Sirsi UP, India, site of CAI sponsored school and orphanage:
Just as I decide to leave the relative comfort of the orphanage, it begins to pour. The school bus has no air-condition, so the windows must stay down or I risk being suffocated in the heat and humidity that is all powering this midday early August. So I get wet and wetter as the rain intensifies.
The distance between Sirsi and Samble, an administrative center of sorts, is only about 10 kilometers but the drive is a fight for space in the narrow tar-top that leads us there and school bus driver is as aggressive as any as we near my destination, the District Registrar of Moragabad. You see, I have to register a Power of Attorney given to Lozi, our school administrator, so that a piece of land I have purchased in Sirsi can be registered in my name without me having to come all the way from Mumbai during the month of Ramadhan. Simple little exercise, so I thought.
When we do get to the building that has the Registrar Office, there is no parking in the packed streets and it is raining profusely. Well, there is no choice so I bravely, but very carefully, run the 300 odd feet to get to the building. Discarded plastic bags and bottles, cigarette butts, tobacco paan sachets, a discarded used condom (eeekh, yes, that’s a condom all right!), wet and miserable stray dogs and a lone monkey, its behind red as a Washington apple greet me as I turn into a filthy narrow lane that leads to the Registrar’s office. A few steep steps up and a string of open stalls line the building, lawyer’s offices, perhaps 20 of them, eagerly wait for customers. They are full today, people seeking shelter from the downpour; I join them, frantically trying to shake water from my soaked clothes.
Lozi assures me all forms are ready, typed, checked and rechecked; we won’t have to wait too long – he is oh, so wrong. As I try to stay calm in the crowded lawyer’s “office”, amongst the dampness and smell of unwashed feet and untamed armpits. Lozi advises me the lawyer is seeking shelter elsewhere due to the rain, he should be back soon; my God, “soon” could mean an eternity in India. We wait for about 20 agonizing minutes in the dampness and smell, I slapping persistent flies away in irritation and anger while those around me watch me closely, probably wondering why I am so agitated; why, they don’t seem to mind the dampness and flies at all! When the lawyer does come, he folds his hands at everybody in respect and wants to give me priority but my file has disappeared in thin air! Another 10 minutes go by; the file is finally located on top of a support that holds up the office walls, an assistant felt that was the safest place against the rain. My signatures, 10 of them, are taken, I am fingerprinted and we are ready for registration.
We troupe up to the Registrar’s office, a dingy, airless, pan stained hall with a dingier smaller room inside where the Registrar sits, smoking. I am told to sit inside this room while we wait for the documents to be recorded. I enter into a cloud of cigarette smoke and a nasty stench of stale tobacco; a pair of eyes behind thick, heavy lens regard me cautiously. I do Namaste; the man wags his head through the cloud of smoke and finishes his cigarette, discarding the butt on the floor and stamping it dead. A garland portrait of Mahatma Gandhi sternly frowns down at us from the wall above the smokers head, perhaps not too happy with all the pollution.
In the hall, something is amiss; Lozi and the lawyer are frantically gesturing and arguing with the clerk about something. The stench in this office is nasty, so when another cigarette is lit and the man gets busy with new visitors, I escape to the hall and fresher air. Lozi has a pained, embarrassed expression on his face, explains the clerk has made a mistake and stamped a “wrong” page of the POA; will have to fix it. I go back down to get some fresh air; the rain has abated. Exactly opposite the entrance, atop the wall that fences the building, sits the monkey with the red behind, observing everybody and everything. It eyes me uncaringly, I look at it warily. Not wanting to be near an animal that is an expert and wily thief, I try to shoo it away. It is unmoved, stares at me defiant, mocking, as if laughing at me, then bares vicious looking fangs; I hurriedly retreat back up.
There is another argument developing between the lawyer, Lozi and the main Babu (clerk) about the amount of facilitation (bribe) I have to pay to get the POA registered. The Babu, seeing I am not “native” to UP, is asking double the amount, about USD26; Lozi is adamantly refusing; the lawyer agrees with both parties, depending on whose argument would benefit him. The Babu argues that he has expedited the POA matter, seeing I was a guest and that “seniors” above him want a bigger cut every time. He waves the thousand Rupee bill in the air and cries in agitation. See that man inside? He wants a bigger share. And his boss, and his boss’s boss, all the way to the top. How can I divide this thing so many ways?! Still, with a hurt, sour look on his face, he carefully folds the bill and adds it to several others in a memo book, then notes down my contribution below a long list of names in the log. Our job done, we leave the building, I leading in a hurry to get out of the suffocation I feel. The monkey is still there, observing everybody, everything.
I choose to return to Sirsi on Lozi’s motorbike so I can pass by and inspect the land I have purchased. I pled Lozi for some strong chai, so he stops at a grimy little restaurant along a busy intersection. Everything about the restaurant screams a warning for me to stay away. Outside the restaurant, atop a wooden crate, sits a samoosa maker, next to a skillet dark with boiling, bubbling grease full of samoosas that are scooped up by eager customers as fast as he can fry them. He sits cross legged, barefoot; one big fat dirty toe with an overgrown nail full of grime acts as an anchor to a pile of thin pastry pockets that he fills with a mixture of boiled potato mix and spices. He has not a care in the world at the unhygienic, appalling picture he paints and his customers either don’t care or are pathetically insensitive.
I want to drink some boiled tea, with all germs killed, I reason, so partake in the delicious brew. A mound of tiny boondhi, with flies and bees swarming all over it catch my eye and make my mouth water. I ask the guy to give me some from the middle core, hopefully untouched by the flies on top. The guy behind the pile looks at me strangely but complies so I enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. I have a month fasting coming up, the calories will take of themselves, no? Perhaps?