A Malabari Heartburn And A Monkey Problem

A Malabari Heartburn And A Monkey Problem

A Malabari Heartburn And A Monkey Problem 150 150 Comfort Aid International

I find myself in India once more, right amid a general election. This does not affect me so much, except the immigration officer in Mumbai wants me digitally fingerprinted; this has not happened before. It’s not a big deal, and I am out and speeding towards Mumbai, where Sarfaraz, the driver for Najafi House, promises me the best kheema pau in the world. In the densely packed streets of Dongri, after we abandon the vehicle and hop on a motorbike, dodge every creation of Allah on earth, we end at this dubious Malabari restaurant. Although I am starving, the stench of filth being cleared off nullahs in Dongri since it does not have a sewer system and rats the size of cats scurrying about old, dilapidated buildings dampens my appetite. The ‘restaurant’ is a hole-in-the-wall deal, where we end up sitting on wobbly chairs and laminated tables, equally rickety. It is hot and sticky this summer morning and will get much hotter as the day progresses. The busboy, Ilyaas (name an alias to protect his identity), a boy barely fifteen, comes, wipes the table with a damp, foul-smelling rag, and scurries away, leaving moist air with a whiff of rot. 

Sarfaraz senses my fear and smiles expansively. Bindaas rahoo Sirjee, he quips, don’t take tension; everything is A one here. 

I don’t know, and I debate whether it’s worth risking a Mumbai belly later. Still, hunger pains and the rapid turnover of sweating labor-class customers polishing off kheema and burji eggs fresh off the grill mopped up with greasy Malabari parathas give me some confidence that the food is cleansed of the vilest of germs and bacteria – I dig in. Although the food is quite yummy, I end up with a massive heartburn a few hours later. Burp. I stick to my hotel food the next two days and gorge on the soopa-honey-sweet hafooz mangoes. Summer fruits abound – mangoes, jamun, jackfruit, tar-Golla (ice-apple), melons, leeches…more burps.

Life is interesting, to me, because it is made of individuals with a story. These tales make humanity what it is – a mix of complex personalities with related desires and wants.  So I request a private meeting with Ilyaas, just because I’m curious. He meets me during his break the next day. He hails from Assam and claims he’s 18, the minimum legal age to work in India. He’s lying, of course, and doesn’t want to get his employer into trouble with the authorities; he’s probably 14/15/16. He leaves Assam because his family is poor, with a dead mother in a family of six, all vying for minimal resources his harassed father earns as a daily wage earner. Ilyaas earns about $100 a month working as a busboy for the Malabari restaurant from 5 AM to 3 PM, seven days a week. He remits about $60 of this money home, and the rest he uses for entertainment – chewing on nasty gudka and going to the movies. At least he’s being honest, barring red-stained teeth at me. I’m sure the scourge of gudka consumption will eventually destroy this nation. What will you do when you grow up? I ask, suddenly irritated. How will you support your family and children? Working as a busboy? Ilyaas shuffles his feet uncomfortably and fidgets with his underwear stuck up his behind. He makes a face, wags his head, inhales deeply, then exhales stale kheema-breath but does not respond. I give him about $10, which he reluctantly accepts, his worried face easing into a smile.

I have a couple of days to meet with Al Imaan Trustees, our legal team in India, for compliance issues before I fly to Delhi, accompanied by my 26-plus-year-dedicated guru and friend Aliakber Ratansi. We have scheduled visits to CAI-sponsored schools and orphanages in Uttar Pradesh – Sirsi, Phanderi, Sikanderpur, and Halwana. The flight is delayed over an hour while we steam aboard the aircraft, waiting, ruffling many passengers’ sweating feathers. After we eventually land at Delhi airport, which is mighty efficient, we are off to Dhorli for a school inspection; it’s about 104ºF outside.

Sirsi is about 5 hours away, where we arrive at midnight. It has cooled off a bit, thank Allah. Here, there is a CAI-constructed school that educates over 1,000 children from poor farming families, a girls and boys orphanage, and an expansive program for homeless poor widows and single mothers with children, all CAI-sponsored. This is CAI’s oldest worldwide project, over 23 years old. The project was dismal when CAI donors adopted it; it is now modern and comfortable. One of the available comforts is a Wi-Fi connection, 5G, no less. It works when we have power and when the resident monkeys are not up to mischief. There are hundreds of monkeys in and around Sirsi, and they are trouble-makers – intelligent, fearless, and agile. They sense they are protected and will not be harmed because people go to jail for assaulting Hanuman, the monkey God of Hindus in India. It’s the law. So, these monkeys take advantage of their immunity and get away with all the mischief in the book, from swiping food from people’s homes to gnawing through cable lines that provide internet data.

It is a perplexing problem for the residents of Sirsi. But it is pretty profitable for the forest department officials, who are the only authorized agency that can remove the animals – they charge $5 each. This can be an expensive prospect on a property with 50 to 100 monkeys, which is common, like our Sirsi digs. Some of these forest officials ensure they have a steady income. They haul the monkeys away to the nearest forested areas of Sirsi and release them. The animals gleefully make it back to Sirsi within a couple of days, grinning and gesturing contemptibly, mocking the shocked and frustrated residents.

After a day spent inspecting the school, orphanages, and homes and feasting on mangoes and other fruit, we are off on our road trip to other exciting and adventurous locations in rural India before we fly to Mumbai and I head to Dar es Salaam via Dubai.

Did you know that about 50,000 students have the opportunity to receive quality education at CAI-sponsored schools around the world, most in areas where there were no schools before?


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