Friday, April 14, 2017

Indian Summers / Jamun Ice-cream


Summers in Mumbai are hot and steamy, but Allah has bestowed many advantages and mercies in this furnace-like weather as well. The tropical fruits I so lovingly covet mature in the sauna, so they ripen and sweeten. The results are spectacularly delicious jackfruits, jamuns (Java plums), papaya and the king of all fruits – the mighty mango; I gorge, naturally. I can’t seem to have enough of Natural Ice-cream’s jamun concoction – heavenly divine. Also available is the evil-smelling durian at some select specialty stores, golden and stinky, like a skunk; I make a wide berth from these stores.

I must spend some days here in Mumbai for my annual medical exams, to ensure the deviant cells in my body are disciplined by the medication, diet and vigorous exercise I must endure, and are behaving themselves. The doctors and nurses prod and check, their faces deadpan and their answers to my questions non-committal. I fidget and rebel, want to scream in frustration at the seemingly unending tests they demand. But then I look at others in the same room, much worse off than me, some in pitiable situations, so I shut up and do immediate tauba. I am so happy once the tests are over I feel I deserve a treat. So, I tell driver Sarfaraz to take me to the nearest Natural Ice Cream center for a jamun ice cream cone. Again. The poor guy is now so used to my strange and eccentric behavior, he shows no surprise nor complains.

There has been a dramatic change in the politics of this great country since the last time I was here, three months ago. The BJP reign supreme, unseating and routing the ailing Congress and other regional parties in state elections historically deemed impenetrable. With these landslide wins, the bolstered saffron agenda gets into second gear. The current contentious debate in the country is about beef, or the lack of it. Utter Pradesh, the most populous state in India, and the world’s most populous subdivision, where abattoirs do brisk business and employ hundreds of thousands, mostly Muslims, suddenly close shop, almost overnight. There is a fiery CM leading the State now, and he breathes the Hindutva agenda. This trend is gaining momentum, with only a handful of remaining states that allow beef sales and consumption. So, if you fancy a juicy steak, have your fill before flying to India. Seriously, should you get caught eating beef, if you can find or afford it, you’ll be cooling your heels for quite a while in an Indian penitentiary; I hear they aren’t very comfortable.

There is a hue and cry when an Indian cab driver is roughed up and assaulted somewhere in Australia for no apparent crime except he is nonwhite, I reckon. The Indian media goes ballistic, with every TV channel clamoring for an inquiry and apology from the Australians. I try and make sense of the fierce debates on the tube, with panels of ‘experts’ all screaming to be heard above others, yelling in unison, not giving others a chance. I can’t understand a word in the hubbub, but it sure is funny. If you ever feel down when in India, just turn on to one of the TV channels, the ‘debates’ and how the guests conduct themselves will lift your spirits. Sure, that racial assault is categorically wrong, and I condemn it with all gusto. Almost simultaneously, there is breaking news that an African man from Nigeria is severely thrashed near New Delhi, while the police stand by and pick their noses. Perhaps? I see the poor guy’s image, covered in bandages, at a local hospital, with a friend seated next to him, weeping like a baby. This attack follows a pattern of other similar assaults, many severe and life threatening. But the ‘debates’ and the ‘experts,' although denouncing the attack, are much more subdued.

I coordinate and work on my fronts while impatiently waiting for the medical tests to conclude – starving and dying children in Yemen, drought in E. Africa, the misery of Rohingyas in Myanmar…constantly fighting fires. Under ongoing CAI worldwide construction projects are three schools, three medical clinics, an orphanage, 95 homes in India and Afghanistan… Thank Allah for CAI Trustees Sohail and Abbas in New York, Murtaza in Dar es Salaam and Hasnain in Sanford, they all chip in. My book editor berates me for being late, I have missed her submission deadline; she threatens to delay the final manuscript. This will surely be disastrous, for I must raise US$100,000 for CAI worldwide orphanage operating expenses for 2017 / 2018 through the sale of this, my third novel. I plead forgiveness and turn on the charm offensive, implore her to grant me two additional weeks. It’s only after I tell her my orphans will suffer does she relent and reluctantly rearrange her schedule to accommodate my tardiness; the charm too, works. I know.

The pressure piles up, and I feel overwhelmed. Ramadhan is around the corner; like prior years, we must feed the global poor and destitute in 14 countries CAI can do so with acceptable compliance and accountability. With Yemen in the spotlight this year, meeting budget will be a steep challenge. When the cash flow numbers become too ugly to look at, I remember the following beautiful lyrics of a poet:

Na suboot hai, na daleel hai,
Mere saat rabbe Jaleel hai.

Teri rehmatoome kamee nahee,
Meri ehtiyat me dheel hai.

Muje kaun tujse alag karee,
Mai atoot pyas tu jheel hai.

Tera naam kitna hai mukhtasar,
Tera zikr kitna taweel hai.

Google this please, worth repeated listening.

Indeed, with His hand guiding CAI and me, why worry?

The holy month of Rajab sets in…Yaa man arjoo ho le kulle khair. What a breathtaking supplication, no? The well-to-do Khojas of Mumbai prepare to outdo each other in how much calorie-busting gluttonous niyaz they will serve to the already very well fed lovers of Imam Jaffer Sadiq (a). In UP, where the supposed miracle and niyaz related to this Imam (a) is observed by virtually all sects, there is fury that beef is unavailable as one of the mandatory dishes of the yore. A visit to Junnar, about 4 hours from Mumbai, on April fool’s day with Aliakberbhai and we witness the grand opening of a stunning brand new school, sponsored by Beta Charitable Trust, UK.

Wasi, CAI Afghanistan Country Manager, calls me; my presence is urgently required in Kabul, Afghanistan for an urgent legal matter. Turd! I rush to Kabul via Dubai, where the Afghan consulate makes me run through a rigmarole, but eventually grant me the visa, but only after I put the fear of Allah’s wrath into the startled Consul General. I tell him he’ll be answerable to Allah if my orphans are left without shelter, should I not make it to sign the requisite documents. It’s a stretched white lie, but the ploy works.

Kabul is frigid, and I curse the chilly weather every single minute I am there, the entire 48 plus hours. Meeting my 47 daughters at Sakina Girls Home and the succulent Kabuli kababs are my only consolations. I am thrilled to be on the aircraft taking me back to the warmth, organized chaos and perplexing diversity of Mumbai; and some more jamun ice-cream, of course.

I have visits to CAI boy’s orphanage in Kolkata, attend initiation of a new CAI sponsored building for Sirsi’s orphan girls and the book manuscript to finish off before my travels take me to Australia in about ten days. The once destitute refugees from Afghanistan, now active, well settled in Australia and hundreds of thousands strong, must do their part. I am going to showcase CAI Afghanistan projects to them in Melbourne, Adelaide, and Sydney, hoping they’ll sponsor a school or two or a few, for their former, now in distress, countrymen.

I’m on a mission, remember? Fifty quality global schools for those who lack education opportunities, insha’Allah, before moving on. We’ve done 33, almost.

I’ll surely let you know how I fare, insha’Allah.


Thursday, March 30, 2017

Water, Water



Flying into cooler Nairobi from Mumbai is such a relief, even for a few days. The best part of Nairobi, I think, is the weather, because let me tell you, traffic frustrations will take my life, in one form or another, should I choose to stick around for any length of time. I thought it was Mumbai that has the worst traffic gridlock in the world. Nah. Nairobi it is. Going to and from the airport is nerve wrecking, especially the fear of missing a flight. The traffic police make us wait almost an hour to clear a single interchange, and I can do nothing but seethe and sweat in silence.

I am in Nairobi to render Beta Charitable Trust / Comfort Aid International donor aid to the starving masses through CHEPs, the local Kenya NGO we partner our relief efforts via. I want to go to Wajir, near the Somali border, where the want is desperate, but last minute security constraints make this not feasible. Joining me in this endeavor is CAI Africa representative, Murtaza Bhimani and our mutual friend, Mushtaq Fazal from Dar es Salaam. The musaafer khaana at the beautiful Jeffery Center is where we head to the first night. These are basic digs, and a little worn out, with raggedy and wobbly furniture making basic tasks a bit perilous.

The next morning, for fajr salaat, there are no more than five people present, and us three visitors. It’s a pretty and well-maintained center, with beautiful Iranian Qur’anic calligraphy adorning a vast expanse of one wall. Hard I try, but cannot read what the ayaat says, so hell-bent is the artist in conveying Allah’s beauty rather than His message. Batty, no, how we ape others blindly? Nevertheless, it is nice to worship in a serene and pretty environment. We take to the excellent Jaffery Sports Club next door afterward, walking/jogging. Set up to resemble an English county backdrop, the struggling green of the cricket field immediately puts me in a nostalgic mood. I used to open bowling for Popatlal Secondary School on similar turf. Ahhhh, where did the years fly?

The flight to Malindi in the south later that day in an ancient refurbished Jambo Jet is uneventful, if steamy; the contrast in temperatures is startling. The tourism industry in Kenya is in the doldrums, so I have been able to secure accommodation at the Africa House Resort, a picturesque boutique hotel with no more than seven distinct rooms for a steal; we relax for our feeding program tomorrow.

Malindi is in the midst of a downpour the next morning, a blessing and a curse. The water is needed desperately by the starving farmers, but our task of distribution may prove to be dicey. We are picked up by the CHEPs team and head out to the rescue; a government borrowed 20-ton truck full of food grains and high-protein, high-calorie biscuits trailing us.

The going is initially fine; the brown vegetation already has shades of green. But this is short-lived, and the terrain turns brown and barren soon enough. Raggedy children, noses running with frenzied flies making merry on the snot, line the roadway puddles left by the rains, scooping muddy water into battered buckets to carry home. We offer cheap lollipops to them; they approach us warily, the conflict between fear and want clear on their faces. The desire for sweet sugar wins and they grab the treat and scamper. The experience is heart-wrenching, to me. The land is barren, there is very little or no water anywhere and herds of thin cattle and goats scatter and rob away the remaining nutrients from the swirling topsoil. 

The four-wheeler I am crammed in is constrained, seating seven, and mighty uncomfortable, my running leg injury resurfaces with painful cramps. I curse the hurt and shut up; the people I am here to feed are much worse off, either walking or squatting, waiting for relief from hunger and thirst. We stop by a tiny frazzled duka, selling stuff I used to, as a teenage dukawallah in Tanga. It has Coca-Cola in bottles, Murtaza Bhimani’s dream drink. It also has roasted karanga. Coka in a bottle and roasted karanga. Ah, a deadly but potent and intoxicating cocktail. He orders some. Me too. Mushtaq too. The coke is lukewarm, at best, and the karangas are mostly rotten and taste awful. Bummer.

The actual distribution to the starving remote villages is both taxing and heartbreaking. It is the children that affect me the most. Thin and scruffy, their faces etched in lines of hunger and despair, they sit under a scrubby struggling thorn tree and wait for the handouts we distribute to their parents. The fiery sun above is furiously relentless, evaporating any trace of moisture; even the inside of my nose feels singed. Unlike the rice and beans we distribute, the ready-to-eat sweet biscuits will provide instant nutrients and vitamins for these kids; this gives me some solace. At least the mothers will not have to source for water and fuel to cook the other stuff.

We offer zohr / asr salaat at an unfinished mosque where the village chief profoundly thanks us, pleading for aid in completing the place of worship. He laments that times are hard, alhamd’Allah, water is scarce, alhamd’Allah, food is insufficient, alhamd’Allah, our cattle are dying, alhamd’Allah, our children are withering away, alhamd’Allah, please help us complete the mosque…

At the next village, the chief has lunch ready for us; goat meat stew and rice. It’s basic but yummy, since we are hungry. His lament is a repeat from the last one. He asks for toilets and water wells. We continue the food distribution after lunch but the bigger problem here is crowd control more than anything else. A sandstorm kicks up, almost blinding my eyes with the fine sand it swirls around. It’s not easy handing out twenty tons of food in one day and we are still left with plenty to give away, so we head towards the third village; daylight fading fast. Here, we pile the food in rows while women line up. We gather four village elders and inform all the people that the food will be distributed by their leaders amongst all equally. We retreat to village number two just in time for magreeb.

The return home is torture. Exhausted, both mentally and emotionally, I drift between slumber and wakefulness, the road and leg injury making any ease impossible. It has rained closer to Malindi, making the vehicle slip and slide in the muck. Seventeen hours after we departed the hotel, we return depleted and are asleep after a quick shower to rid the sweat and grime collected during the day. We are to repeat this process the next day in another part of the drought affected areas of Tana Region but logistical challenges delay the start until 11 AM; I make a snap decision to let CHEPs staff handle the rest of the distribution. A further delay or mishap today will jeopardize the rest of our plans. All three of us head to Mombasa instead, further south, some three hours by car. I haven’t paid respects at my father’s grave for quite some time.

Although I did not witness the dramatic starvation and deaths so prominent in the press and social media, there is no doubt the drought situation is grave and help is needed. Continued food distribution, however, is not sustainable, in my opinion, unless undertaken at a macro level and a massive scale. Comfort Aid International has initiated construction of two public toilets in one village, and to dig five water wells in areas where sweet drinking water is available at deep levels.

We did our part; acceptable to Allah, insha’Allah.

View photos of our trip here.