I Gift You, My Dearest, An Onion Ring

I Gift You, My Dearest, An Onion Ring

I Gift You, My Dearest, An Onion Ring 150 150 Comfort Aid International
We are inseparable, India and I, I think. Why, I was here just six
weeks ago. I am back, thanks to an incompetent real estate agent who forgot to
take a signature in the presence of Land Registry last visit, an absolute must.
Well, I am here now, bemused at the ruckus created by skyrocketing onion
prices. This absolutely must ingredient in any Indian meal has the country in
comical frenzy, passionate subject of many discourses. With prices at five
times they were just a year ago, there is talk of incumbent government at grave
risk of losing the next general elections if prices don’t come down in a hurry.
It is joked poor suitors gift their fiancées engagement rings mounted by a
(dehydrated?) onion ring. 
Sarfaraz, driver with Al Imaan Foundation in Mumbai sits in a car under
main Andheri Bridge, desperately trying to reach a mechanic who can advise on
how to restart the stalled car. Volumes of cars and motorbikes scream around
him, making conversation with the repairman almost incomprehensible. A rude
rapping on the windscreen startles Sarfaraz, who looks up to see a stern
cop-face glaring at him.
‘Aree Saala, what do you think you are doing sitting in the middle of a
road talking on a cellphone? Move your car this instant and let me see your
Sarfaraz, who is up to his wits by now, suddenly jumps out of the car,
startling the potbellied cop, who registers a look of panic for a second.
‘Why don’t you move the car if you can?’ he shouts back, offering the wary
cop car keys. ‘Its broken down and I am trying to call a mechanic!’
Thus ensues a shouting match that Sarfaraz surprisingly wins, refusing
to pay a sliding bribe of Rs. 300/200/100/50 ($1=Rs.61). The drama ends with a
wishful look of lost opportunity from the cop, when onlookers help push the
vehicle to a safer place.
Sarfaraz drops Aliakberbhai and I at the airport early the next
morning; we are off to visit CAI refurbished and maintained Shia Boys Home at
Matia Burj just outside Kolkata. It is raining profusely at Kolkata airport
when we land, with long queues at the taxi booth. We are rudely advised no
taxis are available as the city is under water; Matia Burj is at least ninety
minutes drive away. Aliakberbhai’s contacts come in handy and a friend comes to
the rescue, dispatching an SUV that arrives an hour later. True, Kolkata city
is in knee-deep water and the ride to the orphanage becomes tedious and at
times, rather daunting. People wade in water everywhere; there is water in
every street level home and business. We pass several wedding mandaps, all
inundated with water; the poor couples must be ruing days when they ate
directly from the pot? Shabbir, the adept driver navigates through the mess and
delivers us safely outside the orphanage four hours later.
The Shia Boys Home at Matia Burj is off a horribly congested narrow
lane; a butcher proudly exhibits hanging carcasses of skinned goats, blood
still dripping from them. Several decapitated goat heads form a neat line on
the storefront, dead glaring eyes stare at me accusingly. Three live goats are
tethered nearby, huddled together, as if this show of solidarity is going to
save them from certain impending doom. The orphanage was built over a hundred
years ago. It resembles a mini fort, with thick concrete walls and Victorian
About thirty boy orphans from shockingly poor families call this place
home. Oh, what a rebound from pathetic conditions I first met them some nine
years ago, when wearing a pair of pants was a novel act for most of them. They
are now in the process of acquiring a well-rounded secular / Islamic education
in fine schools. They eat well-balanced meals three times a day, study, play,
watch TV, indulge in horseplay as children will and naturally dream of a future
life of dignity and wealth. CAI donors have / are doing their part in offering
them this opportunity; it is now up to them to seize it.
The boys are happy to see me, even though I have neglected them; this
visit is well over three years overdue. Aliakber and I review their progress
with staff and manager Amjaad, the orphan’s mother and father in every sense.
There are a few challenges of course, so we put in place possible solutions.
The place needs a serious scrub and paint job, a few minor repairs and a new
refrigerator; an implementation action plan is put in place.
We dine with the boys, who are in a relaxed mood, being Saturday night.
Next morning, after a sumptuous breakfast of fluffy hot poories, omelets, aloo
choole curry and fresh, artery clogging malaai, we go to distribute your
amaanat to the poor and destitute of Matia Burj.
All the poor and destitute live in cheap, drab apartment complexes put
together in a hurry for maximum investment returns. I cannot tell these
apartments, built so close to each other, are separate units. For example, I
clearly see and hear, from the orphanage guestroom, a plump woman chop onions and
fling the rinds from her kitchen window to the alley below and beautifully sing
along a Manna Dey song from a radio or TV. He died yesterday and all stations
overdo tributes to him thus.
We visit four families going through tough trying times; all in dire
need of some housing support, least they end up in the streets. Since these
families have teenage daughters, CAI decides to extend support by building them
inexpensive rooms on open corners of willing, unscrupulous apartment owner’s
properties. Highest cost US$1,000, maximum size of room 160 square feet,
housing a family of four. We also make arrangements to feed an invalid family
for one year and other charitable distributions. Donor’s sadeqa and
radde-mazaalim funds well spent, insha’Allah.
Visiting the poor and destitute is, for me, an upheaval of emotions I struggle
to control, even after all these years of repeated experiences. Walking through
narrow streets thronging of jostling humanity and energy, the perplexity of
senses hits me. First thing I smell is shit; from open sewer lines that run
along all structures. This is combined with various other odors; I smell the
aroma of frying pakooras and parathas sizzling in open tawwas. I smell
nauseating decay that emits from heaping piles of week old garbage now being
forked into filthy municipal trucks, I smell goats and cows and dogs and
unwashed human sweat, and body odor and cheap perfume from burqa clad women.
I see harassed faces hurrying to work or other errands, even this
Sunday. I see children play in the filth of alleyways, chasing after each
other, oblivious of ever-present flies. I see kids make a beelike at a bhel
poori vendor, to a cheap street goola vendor, eagerly sucking on colorful
sugary ice-lollies. I see flies that gleefully make merry on uncovered paratha dough,
waiting for its turn of agony on the sizzling tawwa.
The greatest damage of senses is to my eardrums; from constant honking of
cars, busses and motorbikes. The noise pollution makes conversing on the
streets impossible. It is only when I turn into narrower streets that talk becomes
possible. But teenagers, all boys, seem to be having a party of sorts. A computer
game room blasts Bollywood dance numbers to which few boys gyrate, angling
their thin bodies to seemingly impossible angles. The decibels are so loud, my
eardrums vibrate to the roll of drums from various speakers as the kids delight
in the music and various games on offer.
But I smell, see and hear something more powerful than all this – in
the people CAI donors try and help. I sense despair. The vacant look in eyes of
a man who works endless hours supporting four daughters but have no home for
them; all the money went into treating a dying wife. The daughters split into
pairs and sleep at relatives while the man makes do at a friend’s house. Or the
aged couple with six children, all teenage girls. The risteys come with a price
of dowry the parents can’t even dream of forking out. Or the destitute sister
whose body rocks with sobs as she relates her woes, sitting besides a severely
jaundiced brother in a tiny imambargagh, the only place they could find refuge.

The purpose of
writing this blurb is not a sadistic desire to depress. It would be the easiest
thing for me to channel donor funds through third party and the job would be
done, yes. It takes all faculties of senses, however, to actually feel the pain
of poverty and destitution. A widow’s grief, an orphans need, a homeless
parents hope for shelter, a teenage girl whose marriage hangs on a few hundred
dollars… These real life experiences are irreplaceable, nay, necessary to
bring me (us) down to earth from out lofty routines. It is my hope I am able to
bring alive some of these experiences for you, insha’Allah.

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