Our world of over 7 billion people is a series of stories that, like it or not, connects us. All of us have a tale to tell; me, you, the garbage man emptying my trash onto the waste-truck outside, the stern yelling maulana who I have just finished listening to on YouTube telling me that whatever I do is not enough, that I must do more and more…. Pray more, give more, recite this and that dua, recite more Quraan, do this and that amaal, endless. Had this been a live lecture, I swear I would have stopped him and asked when do I sleep or earn an income or cook or eat or take a dump? Perhaps not. Our likes, dislikes, joys, sorrows, successes, setbacks, fears, fallibilities…, all intertwined to build up the feeling of empathy that binds us into a cohesive (most times) society. The Japanese call it Ikigai and it’s an interesting concept – the concept and meaning of life and how it relates to all of us. I like capturing such stories and Blogging about them. It connects me to my personal experiences and brings me down to earth, reassuring me that I am exactly the other person, with the same dreams and aspirations as the rest of us on Allah’s earth.
So, I’ll tell you the story of Fataakro, aptly named because of his fiery mezaaj – demeanor; and his appetite for blistering spicy kababs. Way back in 1996, when I was just beginning to get my feet wet in helping poor elementary students remain in school in the slums of Mumbai, India, I met Fataakro. I was in India researching material for my first novel. Mumbai, even then, was a hugely intimidating city, especially to newbies like me. I was alone, staying as a paying guest at an elderly cantankerous Goan widow’s sprawling house. Fataakro was, like me, intensely avid in helping the underprivileged slum kids go to and remain at school. He was, however, a man with a short fuse and could erupt into ire at any real or perceived affront. Although I was kinda intimidated by his fiery attitude, we clicked. So, after a hot bothersome day traversing Govendhi or Malad slums on the outskirts of Mumbai proper, we’d escape to the Lucky Restaurant in Bandra. Here, in the cool of humming air conditioners and wobbly ceiling fans that swirled so recklessly fast it made me endlessly terrified they’d come unhinged and chop off an unsuspecting innocent neck, we’d sit and consume some of the best mutton biryani on Allah’s earth then. I would afterward wash down all the biryani grease with probably the meanest hot cuppa chai in India. Because I was utterly stupid and uninformed then, I’d light up a cancer stick, like everybody else those days, when there were no or lax no-smoking policies or penalties. It was a heavenly feeling, a gut full of greasy rice, mutton, and masalas settling in with hot chai. Were it not for the chit-chat with Fataakro, I could have easily put my head down and took a heavenly nap.
The Lucky Restaurant (now modernly renovated and still doing roaring business) was a long way off from the grime and shit-gutter-stink of the slums where rampaging flies could make a grown man weep in agony. The diner was owned and run by a family whose ancestors migrated from Iran almost a hundred years ago. It was hugely popular with all sorts of audiences and constantly busy, with a waiting line, so if we occupied the table and chairs without constantly ordering something from the menu card, the owners would not be shy in letting us know we had overstayed our welcome and shoo us away. So, I got to drink three or four cups of chai (and smoke the same number of cancer sticks) while Fataakro would easily park an equal number of chilled bottles of Fanta in his rapidly expanding gut.
The Lucky Restaurant was, however, more famous for its maska-pav, a crusty freshly made breakfast bun topped with home churned maska, or butter. They sold tons of these for breakfast and the bakers at the rear suffocating kitchen struggled to satisfy endless orders starting at 5 AM, with customers streaming in from far distances. The maska-pav would cease production at 10 AM when the weary bakers headed home after an all-night intensive labor session. The eatery was also known for its eye-watering hot kababs. Minced beef (legal then), mixed with assorted masaalas, fresh garlic/ginger, onions, and gut-wrenching hot chilies, shaped into petite balls then deep-fried. I tried them once and occupied the shared squatting toilet the whole next day, much to the ire and disgust of my landlady. So, I avidly avoided them afterward but Fataakro, who seemed to have a stomach made of steel, could down a half dozen of them without so much of an eyeblink. It was no secret that the Lucky Restaurant was a gold mine, and the owners had to pay handsome haftas to the local mafia and hawaladars.
Fataakro was a seasoned social worker who had helped me rescue Sakina Rizvi and her brother Alireza from the gutters of Govendhi; proud success stories for CAI donors as these individuals, given the education opportunities, tore through poverty and prospered, lifting their family out of perpetual poverty cycles. But I digress, since this Blog is about Fataakro, not the Rizvi’s.
Fataakro was divorced from his first wife and paying child support for 2 kids, remarried to an earlier divorced woman with a readymade son. After a few chat sessions where he hid behind his combative guard, (he was about 10 years my senior), Fataakro opened up about his private life and family. According to Fataakro, his new wife, considerably younger to him, showered her son much more love and attention than to her new husband, a fact that made my friend’s already sizzling demeanor even more pronounced. He did not mind the readymade kid and accepted the fact that his young pretty wife had married him for financial security, and not necessarily for love or his looks. But he resented that all the attention and love he thought he had invested in after a painful, pricey divorce was not paying the eagerly anticipated dividends.
I was relatively young then, in my late 30’s and Fataakro’s candid revelations made me very uncomfortable. I heard him out, made appropriate sympathetic gestures, and did nothing else. One reason was that I was in the same teetering marital situation. Recently divorced, supporting 2 kids, warding off the ire of an ex-wife and the displeasure of my relatives for being reckless and mean. All justifiable. Maybe? It was uncanny how similar our past was and Fataakro’s new marriage experience left me queasy about my future spousal quest. What kept me close to him was our untiring quest for providing education opportunities for slum kids towards quality education.
I kept in touch with Fataakro off and on after I returned home to the US. His marital life did not improve and he relentlessly lamented and regretted his decision to remarry, claiming he never found a true soulmate. He was further troubled in later life when his firstborn son sought fame from the Bollywood industry in Mumbai. Although the son did find mediocre fame and fortune, it did not impress nor elate Fataakro. He was a stringent believer in an education that led to solid respectable professional careers, not inane TV or cinema comedy where his son worked as a side-kick. As a non-reformist Khoja, a stickler for discipline and actions that came from logic rather than heart pulling strings, Bollywood was akin to asthma to him. Poor guy, he passed away recently and I deeply rue that I did not keep more consistent contact with him.
I did find an Ikigai-like connection to Fataakro. Many of his pains, hopes, fears, and aspirations I shared and understood. I am fortunate to have met him and spent many otherwise lonely afternoons in a swarming city that can surprisingly otherwise overwhelm and drown the most optimistic of us.
So long, Fataakro. RIP.