One sure way to experience the pain of abject poverty is to be in Sirsi, Uttar Pradesh, India in January. Sirsi is so removed from modern urban India, the ancient and overloaded power gridline works as efficiently as the national airline of India. The persistent power fluctuations make any heating appliance at the risk of constant breakdowns. The two days I spend as part of CAI project requirements are miserable. Not only is the cold biting, a perpetual thick fog blanket the entire place, but the highly polluted air in and around me also goes nowhere, polluting my lungs with the equal effect of smoking enough cigarettes to rival that of what Marhoom Yul Brynner smoked in his good days. That’s plenty. The only saving grace is that I outdo myself skipping away since I cannot go and run outside without sure injury or death; I complete 5,250 skips both days, a new personal record! Say Masha’Allah?
I am constantly at pain to observe the poor in the village wrapped in dirty shawls, shivering the cold away. Even our young orphans, with plenty of warm clothes, struggle for fajr salaat or preparing for the school near zero Celsius. This errant power supply issue has been the same since I first visited Sirsi some fourteen years ago. I guess India has more pressing issues at hand reserved for urban areas? Like building a super-fast bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad or sending probes to the moon. But I guess grandstanding and showing off what India can potentially do is equally important to impress the world? Jai Hind!
What the cold and fog can also do is make me constantly hungry, so a roadside dhaba on the way to New Delhi comes handy. This place is open 24 hours and packed with travelers to and from the capital city. The grub is prepared in front of my eyes with clinical hygiene and is some of the most appetizing and yummy roadside food I eat. That’s saying a lot. Not sure what the pure ghee and country butter used in the preparation will do to my arteries or waistline. Aliakberbhai drops me off at the Holiday Inn near the Delhi airport and takes off to Mumbai; I have an early morning flight to Dhaka, Bangladesh and onwards to Cox’s Bazaar where 200 CAI donor adopted orphans await my arrival.
Ahhhh, what a relief, the hotel is nice and warm and modern. Since I have slept scant the last three days, I feel my body telling me I’d better be careful, so I knock off immediately after salaat by 21:00. I am sleeping in a cozy bed, with a comfortable 73F controlled temperature, snoring blissfully when my phone pings. Since CAI has a global presence and our operations are on 24×7, and I have a family of two ladies at home alone, my instincts knock off my slumber. Kaka! It’s Spicejet, the airline that is supposed to take me to Dhaka in a few hours. They are delayed by three hours due to heavy fog in New Delhi. That means I’ll miss my ongoing flight to Cox’s Bazaar. I am so disappointed. And mad. Kaka again! I am supposed to distribute new school uniforms and winter sweaters to our 200 orphans later today. The expression of happiness on their faces when they receive the gifts is priceless and I’ll miss that heady experience. It takes me all the time to fajr to cancel the subsequent flights, hotels and rebook a flight to Mumbai. After almost a month on the road, I need to head back home so I have no more time for the kids. Turd once more!
My fellow passenger going to Mumbai seated in the exit more-legroom seat is a snazzy dressed fifty-something executive in the now struggling Indian auto industry. He dons a finely cut and tailored Raymond suit and a blood-red silk tie strangles his Adam’s apple. His robust head of hair is cut with attention and slapped down with gel, not a strand out of place; I take an immediate dislike to him. Only because I can’t imagine flying in a cramped aircraft wearing a suit and tie; makes me hyperventilate and because Allah has granted him an enviable head of hair. What did I do wrong?
Anyway, we begin conversing amicably about the winter weather and the inevitable delays but end up talking politics. Bad choice. For his demeanor and tone take on an increasingly uncivilized tenor once he finds out I am Muslim.
Don’t mind, no, but you must admit if you Muslims in India paid more attention to education, you would progress in wellbeing and wealth like the rest of us? Instead, the vast majority of you stick to ancient rituals and take to the streets in demonstrations and vandalism at all sorts of perceived discrimination?
I see red immediately and struggle, with most restrain, not to reach out and ruffle his now not-so-attractive mane; to remain composed and civil is increasingly difficult. Even so, I try and educate him on certain facts he is suffering brain farts on – that Muslims in India did and do not have an equal platform in education, training and skill-building opportunities. Had this been the case, as it was for me outside India, the country would have fared much more in development and progress. I give him my example, with the opportunities given to me and the contribution I have made to his country as an outsider. He shuts up after he hears me out, impressed that I live in the US. Indians, generally, are so falsely impressionable with the West, no?
Still, he is at it after noisily splurging on a snack of noodles and violently clearing his sinuses.
India, he says, a smug smirk playing on his lips, has made unrestrained strides, in every area of human development. Our doctors rule your hospitals, our men (note the gender bias) make up the top CEO’s in your country, you guys cannot live without our web developers, why, even Bollywood is knocking at the doors of Hollywood. Our boys rule cricket and can easily tame the masters who introduced the game to us. Best of all, we’ve kicked the Pakis hard, where it hurts, in their crown jewels.
He snickers and snorts. I am not a kichwa maaji for no reason. I open WhatsApp on my cellphone and share a few newspaper headlines I have taken photos of. I take photos of these headlines routinely, as they come in handy for my book research and moments like these. The headlines scream:
Clueless State asks 4 dead cops to declare properties they do not own. / Cancer ward set up under a flyover. / Filthy Irla nulla a trap for disease and death. / 4.5 lakh toilets disappear in thin air – Potty scam
He makes a face but clamps down and busies himself in reading a business journal. I wait until we land and the aircraft begins the taxi to the gate and then give him an earful.
Sir, I say. There are two sides to every story. True, India has come a long way and I celebrate these achievements with you. I am an Indian in every sense and care deeply for every Indian, irrespective of religion. That is why I am here now and visit so often, to give opportunities to those that have missed the boat in the successes you have rightly talked about. However, there is plenty of smelly dirty laundry that grapple this country. One of them is the current religious divide and the apparent intolerant attitude you believe and hold. We and them will not get us anywhere. It is us that we should be concerned about. Equally. I am a Muslim, yes, but a human being first. We all have strengths and flaws. By thinking and talking about us and them we only dig ourselves in a deeper hole which is a slippery slope that will be painful to emerge from. Try and be inclusive and open to an equal playing field. Be it a Muslim or Hindu, anybody. Give every Indian child an equal opportunity and it is India and not the USA that you will use as a benchmark of success.
The seatbelt sign goes off and I walk away without waiting for his reaction.