As the airplane circled over the international airport at Mumbai, he wondered what memories of home he would take back this time. His wife Salma, had accompanied him on this holiday cum work trip. Zakir straightened his hair and clothes. With his hand he brushed a few stray hair into place in his otherwise neatly trimmed short beard. As he walked out with his wife and baggage, he was not surprised to see a welcoming committee of family and friends.
After endless hugs and handshakes, they were whisked away in a car waiting to drive them to their home-town. Another few tiring miles thought Zakir as he closed his eyes and laid back his head, hoping all the incessant, meaningless chatter in the back seat would stop. But his wife, her sister and nephew couldn’t care less. They were meeting after years and had a lot of catching up to do. His sister-in-law wanted to see her son settled in the UK with them. She didn’t yawn half the night away at the airport all these miles from home, for nothing. Salma and Zakir could have easily afforded taxi service but she had persuaded her reluctant, glum and unsociable husband to take her all that way to fetch them home. Selfishness, like the ego, is good at masquerade. She dripped honey as she fell all over her sister and jijaji, secretly wondering what gifts they had brought for her family.
Zakir had a very scholarly, solemn look, tempered by his compassionate nature. He was adept at scripture, could quote extensively from the Koran and hold meaningful religious dialogues. He was a maulvi, who gave presentations that took his beautiful religion to the young and vulnerable. He guided them, but personally was often in need of fulfilling companionship, with someone on his mental and emotional wavelength. His wife rarely understood him and he had no control over his grown up children. So he tried to sate his vacuous life by steeping himself in work. It was gratifying, respectful and imparted a sense of worthiness. It made him almost venerable. He was also a member on the boards of a few charitable organizations. That is what had brought him to India.
The sun was way over the horizon when they stopped at a roadside dhaba for tea and refreshments. Salma, who shuddered initially at the thought of eating at some wayside place in India, was surprised that it was a decent, well furnished joint, fully equipped to cater to bus-loads of travelers. The service too was unexpectedly good. And the clean, odorless toilets were unbelievable!
“Well, well, India is changing for the better,” she intoned in an acquired nasal accent.
“Ah, you ‘pardesi’ Indians!” mocked her sister. “We can give anyone a run for their money now. You haven’t seen anything yet of the progress we have made and are still making. Wait till we go to Surat and Amdavad. You will want to return here for good in a few years, mark my words,” said Saira with obvious pride.
Zakir in the meanwhile had been holding his silence as he relished his tea and pakodas.
He went back to the car, opened his laptop and began to work on it.
“Jijaji, ab tau kaam mat kijiyega,” (Don’t work now) said Saira, strolling over to him with a cheese sandwich in hand.
“Yes uncle, wait till we get to our village. There will be little there for you to do. Theek hai. Since you have got it on let us see some pictures of your home and my cousins,” piped their nephew, Akram, gulping down his last morsel of kheema-pau. It would be well past noon when they reached home and he knew his grumpy father would not stop again anywhere, so he had stocked up on some cans of juice and packets of snacks.
Zakir smiled, put away the laptop and said charmingly, “Everything after we reach home.”
They resumed their journey and after another three hours had reached Navsari. That is where he and his wife originally belonged. He was from the town itself, she came from a village not too far off.
The rest of the day was spent exhaustingly in meeting family, friends, and neighbours. Greetings, news, views were all exchanged with heightened camaraderie. Most had some private agenda in mind. Phoren settled Indians always came in handy in many ways. By night they were too tired to do justice to the lavish spread Saira had prepared.
Zakir had a light supper and retired thankfully to his room.
Next morning he was up early. He walked out on the veranda of the old house to enjoy the peace, punctuated only by birdsong. When the rest of the household began to stir and rise groaningly, he had finished his namaaz too and was ready to begin work, after a cup of tea. He would have breakfast with some social workers and members of NGOs whom he was meeting that day. They were to come with their reports and petitions. These were organizations the trusts he volunteered for, gave donations to and he wanted to see how the funds they had sent so far had been utilized. They regularly mailed their reports to the concerned charities, but Zakir was the kind who had to verify and cross-check personally. He was interested in the overall functioning of these institutes.
He spoke at length to each one of the representatives, briefly scanned the papers they had brought and requested that they be left with him. He would scrutinize them later and make his own inquiries to assure that there were no discrepancies and fraud anywhere. It was decided that from next day he would begin touring the villages and institutes that benefited from their charities. It was the main reason he had come here. There were unending requests for help, and very huge amounts were being transferred.
Salma was least interested in his work. She believed it had driven them apart. It did not occur to her that it wasn’t his work but her possessive attitude that caused the rift, into which had wedged someone else. She suspected it. Often she surprised him texting and talking on his cell phone late at night. It could not be all work Zakir indulged in. It was play too, but for all her jealousy and insecurity she dared not challenge him. Even if there really was another woman, there was too much at stake. She could count neither on her children nor on her lazy and indulgent self to support her. She busied herself learning all the gossip of the town and family. And she also had many visits to make and a lot of shopping to do. She would go to Surat and Amdavad for that and see for herself the progress Saira kept boasting about.
As Zakir went around in the villages, he realized that the money was being spent on the needy, but that wasn’t enough. The glaring want of the day was proper education, particularly for the women folk. Not just religious lectures from biased preachers and leaders, but good academic education that would keep them abreast of the world, help them stand on their own and weave them into the general fabric with distinctive not disruptive colors. He decided to work with greater fervor toward this end. He knew excruciatingly well how an uneducated, uncultured woman could ruin the family and society in a ripple effect. His interaction with some of the so-called leaders had shown him that it would be a difficult undertaking, but not impossible.
It would be most fruitful if he could initiate the task himself by beginning at grass roots level, so he changed his entire plan. Rather than visit institutes and heads of communities, he would go from house to house and talk directly to the people. There were some who protested and tried to foil his plan, but he had the knack to charm his way through a heavily guarded fortress, if it was so required.
With an impassioned zeal he started out to do all he possibly could. Talking, listening, querying and convincing, often harshly contradicted and even obliquely threatened at times, he went about it with fervid élan. It was an eye-opening, often heart-rending journey. All the bleeding gashes and wounds, the blights and banes, the penury, magnanimity and vileness of human nature and society were laid naked before him in their ugliness and beauty. As they opened up their homes and hearts to him, he spent sleepless nights and often longed for ‘her’ understanding and calming presence. But he had to forget her and concentrate on his mission. It was in his power to wipe a few tears and replace them with hope and smiles and even joy. He would do it. Often he put money into the eager and outstretched hands from his own pocket. Something he would pay for with loss of peace in his marital life when his wife found out. But where had there been peace between them at any time?
The final leg of this exercise, before he would have to leave, was in some remote villages that still had no electricity or running water, despite the loud proclamations of a shining India. This is the real India, not what the world sees in the name of a progressive country, he thought, as he doubled up with a long bout of coughing. Unending hours of work and travel on dusty, bumpy lanes that passed off as roads, had begun to take their toll on his delicate health. Anyway, in less than a week he would be home. And what memories, what a treasure of ideas and stories he would have to share with ‘her’. She would come up with some brilliant intellections to boost his projects.
In the first village they visited that morning, his guide told him that there were only two Muslim families here in dire straits. They drove to a house with naked brick walls, a thatched roof and one long narrow room. That made up the entire home of the elderly couple he was introduced to. There was not even a proper chair for the visitors. Zakir immediately sat cross-legged on the floor and with his disarming smile, put everyone at ease. The man was blind, slightly crippled with arthritis and had no means of livelihood. His wife earned, by doing odd stitching jobs, to put just enough food on their plates from day to day. Zakir listened compassionately to the couple. Their only offspring, a son, had died from a fatal disease. In truth it wasn’t the disease but lack of affordable treatment that had taken his life.
Zakir told them that he worked for charitable organizations, how he had gone from village to village, house to house in connection with his work. They listened to him, nodding their heads from time to time. The woman’s face, mapped by the tragedy and poverty of her life, still had a soft glow about it. There was a gleam in her eyes as she heard him out. Then she stood up, excused herself and went to a table that groaned under the weight of all their belongings. She fished around under some clothes and returned, holding a hundred rupee note out to Zakir.
“Janaab, I cannot give you anything more than this for the noble work you are doing,” she said, with near despair in her voice.
Zakir was dumbfounded. He couldn’t immediately grasp the purport of what was happening. Then tears began to stream down his cheeks, into his beard, as the incongruity of the whole situation hit him. The old lady had thought that he had come to her for some kind of donation for his work and so here she was giving him all the money she possessed right then. He hugged her and cried unabashedly as the old woman stood there uncomprehending. Finally, the persons accompanying Zakir, were able to calm him and clear the woman’s misunderstanding.
Zakir told her that from now on she would receive a fixed monthly income and would not have to work to feed herself and her husband.
Raising her hands skyward she said, “May Allah bless you and the wonderful work you are doing. The prayers of all whom you help will always bring happiness in your life.”
Then she put her hand on his head and continued, “Bete, don’t give us any money. We are reaching the end of our lives and I can still eke out as much as we need. I will be grateful if you will help Abeda’s family. She has four children and a useless husband. Allah provides us with enough. We have good neighbours who will not let us go hungry.”
Not just Zakir, now others too had tears in their eyes. All the way back home they were subdued. Each one mulling over the event derived his individual interpretation according to his spiritual advancement. Some thought it a very foolish and impulsive gesture. One of her good neighbours even scolded her after the visitors had left.
“Amma, how could you be so stupid? You are a bag of bones. How long do you think you will be able to hold out? You could have kept half the amount and given the rest to me.” The old lady just sighed. How would they know the abundance of a life touched by His grace?
Zakir’s soul opened, petal by sensitive petal, inebriated by the nourishing sap of this godliness. Throughout this trip, he had come across people who only wanted to take, some purely out of greed. And here was this noble couple, richer than the richest in the largesse of their hearts. Unspoken sentiments spilled out of his eyes and he couldn’t stanch their flow. He could not quantify or qualify these emotions. It was all too stupendous. His labor of these many years shrunk in comparison! He deserved neither the honor nor the appreciation that fed his ego for distributing other people’s money. He felt small, humbled and yet overjoyed. He had had an encounter with living angels; it was an ineffable experience that needed no analytic judgment. It scintillated his spirit and would bubble forever in his memory. A memory that he would revive at every prayer meeting, lecture and conversation. The story he would never tire of telling and he knew each time his eyes would turn moist as he would send up a prayer of gratitude for having been so blessed.
God turns up in unexpected places and circumstances.