Smiles and smiles:
The first thing I notice upon landing at Colombo is that Sri Lankans like to smile. A lot. What a difference from India! You try smiling at Indians and they will probably frown upon you with wary suspicion. And if you happen to smile at some pretty lass, why, you’ll probably be arrested and booked for attempted rape by the police. I exaggerate, of course, but am not too far from the truth either. Sri Lankan’s seem, to me, a happy lot, from the immigration officer who tells me three days are not enough for a ‘holiday’, to the various policemen I encounter in the streets who nod and smile at me to the hotel staff who constantly grin their welcome.
I am here for a couple of days, auditing and inspecting CAI-sponsored projects for compliance purposes. The weather is hot and humid, as usual, making me sweat and be constantly on guard against dehydration. My host’s, the Zaveni’s of Al Zahra Association, visit me at the hotel with documents and the audit work proceeds quite painlessly. CAI donors have contributed funds for an English and math teacher for a poor community in Sri Lanka, helped with food and shelter to flood victims and sponsors milk and bread for over a hundred very poor and malnourished children who attend the English / math classes.
I visit the remote village of Ampaara, some 250 miles from Colombo, a journey that is supposed to take about six hours, but take almost nine. The roads are fairly smooth and well maintained. Even the narrowest and smallest of roads in Sri Lanka are paved; what a refreshing constant to countries like India, Bangladesh and other South Asian countries. The village, when we get there, is poor, yes and the flies that swarm all over me makes me dance a Michael Jackson number from the Thriller album, vainly trying to swat the nimble and sly pests away, with no results. But the seafood lunch the hosts serve us is out of this world. A blend of Sri Lankan spices mixed with Malaysian coconut curries influences. Feeling suddenly very hungry, I splurge. Burp. Most of the people in this part of the country are descendants of Malaysian Moors settled in Sri Lanka eons ago. CAI will help the villagers with six out of nine water wells desperately needed, so they will not have to lug water canisters for miles on end. The return to Colombo is painless; I sleep through the drive.
Blood and blood:
Dhaka in Bangladesh has a deserted look when I land here three days later, on Eid day. An empty city void of the usual droves of humanity, vehicles and all other forms of transportation feels eerie; giving me a feel of disquiet. The country has completely shut down and even emergency medical services are iffy for three days. There are no newspapers printed, no laundry service and no brown bread at the hotel. Because of Eid. Why, I make it from the airport to the hotel in the diplomatic enclave of Dhaka in twenty minutes, much less than half the usual time. The feeling of melancholy deepens with the strong smell of blood in the air. Most street corners are caked with congealed blood and skin of slaughtered sacrificial animals; cattle, goats or sheep, carcasses have been stripped bare and skin and skulls abandoned; droves of hungry crows gleefully feed on the sparse remains. I escape to my room in the almost completely empty hotel. The audit work for 200 poor students annual school fees and five poor homes CAI donors have helped finance in Bangladesh goes off after Eid lunch prepared by Sughra of Bangladesh Ladies Welfare Society. Again, the drive to their offices and back is creepily fast, the streets devoid of the mass of people; the blood and gore are everywhere however.
The next day, I visit three of the five homes CAI has financed. They are in a poorer area of Dhaka, so the streets are much narrower and crowds are back. The homes are at an end of a slum area; reminds me of Govendhi outside Mumbai instantly. Again, the air is thick and humid and the stink of blood is everywhere; I break out into a sweat instantly. The air is so putrid, I feel like gagging. A corner shop tethers a cute young calf waiting for her turn to be part of someone’s biryani. She nervously trembles and lets off a stream of piss to express her fear. I am wet with sweat in minutes, a stream of perspiration in my back make way from my soaked tee-shirt into my chuddies; a very awkward feeling indeed.
I am returning to Mumbai again tomorrow; I look forward to it. The quiet streets and the empty hotel make me feel even lonelier. I go for a walk down the road towards a small lake in the diplomatic cove. This area has the exclusive and super expensive residences. The disparity between the few haves and overwhelmingly poor Bangladeshis is stark here. An apartment in a decent looking building is available for lease, but to foreigners only, rent payable in US Dollars. The inside paved walkway around the lake is reserved for the residents of this area only while the outside dirt road is for the rest. I am wearing shorts and my Asics running shoes; the lounging guard springs to his feet as if struck by lightning, salutes me sharply and eagerly waves me through. It is a mini green forest around the lake, with tall canopy of trees, waterfalls and the ‘elite’ from various Embassies of the world trying to burn off excess fat. There are several local Bengalis as well, beautiful women in expensive but inappropriate saaris and their well-fed partners struggling to hold in their bellies. Tomorrow can’t come fast enough.
I eagerly fly out to Mumbai, where it the last day of Ganesha festivals. The city, throbbing with color-faced dancing crowds, ear-splitting fireworks, roll of crashing drums and snarled traffic await me. I feel at home.