Sirsi, in Uttar Pradesh, India is about 160 miles east of New Delhi, which takes a whopping 7 hours drive to reach in one of the most bizarre traffic conditions in terms of bewilderment. Comfort Aid International has had the good fortune of building a fine boys orphanage, complete renovation of a rundown school and I have just concluded the purchase of a property that will house about 50 girl orphans here shortly insha’Allah. This will be CAI’s 5th orphanage in India (3 boys and 1 girl already up and running). It has been my Indian experience the gentler gender almost inevitably get the short end of fairness, be it education, marriage or orphan care. While there are several orphanages that cater towards boy orphans in India, girls get second hand management; thus this endeavor.
On this particular trip, reaching Sirsi is not so bad, other than inevitable traffic chaos in bumpy, beat up roads. The orphans, when we get there, are happy, excited to see us again, garland us with flowers, an honor so readily accepted in India but one that makes me acutely uncomfortable, still. Mosquitoes, my bitter nemesis, welcome us as well, hundereds of them, even happier than the kids; I take considerable pleasure in quashing them whenever the opportunity. So it is waving around, slapping and striking myself silly that occupy my stay outside the treated room where we sleep. Allah Himself must have thought my behavior peculiar in prayer at the neighborhood mosque later on that evening, dancing like Michael Jackson, trying to keep clouds of mosquitoes at bay.
Addicted to running almost every day, I take to an empty field outside the orphanage next day, running laps, the boys watch me as a novelty. Later, I visit several homes of very poor people that have requested a proper house. This is perhaps the most unpleasant, saddening and depressing part my role at CAI; the wretched conditions of homes, pathetically hopeful look on faces of applicants and the sheer will it takes me to be detached and impartial in making a final decision. Most of these poor families live in narrow winding roads so close to each other I can see clear a neighbor changing his kameez and smell, together with that of urine and shit, pungent onions, garlic and masalas being changed into curries. I watch a grandmother, perhaps, of a little girl carefully spread newspapers on the pavement immediately in front of an open air bakery and make her squat over it. The girl obediently defecates, is cleaned up. The grandmother carefully, neatly, folds the newspaper, and then unceremoniously discards it into an open sewer nearby. I approve 6 homes to be built, each costing about US$2,000, the maximum CAI budget from donors will allow.
Later on, I spend time with the boys and conclude the deal on the new orphanage late at night. Early next morning, I depart for New Delhi for my return flight to Mumbai. The first hour of drive is eventless but then we are stuck behind a traffic snarl that is miles long. There is chaos as every driver looks for a nook to cut the other off and gain a miniscule lead. Nobody moves on either direction and nobody knows why, the driver speculates a fiery crash of vehicles up ahead. We finally inch along only to halt once more on an extensive bridge spanning the Yamuna River. I watch a pack of red assed monkeys chatter excitedly, perhaps mocking our helplessness and taking great delight at it. When the traffic does move, it is pure selfish mad rush, absolutely no curtsey shown or extended, by anyone to anyone. After about an hour, we cover the length of the bridge, only to stop completely once more.
A massively potbellied cop rests his feet on a latchi alongside an encampment, watching on goings with a bored expression. He yawns wide, then decides to pick his nose, coming away with scant valuables. Instead, he empties a sachet of tobacco into his upturned mouth. His interest perks up when he sees a tractor trying to break through the chaos by driving up a steep pile of dirt by the side of the road, sensing an alternative way through the fields beyond maybe. The cop puckers thick lips and lets out a stream of red tobacco juice, raising a cloud of fine sand at his feet. Then moving swiftly, surprisingly for a man with a pregnant gut, walks up to the tractor, clambers over it and slaps the bewildered driver silly. The cop completes the punishment with a sharp cruel twist of a scarf on the driver’s neck, then, sweating from the workout, returns to the resting spot and resumes his latent position, wiping sweat from his face.
When the traffic eventually clears, we find absolutely no cause for the snarl; abruptly, the roads clears; the driver floors the gas pedal. We stop at Bismillah restaurant, an open air affair famous for her biryani and clouds of very annoying flies. I settle for tea and delicious, fresh baked naan to the background of ear splitting Bollywood songs. Something about a Munni being defamed and some mast, mast pair of eyes tormenting an admirer…