Our time in Ahmedabad is quickly running down. We need to be in Pune for a meeting on Tuesday, then to Delhi for another meeting before we head home to Pondy to finally get settled in. We are trying to make the most of our time while we are still among our wonderful friends here.
The day began with a small project Jayesh-bhai dreamed up two days earlier. There is a tiny slum on the Ring Road that leads from Jayesh-bhai’s neighborhood toward the Gandhi Ashram and Manav Sadhna, consisting of fifteen tattered shanties. This hutment is home to “migrant workers,” though how long they have been there and how long they will stay is a matter of speculation. They do not appear to be going anywhere – or coming from anywhere, for that matter.
Within these shanties, in the dusty blow-by of the busy roadway, live 20 ragamuffin children. Do you want to give these children a bath? Asks Jayesh-bhai as we drive by. Sounds great, we say. So he pulls the car over to make the arrangements with the families. In speaking with the adults, we come to find that the community is suffering from many ailments, and the children are quite anemic from malnutrition. So the plans begin to shift:
9 – 10 a.m. we will do a medical camp at the hutment. Punam-bhai, the doctor for Manav Sadhna, will see patients while we cut the fingernails of the children. This sounds like a small thing, but in a country which eats with its fingers, some medical experts believe that as much as 30 percent of all illness in India could be eliminated by properly trimmed nails and basic hand-washing after defecation and before meals.
10 – 11a.m. we will stuff 20 filthy children into the Manav Sadhna car and take the to the ashram shala to bathe.
11 a.m. – noon we will dance and sing a bit, then feed the kids a hot, nutritious lunch.
12:15 p.m. we will stuff 20 clean children into the Manav Sadhna car and take them home.
It had been at least ten days since any of these faces saw water. Some of the kids required three or four sudsings before their hair might pass for clean. Some of the kids were reluctant to bathe, others downright reveled in the perfume of soap and splash of clean, cool water. It was lovely to watch a few of the of the girls and aunties from the ashram shalla oil and comb the hair of the girls, reworking pigtails and plaits with care. In the end, the transformation was nearly miraculous.
Yoo-Mi stayed at Manav Sadhna to help feed the kids, and I went off to spend the afternoon with yet another friend who has fallen ill. Sonia Deotto, an artist who creates transglobal art-actions on themes of peace and reconciliation, was stricken with Dengue fever and was feeling rather awful. She joins our good friend Maria Durana, architect and Fullbright fellow, who came down with Dengue a week ago. Dengue, it seems, is a mosquito-borne disease that affects brilliant, creative, beautiful women. I’m safe on all scores; but I fear for Yoo-Mi.
After a quick shower, we were off to a dinner party hosted by journalist, art critic, and public art champion Anupa Mehta. Let’s just say that Anupa is also at risk for Dengue, based on my admittedly unscientific epidemiology. Anupa’s daughter Sachi and I had cooked a meal last week at Seva Café, and we had become friends in the process. There were a number of interesting people in attendance, including Anupa and our mutual friend from Bombay, Venkat Krishnan, who runs Give Foundation. As the clock approached 11 p.m. of the guests mentioned that there was performing at the nearby Saptah Institute, and was anyone interested in attending? Always game for some-Pakistani-singer-or-other, we moved the party to the Sangeet Sankalp Saptah. The musicians were tuning as we entered the hall; and with one glance at the stage, it was instantaneously clear who the some-Pakistani-singer-or-other was: Ustad Sharafat Ali Khan, perhaps the greatest living Qawaali singer in the world, and the uncle of our friends Richard Michos and Rifat Sultana, and her brothers Shafquat and Sukawat Ali Khan. As our friend Venkat said when he by-chance saw our names on an email from Anupa last week, The world continues to shrink.
In truth, the concert didn’t start well. Though the musicians were all superb, Sharafat tried to do too much too soon, and the ensemble was often out of synch. Eventually, though, he found his voice, everyone fell into the same groove, and the real fireworks began. At several places in this mesmerizing concert, one had the feeling that the whole thing had just been kicked up another gear. To say that Sharafat owns these ragas doesn’t begin to express his mastery, and the utter ruthlessness, playfulness, and brilliance with which his dusky voice effortlessly forced the swaras to do his bidding.
I crawled over the locked gate at Jayesh-bhai and Anar-ben’s home at about 1:30 a.m., a few steps behind Anar-ben and Anjali, who returned home from another wonderful night at Seva Café. But then, every night at Seva Café is a wonderful night, and every day in Ahmedabad seems magical.