Saturday, January 31, 2015

Aamir Khan And Everything First Class

Cranky and groggy, I appear before the Etihad check-in counter at Mumbai International Airport at 2AM for my flight to Abu Dhabi, connecting to Dallas, TX. The middle-aged woman in a sari with a bulging midriff sharply draws breath through very white dentures and flashes them at me.
‘Sorry Sir, the flight is cancelled. Heavy fog in Abu Dhabi has closed the airport.’
I sober up real fast. Cancelled? Ya Allah!
‘Now just a minute, Ma’am,’ I start to argue... Vaapi! Nothing comes out of it except more sparkle from her teeth and a steady head wag. She cannot tell me when Etihad will be able to transport me back home but offer to put me up at a local hotel for the time being. I try to get a flight out of Mumbai all morning. Incredibly all flights, economy and business classes, in all airlines heading to the US via Europe are packed. I try for a seat via the Far East; same result. I am stuck! Not a bad thing actually, stuck in Mumbai, but I have a waiting daughter who starts school in a day.
After spending hours on the phone, Emirates comes through. They can upgrade a business class ticket to first class using my miles, the only cabin where seats are available; desperate, I grab the seat. Emirates may be pricey and arrogant at times, but you can’t beat their operational superiority in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Now, I have been upgraded to first class on Emirates before, but this one, on a brand new A380, is different. A treat, for sure.
An attractive Emirates stewardess, a brunette (from Bulgaria I later learn), flutters eyelids at me and escorts me to my seat, makes me comfortable and assures me she is at my service. My, my! When I return from visiting the washroom, there is a mini riot near the first row seat. Passengers and some cabin crew are crowded next to my seat, talking, giggling and clamoring for the attention of a passenger seated next to me, his face hidden from my view by the privacy partition. Probably some politician, I assume. I scowl at the crowd, hoping they’ll move, but my facial expressions seem far less important than my neighbor. Rumjana, the Bulgarian brunette, comes to my rescue and shoos away the crowds, who reluctantly leave, but not until their angry looks let me know what they think of me. I really do not care; I have over 23 hours of flying and stopover in Dubai and want to sleep, bas.
Alas, it is not to be. After takeoff, my neighbor accidently releases the privacy divider and reveals himself – Aamir Khan. Yup, him. The super-star of Bollywood. Seated right next to me. I do a double take and blink my eyes in (pleasant) surprise; he smiles.
‘Oh, it’s you,’ I say, ‘no wonder there was a hungama here.’
He laughs. He sounds exactly like he did in the 3 Idiots! He closes the divider between us and resumes watching laptop movies. Then come the crowds again, from business class as well, giggling teenagers, excited children and overdone grease-painted middle aged women; some men too, all wanting Aamir’s photograph. To his credit, the guy humors them all, excusing himself past me several times to walk to the gully and pose for mugs; I do not sleep.
Aamir Khan is big news in India and among the Asian diaspora in the West. All his recent movies have been sensible and family oriented, with a reasonable social message; blockbusters all. His most recent movie, PK, grossed the biggest intake in Bollywood history, an amount not to be sneezed at. I wish I could have talked to him, but being Aamir Khan has constraints on conversation with strangers. At Dubai immigration, crowds of fans eagerly eat him up, including immigration officers with silly smiles on their lips at the sight of the hero. We part ways with a simple goodbye wave from him.

Even the luxury of a first class Emirates A380 is lost on me at 2:30AM. I finally look forward to some sleep on the 13 plus hour flight from Dubai to New York. The stewardess, Anna, a Filipina this time, hovers over me like a moth near a candle, wanting to make sure I have everything I don’t need; I wave her away.
After a restful six-hour sleep, I wake up to the smell of food and Anna by my side, asking me if I had showered, or so I thought. Eh? What an odd question! Do I smell? Wondering if she had lost her mind and curtly wanting her buzz off, I realize she was asking me if I wanted to shower. Wow! I nodded sheepishly; that would be a first time experience.
The bathroom on an A380 is bigger than mine at home, with every conceivable bathroom amenity at my disposal, from soft fluffy towels to very pricey skin toners. Imagine, taking a hot shower at 39,000 feet in the air! What will they think of next? It is a treat nevertheless. My only anxiety is Anna insisting she stand right outside the door, just in case. When I tell her I do not need her there, that I know how to shower, she giggles, covering perfect set of teeth with her petite hand.
‘No Sir, I must be here, for you. Rules, you know?’ She giggles some more. ‘In case of turbulence or if cabin air decompresses.’
I am given forty minutes to complete the three S’s a man needs every morning for a successful, productive day.
‘Have a wonderful shower, Sir,’ singsongs Anna, then reminds me, with a serious look on her face. ‘Remember, I am right outside the door, just press the call button if you need anything.’
The remainder of the flight flies by with me splurging on a calorie busting prime beef rib eye steak and all the Godiva chocolates I can glutton, with Anna keeping a constant caregiving eye over me.

Money, money, money, it’s a rich mans world.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Taking A Break – Contrasting Bangladesh

I clear immigration at Dhaka airport and head towards the domestic airport, a short distance away. An armed policeman, a kid really, stops me and asks for my passport in Bangla; I give it to him. His face lights up.
Ah, American hay? He says in broken English. Very nice. Where are you headed?
Chittagong. Tourist.
Very nice. Chittagong very nice. You have baksheesh? For me? Only ten dollah?
No, I say firmly, I have no money.
The kids face clouds up. He looks around, pokes a finger in his nose, extracts a booger after a brief struggle, examines it intently for a moment and flicks it away; it lands on a nearby door of the transit divide. He turns his attention to me, blows stale breath my way and gives me a toothy grin.
No money? You tourist and no money?
I sigh, dig into my pocket and come up with a fifty Takka bill, about forty US cents, which I give him. The kid looks wounded and would have burst into tears but I snatch the passport from his hands and walk away, least he touch the passport with a polluted finger.

One of the perks for working for CAI is the opportunity to visit far-flung exotic gateways and this one is no exception. I have a few days to spare so I am headed to southeast Bangladesh for some R and R. I need the solitude and space to rejuvenate my sagging sprits in light of recent personal life turbulences.   

Bandarband, which literally means monkey forest even though I meet no monkeys there, is a tribal area some seventy-five miles from Chittagong, severely restricted by the authorities; only a lucky few get to visit, under constant surveillance. An acquaintance (lets call him Yakoob) with good connections has gotten me the permit and I look forward to three days of hiking, meeting remote people and trying different foods. 

Yakoob picks me up at Chittagong airport and fights the ghastly-polluted roads and traffic to his splendid house, where I am made comfortable for the evening; we depart for Bandarband after Jooma next day. Yakoob, I quickly realize, is a BIG businessman. I get a massive room to myself and am fed feasts that would make King Abdallah cringe in envy. Three very inquisitive dogs and two cats that roam about the house are my only fear but they leave me alone after Yakoob sternly reminds them to.

As a foreigner, I am made to register twice before actually entering Bandarband. It is a town nothing special to write home about; same grime and pollution, same chaos, same unruly traffic that honk until I worry I will go insane. It has become very chilly in the hills so a thick sweater comes handy.

There are eleven separate tribes, mostly Hindu, that make up the minority tribes in Banderband. A King, who speaks to the Muslim majority government to press for the tribe’s rights and complaints, unites them all. It is the King’s birthday so the authorities have relaxed the ban on alcohol consumption for three days. This is an annual event where throngs of people, majority poor and illiterate Muslims, gather at Banderband, get sloshed and have a huge party. The King receives his subjects bearing gifts of chicken, eggs or a maybe a pig, perhaps from the more affluent ones. We visit the gala event the first night but rowdy crowds and all the locally brewed booze on sale quickly put me off.

A local guy, Yakoob’s friend, takes us boating the next day, and keeps on chattering about how beautiful Bandarband is; I have yet to see much beauty. But it does get quite scenic once we leave the town behind. Two hours into the ride, the boat owner cuts the motor and we sit in complete quiet, save for the river and some birds making merry. Suddenly, a school of large fish takes flight for quite a distance; a truly amazing sight, one I have never before witnessed.

Barracudas, whispers the friend.

The greenery, solitude and pristine waters lull us into a trance broken only by fishermen rowing past us with their catch. Bangladesh gets abundant protein from seafood and you can this bounty in their meals; breakfast, lunch and dinner. We have our meals at a local very busy restaurant where the calorie-laden food is always fresh and wholesome.

It is the final day in Bandarband that makes the trip memorable. The drive to the top of the hills, to Nealgirri is breathtakingly beautiful, through winding roads and floating clouds. Every security post has advance notice of my arrival; wonder what the authorities are paranoid about? I get to hike through local villages and meet people who have yet to leave their villages - ever. The tribal people of Bangladesh are much fairer than the coastal populations and the women strikingly attractive. I see many young men with a bobtail on the front of their scalps; this signifies their bachelorhood; too bad I have lost my hair.

It is the fairer sex that proposes marriage in this culture and the man has to pay the asking price; two pigs (more if she is pretty), an adequate plot of land and absolutely no interference from his parents; they stay separately and she won’t even cook for them. The wife dominates the family and is very protective. The man must reward his wife with a silver belt every year of marriage; gold if he is affluent.

The air, scene and foliage are fabulous and breathtaking at places. The earth, like elsewhere in the country, is fertile and uncorrupted, with groves of banana, pineapple and papaya in abundance. The Hindus of these areas are carnivores so pigs are abundant in all villages.

Later that day, I am in conversation with the Governor of Bandarband who wants aid for an orphanage he is a patron of. He invites the young manageress of the orphanage to come by so I could meet her. Zaw Prue is a strikingly beautiful woman of about twenty-five. She comes by and does something that both shocks and revolts me. Taking off her shoes, she bends down and prostrates to the Governor, to Yakoob and then to me, her head touches my shoes. I leap up, my heart thumping and the hair of my arm all excited.

Bangladesh is, still, pretty much, a landowner’s fiefdom. These few control the wealth of the country and hold enormous sway over the poor, including such obeisance. Although Yakoob, red faced due to my reaction, explains this form of respect is normal in these areas, I am pretty unnerved by this drama.

This fact is reinforced my last day in Bangladesh. Yakoob takes me to see his 590-acre plantation back in Chittagong. It is massive, yes, rich in timber, a variety of fruits, bamboo, wildlife and rubber, all income producing. Squatters take care of the land, all in awe and subservient to Yakoob, the absolute master. At the bottom plateau of the land is a spectacular lake, ideal gateway from the throngs of people, pollution, traffic and commotion barely three miles away. The plantation is appraised at a cool US$65 million.

Talk of contrasts!

Click here for a few photos of my adventure.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Mullah Mchungu Rants

It seems Mullah Mchungu has had a turbulent childhood and adolescent. That upbringing, and the fact he is celebrating his seventy-eighth birthday today, has put him in an even grumpier mood than usual. He is in Sanford once more, on his biannual visit to see his only son and grandchildren, who he adores and daughter-in-law (DiL), whom he detests. The feeling, I bet, is mutual.
He comes calling home one crisp bright Florida day and immediately bellyaches about his DiL, even before he limps on his danda to my back porch.
That woman, he grumbles irritably, will give nobody any peace. Can you imagine, she would not drop me here earlier because she had to catch up on missed episodes of those ghastly serials due to Muharram. She gets up at ten, watches those accursed dramas and then does nothing all day long. Spoilt my birthday. Not that I have much to celebrate at seventy-eight. DiLs these days, Kisukaali, are a pain in the rear; spoilt, lazy and a ticking time bomb for their kids. Guess what, the idiot had her entire home painted with a cleanable coat that they simply wipe off when their kids write on them. Can you imagine? Instead of training the kids what is right and wrong, they pay two grand extra to have this paint finish. Looney, nai? I wonder what do they do when visiting other peoples homes.
I keep my trap firmly shut; there is no way I am going to comment on his family affairs. I make sure he is comfortable in an easy chair, make him tea the way he likes it, karaak, serve him some khari maani and I can see he is less edgy now. He has another cuppa tea and predictably lights up a stinky Indian beedi, clouding up my porch with smoke; I join him with my own rollup and we both sit in silence, enjoying the weather only Florida can offer in winter and take pleasure in destroying our lungs.
The Mullah is a mean, ill-tempered crabby old character, very set in his old-world paradigms and intolerant towards anyone who does not share his mostly controversial opinions. So why do I give him a share of my valuable time? Well, he is my elder for one and lifelong guidance from my parents has ingrained respect for elders. Moreover, I know I will be his age one day, if Allah grants me the privilege, so my juniors will hopefully grace with the same respect and courtesy? More importantly, the Mullah frequently, without malice, speaks his mind, and I kind of like that trait in people. His insight into harsh realities of life, whether I like it or not, stimulates my thought process and I begin thinking out of a box, so to speak. After I calm down, that is. Today is no exception, for he finishes his beedi, hacks like a gasping fish out of water, spits into my lawn, recovers and begins his tirade.
Hey Kisukaaliwhat’s with that peculiar smell at HIC? Smells like a horse’s ass in there as soon as I enter the place.
I immediately want to quip if he has ever been that close to the animal’s ass but control my tongue. The guy carries a hefty danda and is known to have occasionally used it detrimentally on humans.
Oh, I say casually instead, the carpets were waterlogged recently and management will change them for new ones once the comprehensive repair process is complete.
Ahem, you can get hemorrhoids breathing that air...
Again, I stay non-committal.
Tell me, what do you make of the Zaakirs who come and recite at HIC, especially in Muharram?
I startle visibly, and the Mullah allows himself a mirthless sneer.
They are okay, I guess, I say cautiously. They come for a purpose, for us to honor the memory of Imam Hussein (A) and to pay our respects to the holy progeny of the Prophet (S), for us to renew and strengthen our love...
I don’t think so, the Mullah cuts me off, flailing and flicking a hand in contemptuous dismissal.
So I shut up and regard him warily, hoping this is not going to be one of the long drawn lectures he is prone to give me.
I’ll tell you what they want us to do. They all want to stop us from using our Allah given brains, for us not to think. Perhaps not intentionally, but they do it nevertheless, they are a part of a group that consider themselves holier than thou. They think they are the only ones who love and honor the Ahlebeyt (A) and we are all pieces of yesterday’s kaka.
When I open my mouth to protest this accusation, the Mullah places a finger on his lips and gestures me to shush; I bristle.
Let me speak, young man, he says. You may learn a thing or two from this old fart.
Well, he just called me young and himself an old fart, so I recon we are even for being rude, so I do.
Let me prove my point; ninety-nine present of the Zaakirs do the following. Mullah holds up a finger. One. Defend Imam Ali (A), as if the Imam (A) needs defending. Another finger joins the first. Two. Lambast the Sunnis, make mockery of them or goad them with taunts. Have you read or heard of any of our Imams (S) ever doing that, Kisukaali? Two fingers become three. Criticize other Zaakirs or us for questioning cultural Azaadari practices. Now, we can discuss this topic until I turn blue from death.    
Why are they so defensive when it comes to the holy Imam (A)? Why defend? Why preach to the choir? I do not care an ant’s stinking ass what a Sunni or Christian or Jew or an atheist says about my Imam (A), good or bad. It suffices my belief that Imam Ali (A) is an Imam immediately after the Prophet (S), appointed through a divine order. Period. No ifs or buts about it. For heavens sake, Kisukaali, use your goddamn brains. If these Zaakirs constantly feel the need to come to the defense of Imam Ali (A)’s legitimacy, they are a sorry lot and I question their conviction about Imam Ali (A). It is only the guilty that feel a need to defend themselves. Constantly.
I stare at the old mam in astonishment. There are a lot of rebuttals that come to mind instantly but I keep mum.
As for taunting the Sunni’s and taking pleasure in badmouthing their Imam’s these Zaakirs are aces. Needless to say, they have given us Shias much pain and grief. Nothing more to say. As for Azaadari, Imam Hussein (A) is much more, much, much more than beating our chests, whipping with knives and slitting children’s foreheads; all barbaric, I say. The Imam (A) stood and died for truth and justice. Period. None of our Imams (A) beat themselves, used knives or hurt children as young as two weeks, like they do in India. Or Iraq, or whatever country that practice these rituals. These Zaakirs, some Uleemas also, say these acts are highly recommended, an act of sublime worship of Allah. Strangely, I never see them whip or cut themselves silly, ever. If it is highly recommended, why don’t you see them do it? Eh? They recite the majlis, come out, drink tea and you see them smoking in the baraaza. Bah! They should teach us to be good humans first, not to cheat, not even the government, not backbite, be charitable to all Allah’s creatures, never stand of injustice, help the oppressed. That is what Imam Hussein (A) lived and gave his life for.
Boy, these are serious statements. These words can bring about a death sentence. I tighten my lips even firmer. Then the Mulla’s facial expression relaxes and his tone changes considerably, becoming soft, earnest; it feels like he is almost pleading.
Don’t you see Kisukaali, maatam, or beating of our chest, is a symbol of our grief, in a gesture of pain for a loss. We can only do this when we are on sure footings, after we have truly strived and understood the Imam’s mission. Then, even one strike to the chest is enough for our redemption. This is what the Imam wants. What we do is purely cultural and culture has no place in Islam. We blindly follow what we found our forefathers did. The Quraan has a brilliant answer to Prophet Ibrahim (S) father when he used the exact same argument about worshipping idols.
The Mullah’s majlis goes on for a good hour but I have tuned him off. My life is precious.