Aal Is Vel
It is in an aircraft 28,000 feet in the air that I find out a COVID-19 test is required to be allowed back to Mumbai from Kolkata tomorrow. The enlightened medical experts in the state of Maharashtra deem it necessary for ‘outsiders’ within India to have a piece of paper stating I am not struck by the doodoo, be it version alpha, delta, or omicron. Another opportunity for someone to view my nostril or throat, or both. Another $50 blown. Another hour spent in sheer frustration and ire. India, and the wide world I must add, are in confusion regarding the omicron doodoo, and nobody, I mean nobody, has any clue what, if anything, is to be done about it.
I am traveling to Matia Burg, perhaps one of the most congested places on earth, about 90 minutes outside Kolkata, West Bengal India. I can tell from the sour taste at the back of my throat that the air outside our rickety cab is polluted, even through the face mask I have on. The cab jerks forward, stops, and the driver cuts off the engine, only to restart in a few moments and jerk forward for a few yards once more. I suddenly feel nauseous.
Outside of Matia Burg, the streets are chock-o-blocked with automobiles, motorbikes, and people; I see none with a mask on. I suppose the doodoo is not interested in sweaty, harassed people on the move. At the corner of a four-way crossing, a chaat cart does brisk business with a continuous stream of customers stopping by for a snack of fiery saltines. The vendor mixes about five separate items of saltines and uses his fingers to rub the spices in, topping the snack off with a syrupy concoction of chili and tamarind sauce. I intently watch as he pauses, steps aside, and violently blows his nose, expunging a streaming blob of snot to the dirt floor below. He stoops and examines his prize for a few moments, wipes tainted fingers on the seat of his pants, and serves the next impatient customer with an apologetic smirk on his face and the wiggle of an Indian head-wag. Aal is vel.
As I near my destination, the crowds deepen, and the traffic snarls lengthen. I am told that it is with a snap of fingers and a few hundred dollars that I can make a rival or foe disappear in Matia Burg, no trace of the body no matter how hard anybody tries to look. My imagination fires up and I fantasize about a few people I’d like to make disappear with a snap of my fingers; I’ll increase my line of credit to finance the project, no issues. It’ll be worth the investment. I feel remarkedly better at the fantasy, and my nausea symptoms diminish significantly. There are small makeshift stores of every imaginable food or merchandise underneath the sky on both sides of the street and all of them are packed with milling customers, haggling, and arguing for a bargain. There are butchers selling beef (the only one of 2 states in India where eating, slaughtering, and trading of beef is permissible). There is mutton, live chicken, and pigeons. There are cheap plastic household items from China and soaps and perfumes and even a jewelry store manned by a bored armed guard.
At the entrance of the lane that’ll eventually lead to my destination, a new store has sprung up, one I have not seen (or perhaps noticed) before. It belongs to AA Khan; an Ayurveda urologist and he claims to be a sex expert. The sign outside his store claims that a 70-year-old can have the same vigor and drive as a 17-year-old if there is enough patience to his unique and novel system. Patience is certainly not one of my strong points, so I lose interest fasta-fasta.
Still further up, where I need to turn left to enter the final lane before I reach the building which will be home for a day, is a Hindu-owned slaughter store in a highly dense Muslim majority locale. The kasai, butcher, is a Muslim, of course, and he has been busy this morning. Five goat heads lay arranged in a neat row with their carcasses hanging on steel hooks above. The eyes from the heads stare at me in hatred as I pass by; I shudder and move along hurriedly. I find out why a few hours later when I am enjoying some fiery but succulent Bengali mutton curry and chapatti for lunch. The meat was purchased fresh from the store this very morning.
Twenty-one orphan boys greet me at the door of the orphanage that CAI donors have been sponsoring for the last sixteen years. I see many new faces; these have replaced older boys who have reached the age of eighteen and have left their secure home. I’m told many of the boys, adults now, have gotten married and are fathers. Good for them. This orphanage in Matia Burg is in a building that was constructed at least eighty-eight years ago. It was shut down for several years due to financial challenges, but CAI donors paid to renovate it in 2005 since the need for orphan care was dire then. It is a solid structure with cement walls eighteen inches thick. The orphans get all the care of a regular home and go to good schools nearby.
I’m here on a compliance visit to make sure the facility is in good shape and the boys are getting the good care and the education our donors pay for. I was last here almost five years ago due to conflicting priorities and CORONA doodoo issues. This facility is an ancient structure that needs upgrades to keep up with newer technology. I notice quite a few maintenance concerns that must be fixed as I inspect the facility, tailed by a 4-year-old orphan named Mohammed Abbas. He stays behind while the others attend school, and he is bored. The bathroom adjacent to the guestroom is so tiny, I must maneuver my body artfully to ensure the door shuts behind me. Mohammed Abbas attempts to navigate my laptop as I shut the bathroom door to a swarm of gleeful mosquitos who rise in welcome honor and feast on my behind as I do my business.
Two prior managers for the orphanage, Amjad and Tawqeed, wonderful men who put the care and welfare of these boys above theirs, perished during the last three years due to the accursed doodoo. Fortunately, we have John Fida, an ex-orphan, mature and responsible young man take over as the new manager. He is coached and supervised daily by Aliakber Ratansi of Al Imaan in Mumbai, so he is working out quite well.
The orphanage building was a stand-alone structure once with no development within half a kilometer in either direction. Ugly buildings hug the structure now as the city expands up. Trying to sleep later, I can hear someone from an adjoining apartment burp, clear a lumpy throat and eject. Several times before he is satiated. Then Rahat Fateh Ali Khan begins crooning the rendition of O Re Piya mournfully from someplace…
Both Aliakber and I get our throats scrapped by a swab for the unending doodoo test from a visiting stern-looking, no-nonsense lab technician. But the negative results are done in vain for we are not asked for them on arrival at Mumbai. I am about to go to war!
These twenty-one orphans in Kolkata form about 820 that CAI donors proudly support worldwide.