it her? So young, not even sixteen, married to an already married, half-dead, apparently wealthy, stingy buffoon? Can it? Those exclusive eyes, are they Baby Sultana’s? Zulaikha’s Baby Sultana...?


Baby Sultana’s Eyes - Part One

In Dubai recently, at Emirates Mall, browsing for nothing in particular, I notice an Arab family of five, with a nervous maid (Indian, Sri Lankan?) in tow at a department store. Why? The scent. And racket. The whiff of exotic oud coming from this group is overwhelming, but peculiarly, alluring as well, so I linger close to them. The father, an overweight man with a budging belly and a hooked nose, harshly discusses prices of purses and shoes and clothes and designer sunglasses with a couple of harassed Filipino salesgirls, who clearly show sings of fatigue. He gestures wildly, making the worry beads on his fingers crackle and jerk wildly, as if they, too, share his temperament. The salesgirls warily keep on stating prices are non-negotiable, but this fact makes no impact on the man, as he persists with negotiating a lower price.

The obvious wife, a short squat woman covered in black except for face, sits on a chair and rummages through boxes and wrapping without care or courtesy, discarding them and demanding more. Two daughters, very much replicas of their mother, except with gold and diamond jewelry flashing on their fingers, matching glitter on their abaayas, join in gleefully, jabbering in union so I am unable to tell who is listening to whom. A boy, apparently the son, almost dad’s duplicate, as obese, remains aloof, lost to the cellphone world, either texting or gaming, I cannot tell. The maid hovers in the background, ignored. It is, however, the third girl in the group that stands out and grabs my attention.

This girl is exquisite, lean and with a face that makes me stare. She is veiled in beauty and silence, watching the others with measured reserve. I doubt she is from the same family, but could be wrong, certainly don’t look Arab. Blatantly, I admire her demure, lowered eyes, delicate jawline, soft tilted nose and the full curve of firm, fresh lips. Unlike the other two girls, she is almost devoid of makeup, save a trace of lipstick on her full lips. Elusively, the face looks kind of familiar.

I know I should move on, not gawk, but the girl’s fascinating face consumes my attention. Then this girl, she must sense me staring at her, for her attention shifts and dismissively glances my way and away. I am about to rouse from my trance when her eyes suddenly revert my way and we lock eyes. It must not be for longer than three seconds, at most, but feels like an eternity that we speak of I know not. My heart skips a beat and then accelerates; I feel my breathing quicken. These eyes, I have seen them somewhere. My mind immediately processes stored data and retrieves a similar set of eyes. The eyes that briefly, intensely, warmed my heart, from a very long time ago, the eyes of baby Sultana…

Way back in December 1994, when I am in Bombay (then, Mumbai now) researching for my first novel, I chance upon meeting a girl-child on Chopatty Beach off Marine Drive. I have spent an entire day at Central Library, so my mind is full of ideas that need processing and ponder. I therefore decide on a nice long walk, with fresh cool(er) winter sea breeze to give me just that, before putting my life to peril on the Western Railway Line to Bandra, where I live as a paying guest at a kind hearted, albeit grumpy Goan widow, Mrs. Maria D’Souza’s house. It is a pleasant evening, the weather comfortable and the brisk ocean breeze feels good on my face and (then) hair.

Although a weekday, there is plenty of activity all along Marine Drive; middle aged men jog, desperately tying to rid disposable guts, housewives doing the same for hips and thighs, walking but complaining as well, about wayward children, ever increasing price of tomatoes, shocking developments of favorite serial drama, elderly men reading newspapers or worrying about retirement stock market portfolio and couples chancing upon opportunities for intimacy. The ocean growls, swells and crash at the restraining walls, as if venting anger at being stopped in her high tide march. The vendors; chaiwallas, maikaiwallahs, maalishwallahs, madafuwallahs and the beggars, all look up hopefully as I near them, only to divert their hopes to someone else as I walk unseeingly by.

It is almost twilight when I reach Chopatty Beach, which is packed with crowds out to enjoy the mild weather. The evening rush hour traffic jerks forward, stops, jerks, stops; BEST busses ply by spluttering dark toxic fumes. The roads, however, belong to motorbikes, young men with wives or girlfriends plastered to their backs, zoom in and out of the serpentine queue, making headway with every nook and space that open up. I am about to hail a cab to Victoria Station (now renamed a mouthful Chakrapathy Shivaji Station) when I notice a young girl sitting on a caste-off wooden crate, sobbing. She is clearly in distress, her head lowered on her laps and the back rocking in convulsion of grief; I, and others, hesitate for few moments before moving on. One half of my conscience tells me to return and ask if she needs help but the other half cautions otherwise. I retrace my steps and find her sitting up, staring at the distant water with puffed up, watery eyes.

She is no more than eighteen, very pale, much paler than any Bombaite I see, wearing a mismatched faded salwar-kurti. Before I can say anything, she glances at me, averts her face and says, ‘Phooto loafer, I am not for sale.’ I am so stunned and hurt, I am unable to speak, but glare at her for a moment before abruptly turning and walking away. I am so mad (and sorry) at myself, standing on a curb trying to flag down non-vacant cabs that I don’t notice her by my side, talking to me.

‘Maaf karo Sahib, I was rude to you; so sorry. You look to be a decent man and I should not have said what I did. I am very upset, I have had very trying few weeks.’

I am so mad, I want to lash out at her, give her an earful but before I can open my mouth, I see tears in her eyes and my anger evaporates. These eyes, they are different. I am used to black eyes that all Indians have; hers are almost colorless, like cat eyes, and it gives me an uncanny feeling looking at them. Warily fascinated, I ask her the reason for the tears and she tells me.

Zulaikha Bahadoor is a prostitute, and eight weeks pregnant. She tells me this as we sit side by side on a cement bench on Chopatty Beach, facing a robust high tide of the Indian Ocean, eating roasted peanuts and drinking hot chai. She is from the state of Bihar, brought to Bombay by her cousin brother who promises her a sewing job, something Zulaikha is quite good at, at a garment factory. Mired in poverty, with her father desperately trying to raise enough dowry to get the eldest daughter in the family married, Zulaikha is easily lured away; the promised five thousand rupees a month is a lot of money, enough for her family to live comfortably and her mother treated for crippling arthritis that ails her.

They take a crowded train, Zulaikha tells me, from her village in Muzafferpur to Mumbai, which takes almost two days. Once in Mumbai, the cousin takes her for a ride in a black taxi to an isolated place two hours away. There, outside a row of rotting warehouses, she is traded to a group of men who take her in and rape her. They do things to her she cannot tell me, and hurt her in ways she never knew possible. After some time, she does not care what they do, as long as the hurting stops. A few days later, when the ‘animals’ tire of her, she is brought to the red light district near Grant Road where she is sold again and put to work servicing men; drunk, smelly and uncouth men who use her body. There are a few exceptions, gentlemen who treat her tenderly and tip her over and above what is paid to Khaala. This extra money makes it possible to indulge in paan, mixed with a dab of cheap ganja supplied by Rafeek, a local pimp and pusher. The paan eases the taste of filth that customers’ leave on her tongue and the ganja eases the torment of memories; that of her village, ailing mum and family.

She is crying, she says, because she is very desperate, has run out of paan-ganja money and the craving is intense. About ten days ago, she feels dizzy and throws up poori-bhaaji immediately after breakfast, right in front of other eating sex-workers, under the ever-watchful eyes of Khaala, who promptly whisks her away to a shoddy lady doctor who pronounces her very pregnant. When Khaala insists on an abortion and Zulaikha refuses, Khaala slaps her, swears she will not feed another mouth for free and stops Zulaikha from taking on any customers. Although this is a great relief, the paan-ganja stops as well. When she begs Rafeek for some as loan, he demands her body in repayment, something Zulaikha finds loathsome but says she might succumb to if there are no alternatives.

Once again, the two sides of my conscience debate, giving me conflicting advise. Zulaikha has obviously, cleverly, caught on to my vulnerable side and she exploits this, with life tragedies and tender pleas. Alone in Mumbai, recently divorced, with solitary research and writing only to occupy my time, I swallow hungrily, bait, hook, line and sinker. Although I am awfully tempted, and Zulaikha very willing, I am never intimate with her, prompting her to accusingly question my manhood. I give her my reasons, but these are neither relevant nor important to this saga.

To be continued...