Such Is Life
I must visit India and Bangladesh, to hell with the bloody Doodoo. It’s been over a year since I was there; compliance audits for CAI projects in both countries await me. I especially long to meet the 200 Rohingya orphans at their ramshackle camp outside Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, again. CAI donors have invested a lot for their wellbeing, especially ongoing education, amid unrelenting challenges from the COVID Doodoo and government bureaucracy.
This is easier wished than done. My options are Emirates/Qatar or Air Tanzania ‘bubble’ flights that only a select group (Indian nationals or OCI cardholders) can take advantage of. I book on Emirates but the Leela Hotel in Mumbai warns me that any guest flying via the Middle East will need to quarantine for 14 days, no exceptions. To hell with that. Emirates canceled. So, Air Tanzania is the only viable option, since it’s a direct ‘bubble’ flight and all I need to be let out into the city in Mumbai and stay in a hotel without shackles is a negative Doodoo test.
Air Tanzania service, even in the relatively new Dreamliner 787 aircraft reminds me of the care and attention I received in the aging and ailing Ariana Air of Afghanistan years ago. I’ve had better-tasting food with Mama Ntileye at the corner of Morogoro and Indira Gandhi Street in Dar. My caretaker stewardess, a stout, stern-looking and sounding middle-aged Mama speaking English in an awful accent tells me I cannot have potato fries on the side, and I don’t particularly care for yams offered with fish. We are at an impasse, her fiery eyes glaring at me behind bottle-thick eyeglasses, while I insist that I must have the liberty to choose as a business-class paying passenger. It is only when the purser intervenes that the matter resolves; he reprimands the Mama and I grudgingly get the potato fries and killer glares as dessert from her for the remainder of the flight.
The toilet seat in the washroom has fresh dark-yellow urine splattered on it and there is no hand-drying paper, only facial tissues that come apart at the hint of dampness. The entertainment system boasts of two movies, produced during the time of Nuh (a). One of them does not have a soundtrack. Thank Allah I can doze for a couple of hours. I should have flown economy in the more than half-empty flight? They get the same food we do in business class. The only reason I fly the six-hour flight in business is (perhaps) extra-precaution against the Doodoo.
It’s a no-hassle immigration/custom/COVID screening process and not a single hiccup at the airport in Mumbai – my paperwork is all in order. The Leela, after a bruising year being Doodoo-shut is operating at less than 50%, but it’s still a welcome refuge nevertheless. For me. It’s one hotel where every need of a weary traveler is taken care of; I don’t need to ask. Six of the former hotel workers that I knew from my past visits have succumbed, not to the Doodoo, but the stress from not working as the hotel remained locked down.
I find Mumbai unchanged except that everybody is mandated to wear a facemask; it’s the law here. Except for the stupid ones, the smokers, who inhale the already toxic air disregarding every Allah-bestowed logic or common sense. Beggars even, most of them, have some sort of protection – a rag, a tattered – probably discarded – mask, even a cutout water bottle. The fine for not wearing one is Rs.200 or US$2.75, so the rich and arrogant nincompoops flout the rule.
The beggars are different and resourceful. A hawaldar apprehends a beggar for not wearing one and threatens her with a day’s custody in jail. The vagabond eagerly agrees, urging the cop to please hurry up and take her to jail so she can eat. It’s almost lunchtime and she’s hungry. Another hawaldar, a newbie, still green and not so street-smart, makes the mistake of stopping a seasoned hijdra – transvestite – for the offense. The hijdra immediately creates a ruckus, offering instant entertainment to a large crowd that Indian streets can so easily and instantly produce.
Ayee, Bhoosrike, I have not Rs.20 on me and you ask for Rs.200? Aree, you have no shame?
She switches to Marathi curses. Before the cop can react, she raises glass-bangled arms over her sweaty wig and claps two successive curses, pulsating her hips in unison. I swear I can smell the body odor from the raised and severely stained armpits from where I stand, petrified.
Bhoosrike, she curses again, you want me to mask my mouth today, then what? She gestures and jabs at her groin. This tomorrow? She gathers her filthy saree between her thighs and jumps, bends over, thrusting her thin behind to the sky, and peeks at the seriously startled cop from between her legs. She pokes at her bum. Or this the day after? She straightens up and lets off a barrage of curses too colorful for me to pen here. The hawaladar, looking for a hurried retreat from the hooting and clapping crowd, tucks tail and beats it, joining other cops at a street corner who are equally enjoying the tamasha without, strangely, coming to the rescue of their colleague.
I’m hit with successive setbacks which leave me morose and edgy for the rest of my stay in Mumbai. Aliakberbhai (or RK for Raj Kapoor since he looks like the late Bollywood actor) has been taken to the hospital with water in his lungs. This is very worrisome, not only for CAI but many other NGO affairs he takes care of in India. He is the only person that I know who is worth more than his salt. Alhamd’Allah, Aliakberbhai recovers, and I meet him at his house before I leave India. He is feeling okay.
Updated Indian, Bangladeshi, and airline regulations will prevent my return to Mumbai from Dhaka if I go to visit the hapless Rohingyas. I must leave Bangladesh for a country that does not have severe COVID restrictions. I am so frustrated I can cry. I am resigned to cut my visit short. So, I complete the year-long pending compliance backlog for CAI India projects, wait for another bloody COVID result to come through, and head back to Dar es Salaam, this time on Emirates with a stop in Dubai. No unnecessary or inane isolation rules in Tanzania.
I get reports of a massive fire at Camp 8/9/10 in Cox’s Bazaar, where the 200 CAI-sponsored orphans live in ramshackle homes. The entire Camp 8 and 9 are burned down. I call Kausar Jamal and offer CAI’s donor resources for the poor souls, including food, water, and shelter. This is a colossal painful loss and I regress deeper into melancholy. When will these people get respite?
I am leaving in two days and want to shop for stuff I cannot get – or afford the inflated, imported prices – in Dar so I ask Sarfaraz, the driver/cum gofer to take me to a shopping mall in Bandra. The place is shockingly empty. Malls are usually packed in Mumbai. In the men’s department, a sales lady catches my eye as she’s suppressing a bored yawn. She’s by my side in a jiffy, wanting to sell me everything under the roof. I purchase the items I want and want to leave but she persists, offering to sell everything from pricy perfumes to flashy sunglasses. She is naggingly persistent; I wonder if her pay is commission-driven. I beckon her closer from where she’s showing me branded shades at a distance. Weary, she comes closer.
Come closer still, I command.
She looks around nervously but moves closer. So close I can see a few oily pimples on her otherwise pretty face.
Look into my eyes, I whisper, see how nice and pretty they are? Now, why would you ever want to cover them up with these ghastly sunglasses?
The poor girl takes a sharp intake of breath and steps back hurriedly, as if I’ve struck her. She looks me up, then down, as if seeing me for the first time. Finally, she slowly raises folded palms and bows in exaggerated surrender.
Such is life.
The views and opinions expressed in this Blog are entirely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of Comfort Aid International or her Trustees.