Will missiles put rotis in our mouths? When my travels take me to Mumbai, India, which is often, I am royalty material. My encounter with immigration and customs is pleasant, courteous, brief. Being Platinum with The Leela, their driver picks me up in an airconditioned BMW and I am whisked up to my super-cooled room without delay or much paperwork fuss. A cool glass of coconut water, cookies and chocolates await me in the room. A readymade king size bed with a body-conforming mattress and soft pillows engulf me as I try and beat exhaustion or jetlag.
Yet, within walking minutes of the hotel is a slum settlement. I can see it as my flights descend or while taxing for take-off. It is here that I head to every time I get a chance; this slum area slaps me down to reality. I do it to humble myself and not get carried away with the many comforts afforded in my travels. So, after attending a wedding reception dinner of a friend’s daughter the day after arrival in my most recent trip, where over a thousand of us already well-fed guests all eat as if there is no tomorrow, I head out walking through the slums the next morning.
It is a warm April Sunday morning, so the streets are a bit subdued, else I would be struggling with lead pollution from clogged vehicles. It is early, the ones who partied last night are still working off their inebriation. But the women must work, cooking and cleaning, so they are out and about, lining to get their share of the days rationed water from the municipal supply. It is here that I meet 17-year-old Ravi, who is the water gatherer today since his step-mother is down with dengue.
It is usually the stepmom who has to spend a couple of hours every day to walk a couple of miles for their water needs that exceeds the city quota. There, she has to patiently wait under a blazing sun or pouring monsoon for the upper-caste folks to have their fill first. She cannot look at them nor cross their path, mind you. Ravi feels lucky his family has a home in the slums. At least he can trek to school where he is trying to graduate high school and hope to enroll for culinary classes in college so that he can become a chef at hotels like the Leela one day.
This, he says, is the only way he can take care of his many siblings that his dad has fathered from multiple partners. His own mother was murdered when his father tried to defend her chastity from a drunken upper-caste man bent on rape. Although the father prevailed that night, Ravi’s mother paid the ultimate price a few weeks later, her abused body dumped in a naala behind the slum. His father tried filling a police report, but a kindly cop told him not to waste both their times. The police would look into the matter if he could get conclusive proof; a job the police are paid to do. Ravi mourns his mother when he has the time to remember; the memory is fading since he was only nine when her body was reduced to ashes.
Since then, Ravi’s father has had many ‘wife’s’ and as many siblings. The ‘wife’s’, many mere transients looking for a better tomorrow, came and left after a few months of hardships, laying their burden. It was left to Ravi and his now nine-year-old step-sister to fend for. The current stepmom has stayed the longest and seems to be content with her situation. For now.
I spend almost an hour talking to Ravi since his story intrigues me. Seated by his shanty house, with the distinct odor of open sewer in the air and excited flies buzzing around the untouched hot cup of sweetened tea he makes me, we come around the topic of the current elections in India. I tell him I am impressed with how Mumbai has developed and India too, in general. How his country was able to shoot down a satellite in orbit using a missile, only the 4th country in the world with such credentials.
Ravi looks at me with a perplexed expression. Will missiles put rotis in our mouths? He asks. I am taken aback at his simple but profound question, and am at a loss for an answer. When I do not speak for a while, he has a mouthful for me.
I am lucky if we can eat a simple meal once a day. My life is so debased, this society so corrupted, it is hard to explain. We have no water, no clothes, no toilets, no justice. Yet we carry on and survive somehow. But I will overcome, I swear, I’ll overcome. I must. Otherwise, I’ll end up where my mother did. To hell with the elections. It is for the rich and powerful. They make the decisions, they make the money. Missiles, bah! Sab cxuxixe (expletive) saale.
I offer him Rupees 1,000 (about US$15) because I feel his pain; he steadfastly refuses. But I force him until he reluctantly accepts. I leave a very depressed person and have a miserable Sunday. Off to Gujarat tomorrow.
Tossed like a toy Kodinar, which is in Gujarat, surprisingly has few accessible schools for the financially challenged. CAI is building a school here and it is where I head the next day, accompanied by fellow CAI Trustee Abbas Jaffer from NY and Aliakber Ratansi of Al Imaan, someone I have worked with in India for the last 23 years. The sun bakes down on us as we inspect the construction of the school; its 106F and not peak summer yet. The construction is solid but lagging behind at least a couple of months. Our lead foreman, Mumtazbhai, suffered a heart attack and sadly passed away, throwing the schedule in disarray. The school will now open doors August 2019, insha’Allah.
The drive from Kodinar to Bhavnagar is 5 hours, the roads terrible. A night’s rest at Mohsin Dharamsi’s house and we head to Ahmadabad to catch a flight to New Delhi the next morning, another 4-hour drive. It is not an overstatement that I have easily flown over a million miles in my life. And I’ve had my share of aircraft turbulences, naturally. So, I am pretty much okay with the bumps that aircrafts must occasionally encounter. But this flight, Indigo 162 to Delhi is a doozie. The aircraft is caught in an unpredictable freak storm that tosses it like a toy and everybody else onboard, including the assuring but unconvincing pained looking stewardess and the terse pilot, look and sound worried. There is not a moment that the aircraft stabilizes and I’m unsure how we land, but we do. I learn the next day that the storm took the lives of 68 people on the ground.
Rattled by the turbulence and feeling woozy, it takes us 6 hours to get to Sirsi, UP, driving through undisciplined traffic no amount of money could tempt me to drive in. A day spent at Sirsi with our girls and boy orphans brings some relief before we drive to Halwana Sadaat, another 6 hours away.
We wash our bums with bottled water… Our early drive to Halwana Sadaat, at 5:45 is a classic, one reason why India is so endearing, to me. It has rained last night so the air is a bit cooler. The bad roads are made worse by abundant speed bumps, and unrestrained and diseased stray dogs and red-assed monkeys, many who copulate furiously as we speed by. They have deadly fangs and razor-sharp talons; I shudder to think what’ll happen if we have a sudden breakdown. And countless stray cows, abandoned by owners who cannot sell them for slaughter and are unable and or unwilling to feed them until death. Our drive passes through the poetic towns of Amroha, Nagwana Sadat, Noorpur, Bijnor, Meeratpur, Jarthawal, Muzaffarnagar, Sikanderpur, Gango…Halwana Sadat.
We pass villages where fields are miles of ripening wheat, sugarcane stalls and cloisters of mango trees pregnant with the fruit that’ll be ready for a gastric delight in a couple of months. At Muzaffarnagar, we stop for the world-famous biryani and haleem mix; yes, a breakfast delicacy served at a roadside dhaaba. It is the street grime, vehicle pollution and sweaty hands contaminating the mix which makes it so fiery tasty. Abbas Jaffer, with a typical sterile stomach of someone visiting from the West, and is going through the inevitable Delhi Belly, asks, for the umpteenth time if bottled water is used to prepare the treat. Aliakberbhai assures him the thoroughly cooked food is okay to eat.
At Halwana Sadaat village, just as we spot the striking school building amongst the fields of wheat, a muezzin starts the melodious call to zohr salaat, so we head for prayers. Walking through the fields, I can hear the relentless lyric of a koyal bird as I tread carefully around cow poop; heaps of the stuff is piled drying around, to be used for fuel later. It is a serene scene from an old Bollywood movie, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a hero/heroine dancing to a Bollywood song. We inspect the almost finished school and I am heartened at the work done so far; it’s going to be another fine school, classrooms filled with children full of learning cheer and masti. Alhamd’Allah.
Returning to Sirsi a couple of hours later, we stop at Muzzafernager once more, for their famous haleem.
Again? Moans Abbas. Is it made from bottled water?
The question must have peeved the usually unflappable Aliakberbhai.
Yes, he responds with a straight face, we do everything with bottled water in India, even wash our bums.
The answer puts a brief spanner to my appetite, only until the piping hot yellow lentil and meat-mix floating in ghee touches my tongue. Umh, heaven!