The Mobiustrip

The Mobiustrip

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Happy Meal conversations





Exchanging diwali tales of riding escalators at the stations, buying hairclips on the train, eating homemade shakarpara, getting gifts of fairies and dolls, and deciding that the AC in the metro is too cold - all this over bowls of daal chawal and personal stashes of jaljeera during the midday meal at the municipal school in a Bombay slum.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Dharavi - First Look



Enterprising Dharavi - first look at one of the world's largest slums. (Thanks to a good guide :D)

This here is a chindi-seller (chindi are the shreds of excess cloth that is cut off while making clothes). Within a small cluster was a shop making denim cloth and another nearby shop making denim jeans. This chindi seller gets his chindi from these shops at Re1 per kg or for free, sorts it by colour and sells it to businesses at Rs 4 per kg. The buyers then recycle it to make pillow stuffings.

Seems like nothing is wasted.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Highs and Lows of the Slum Immersion program

With everything that I am learning in this new field of work, a lot of my opinions and perspectives have changed. When I went into the slum, my parents said two things - be safe. And don't come back a Communist.

Two weeks into the slum immersion, after I had observed some ways in which the people felt a sense of entitlement, I told my parents that I was scared I might come out a capitalist. That, coming from someone who has always hovered on the left side of the center, was quite something. But more about that later.

Some of the funniest, sweetest, and scariest moments of that one month are worth recollecting.

NOT Lalbaug cha Raja.
Going out to see Lalbaug cha Raja during Ganpati festival. Not realizing that we had seen the wrong Ganpati till the picture was put up on Facebook and pointed out as Mumbai cha Raja by a friend. The family still does not know of the mix-up. And it doesn't matter, because they believe they saw Lalbaug cha Raja. And faith is ultimately what matters.



Rekha and the kids riding the metro for the first time on our way to the Ganpati. They were ecstatic! At the same time , I was petrified because Rekha was a week away from her due date and walked over 2 kms on the way over and back. Every time she took a step, I panicked that she might deliver right there. 


This was Rekha a week before she gave birth. Obviously one can't tell that she was this far into the pregnancy. The baby girl born to her a week later was severely underweight.




Mee kothimbir kaapte”- the only grammatically correct Marathi sentence I fully learnt in my one month in the slum, despite Neelam’s best efforts. This kothimbir went into an experimental daal we made with jaljeera, which turned out to be very tasty. It was the second best thing I tasted after the sev-bhaji which I also learnt to make.






Getting the salt-filled modak that Rekha made, which as per tradition, is supposed to be lucky. I bit into it and didn't know exactly how to point out that it had salt instead of the sweet coconut filling. When I finally did frame it into a diplomatic sentence, everyone burst out laughing.




The innumerable attempts made to get Neelam to address my body lotion (that she loved and stuck out her palm for every day) as "cream" and not "kim"!



Lecturing Rekha on how unfair it was that 14-year old  Poonam was made to do all the chores while 12-year old Rohit spent all his time playing - because he was a boy and she was a girl. And seeing Rekha change that by the end of the month.



The scariest moment had to be when a rat jumped on me in the middle of the night. I used to sleep with my sheet covering me from head to toe, to make sure there was no contact with rats. That night, I nudged at what I thought was Neelam's hand on me. And found more movement instead of the usual withdrawal. I opened my eyes to a huge rat sitting ON me, near the waist. Irrational as my fear might be, that was the lowest low of the whole month. Had it not been for a policy to not cry in life unless I am watching a Shah Rukh Khan or Disney animal movie, I would have burst into tears that night. The thought of it still makes me shudder.


My fondest memory though, would have to be that of Rekha helping Neelam sing the national anthem. Rekha failed 5 times in class 2 and dropped out of school. There was not much that happened in school that she could 'teach' her kids. I could hear the pride in her voice when she was teaching the anthem to Neelam. That she too could teach something to her children. 
I didn't have the heart to tell her that many of the words were wrong.

Sex and Lies

Whether it was by default or design,  majority of us fellows had found host houses with single mothers. Very few had gone into houses with men. So most of us were looking to the select few to tell us what happened to the conjugal lives of couples in one-room houses.

One report that we got was from a house with a man, a woman and a child. Our friend and the child shared one bed and the husband and wife shared another, both in the same room. In the middle of the first night, she heard the woman moaning. I suggested that the woman might have been doing so in her sleep. "Then I heard the man moaning.", she said.
We were appalled that they would go at it even in the first night that they had a complete stranger living in their house, right within earshot. And in the line of sight, had my friend decided to open her eyes.

Next we heard of a man and his wife who lived in a two room house with the man's sister and mother, a 12 year old son, and a baby. The sister complained that the man had 'no shame', while the wife breastfed the baby and the man fondled her in full view of the 12 year old child running around in the room.

Suddenly Rekha's story of her neighbour's 6 year old son undressing 7-year old Neelam and suggesting they lie on top of each other made more sense.

Another fellow went out with her host family where the man took her aside and confided in her that he had another woman on the side. Next day, the wife took her and the child out to meet a man she said was her boyfriend. And also the father of the child - a piece of information that her husband was unaware of.

Parallel marriages, extra-marital affairs, forced sex, deception and lies seem to be rampant in these loveless arranged marriages. Listening to all of this made us feel like we were in the middle of a Kafkaesque theater.




Period Panic. And other Superstitions.

The monthly cycle and what would happen when it happened - this train of thought occupied prime real estate in the minds of all the girls in the slum immersion program. Except the lucky (see how context changes perceptions) few with erratic cycles that didn't follow the calender, it was inevitable for everyone because it was a one month stint in the slum.

The reactions we heard from various houses was quite an eye opener. 
Rekha referred to it as MC. For the longest time, I thought she wa using a local term which sounded like 'im-see'. When I did realize that she was referring to the short form of 'menstrual cycle' I was very amused!
She told me she used cloth which she washed and re-used every month. 14-year old Poonam used sanitary napkins, but that month they had no money, so she had to use cloth. Much to Rekha's chagrin, Poonam would use and throw the pieces of cloth. She refused to wash and re-use the rags. 
The don't-touch-the-idols-of-the-god rule prevailed of course, and it didn't surprise me. 

In one of the houses, one of our fellows was told that her 'shadow shouldn't fall on anyone or anything in the house' during that time. A more progressive family took her in during that time, otherwise it would have been a tough week for her.

Another fellow was asked to leave. Downright. They asked her to come back when she was 'clean' again. They wouldn't even let her pack her stuff - she was made to stand at the door and direct the lady of the house about which of her things she needed. She was then taken in by a Muslim family for that time period.

The most surprising thing is that women do this to other women. 

Rekha told me that when she was pregnant with her first child, her mother-in-law made her do heavy farm work up to the eighth month of her pregnancy. The doctor told her that she would miscarry if this continued, and she asked her mother and brother to come take her away. But as per some archaic belief-system, the girl of the house cannot enter the maternal house till she is in her ninth month of pregnancy. So they came and took her away only when the ninth month started.
The same mother and brother did not visit her for the first two weeks this time too when she gave birth to the baby girl.  Despite the fact that they knew she was in this all alone. Clearly, antediluvian practices take precedence over the health and well-being of a loved one.

 I noticed how these people have blind faith in God. In a room that can barely hold 5 people, one wall is still dedicated to idols and images of deities. And this is true  of people living in makeshift houses on the pavements too. You are just left wondering if it is hope that makes them pray, or fear.

One of our fellows visited a house during the Ganpati festival where the people had been hungry for two days. Yet they had a Ganpati being worshiped at home because someone had donated the Ganpati to them. It is sad and perplexing that people will give you an idol to worship, but won't give you food to eat.



Junk Food in the Slums

Affluent kids go to McDonald's and KFC for their share of junk food. 
In the slums, where the availability of Rs 10 decides whether dinner will be just daal-chawal or daal-chawal-papad, such luxuries cannot be afforded. 

That's not to say that the kids in the slums don't have options. I discovered some of these while teaching English to the kids, and some while living in the slum.

There is malai, which is an expensive habit to sustain. Four to five tiny pieces of this sweet wrapped in a leaf cost almost Rs 8. My students were more than eager to share it with me. 

Then there is puri-bhaji - 8 tiny pieces of puri and some potato bhaji for Rs 10. This had become an-almost regular part of my breakfast towards the end of the slum stay. And it was delicious!

There is the coloured chooran - 4 sticks for Rs 2. My students would get them for me everyday. Saying 'no thank you' resulted  in disheartened sighs and long faces. I soon learned to say yes to one student per day, and anyone else who came up to me with it was asked to save it and give it to me the next day. Then the race would begin the next day, and I would be reminded of promises I had made to take the chooran from X or Y. At the end  of every class, they would ask me to stick  out my tongue to see if it had turned blue or pink from the chooran. I had never quite interacted with kids in this manner, and much to my amusement, I saw that I enjoyed it.

The most well loved and abundant item however, is this strange concoction called "Chinese Bhel". It is a  mixture of shredded cabbage, fried and crunchy 'sev' and the slum version of the Schezwan sauce. It is often mixed with manchurian balls. Given Bombay's reputation for forging strange food combinations (like misal-pav!) I was not surprised, but was definitely revolted by the idea and resisted eating it for the longest time. Then Poonam bought a bowl for Rs 5 one day, and I realized that I cannot go through the slum experience without giving it a shot. So I dug in. And wrote it off. But I found myself going in for a second spoonful just minutes later. And even after leaving the slum, I have to admit, I have bought it on two occasions of my own accord. 

Chinese Bhel

The most touching gesture was that all these kids who bought these items out of their daily pocket money of Rs 5 were dying to share it with me. 

Food and Fund (Mis)management

Truth be told, the food was one of the best parts of the slum experience. I learnt to cook new items, ate what the not so privileged eat and enjoyed it!

You can actually tell the time of the month by looking at the menu in a slum house.



The irony is that when the month starts and they are cash-rich from the wages they have received, copious amounts of food is prepared. On my first day at Rekha's house, she had made almost 90 puris, which she then distributed to her neighbours. This was followed by ''modaks", of which she made almost 35-40 pieces. Her logic was simple - her neighbours  help her out or feed her children when there is no food or money in the house. So she returns the favour when she can. It's a vicious cycle - because if she spends judiciously, this end-of-the-month crisis is avoidable.

Other people who lived in the slums reported that certain communities, especially the migrant communities, manage their money more judiciously. The standard fare is daal-chawal. Vegetables are rare - if they do make it to the table, it is when someone has had the opportunity to earn extra cash over and above their regular monthly income.

At the house of the locals - and Rekha was no exception - the month starts with puri and chai for breakfast. Or poha, upma or sabudana khichdi.
This slowly gives way to roti and chai. I quite enjoyed both the puri-chai and roti-chai combos. By the end of the month, breakfast stands at rusk biscuits and chai without milk.

Sugar is the only constant in the breakfast. I had once heard that poor people take in a lot of sugar and that is what keeps them going through the day.I saw evidence of that in Rekha's house. Their family of four would go through 250 grams of sugar in two days. The tea tasted like sherbet.


Lunch for the kids means 'khichdi' in school. ''Khichdi" is the generic term used for all food that is distributed as part of the midday meal. And rightly so, because most of the times it is just khichdi. At least that is what it is in Bombay. My  maid from Calcutta said her son gets an egg and vegetables too. But the only vegetables I have seen in the midday meal are those little pieces in the khichdi.
Most of my lunches during that month comprised midday meals in the schools. It was a way of knowing what the kids go through. I found myself checking the time ever so often during those days, waiting for the bell to ring and announce the arrival of the midday meal.
On my first day in school, I had met a girl of class 5 who was standing at the door, wistfully looking outside. It was 4 pm, one hour past the midday meal time for the afternoon session.  She told me that the khichdi had not arrived. Hungry students make inattentive learners. Something I realized for myself that month, every time my eyes darted towards  the clock in the middle of a meeting while waiting for lunch.

The humble khichdi
In the more disciplined schools, children are made to sit in line and eat their lunch. They get their lunchboxes from home - standardized coloured boxes given to all students of the Bombay Municipal Corporation schools as part of the '27 items' list (more about the list later). The catch is that most parents use the tiffin boxes to store food at home. So despite the item being given to a student for free every single year, many students still come to take khichdi in the lid of a friend's tiffin box. If a  child does bring the tiffin box, one can see a lot of instances where the last day's meal has formed dry cakes because it hasn't been cleaned. It gives a glimpse of the interest most parents take while sending their children to school.


Class 1 students during lunch - they are the disciplined lot


One drastic change I noted in myself was with respect to simple food. I eat almost everything vegetarian under the sun. But I had somehow never enjoyed yellow daal and chawal. It was the sole combination of food that I told Mom never to make for me. 
Once I started going to the municipality schools and discussing the midday meals, I got unanimous response from all 6 of my schools that daal-chawal was the hottest lunch item. Children would lie in wait for the day of the week when daal-chawal was supposed to be on the menu. Many contractors  often give it a miss because it means carrying more food to the schools and getting paid the standard rates. Children run for second helpings and those are the only days no food is returned to the contractor. In fact, often they fall short and only a lucky few get second helpings. 

For the first two months, this perplexed me. Then the slum immersion began and I started eating regularly at the schools. And every day I would visit a different school and hope that they would have daal chawal on the menu that day. It's a relative liking, I realized. The khichdi gets dry and cold. The daal-rice stays warm and moist. Hungry kids eat everything, but even they have preferences.

Daal chawal - everyone's favourite day of the week


So that's Monday to Saturday. Sunday is a challenging day. At Rekha's house, there are four mouths to feed on a Sunday afternoon. Where ration is bought in Rupees and not in Kilos, that's a challenging situation.
In my first week there, the children mentioned they went to church on Sundays. I found that odd, because 12 year olds following a different religion as compared to their families is unusual. I soon found out the allure of the church. The church in the area gives out biscuits and other dry food items to all visitors. So the children would flock to the church on Sundays. They would then go to a school run by a social worker, who gave elaborate meals to poor children on Sundays - kheer, puri et all. Neelam and Rohit would go eat there. Poonam felt too conscious to go, so she would stay at home with Rekha.
Which often meant just plain rice for lunch. I once came home from work and noticed a bowl of dal. The bowl did not belong to Rekha, so I asked whose it was. She said that she had been eating plain rice in the afternoon because that's all there was in the house, so her neighbour gave her some daal. This was after Rekha had given birth and was breastfeeding her child. It is no wonder that children under the age of five die from malnutrition in India.


Little Ibrahim, busy having his midday meal. He is underweight. And he comes to school barefoot. 


A teacher in one of my schools in Andheri said that the parents spend like there is no tomorrow at the start of the month, and by the end of the month, the kids of that area often go and beg for food in the busy shopping area of Irla. Because there is none at home.

It made me rethink my stand on giving food and money to children who beg. Not everyone is part of a cartel, like in Slumdog Millionaire. Some are just hungry.



Price of a Child

During my first week in the slum, I met Hema, Rekha's neighbour.
She was 'living in' with a man who had helped her to get away from the claws of a bad marriage. I thought it was very progressive that they were living together without getting married. To this day, I am not quite sure why they haven't tied the knot. The man earns well. He excavates sand from the sea on a contractual basis. It is called "reti ka kaam", where relatively rich people employ these slum dwellers for about 15-20 days a month and set them to work in the middle of the night in the sea. This sand is then sold by the owners for various purposes. And the daily wage labourers get paid about Rs 700 per trip, which is good money. Since it is a physically exhausting task, the men take the remaining 10 days of the month off. That's when they relax. And end up gambling.

Gambling seems to be cited as a "source of income" whenever you ask people what they do for a living. They will mention their day job, an odd job or two  they do on the side, and then say "jua khelte hain". Hema's partner seems to have fallen prey to it too. When he doesn't get enough work, and loses money in the gamble, he starts  to dip into her savings. And this is again a common practice, corroborated by quite a few families, including my maid at home. The women work, the men squander.

All said and done though, he is said to be a good man.Not a wife beater like the majority. He has been getting verbally abusive though - the more money he loses, the more he yells at Hema. But she is still with him. For now.

In the village she has a husband she has broken up with. This was after she took loans and built a pakka house for the family. He went gallivanting after another woman and wanted Hema  out of the house. She wanted to keep both her kids with her mother while she came to Bombay to look for work. They were just entering their teens - a boy and a girl. The husband said she could have the girl but he wanted the boy. Hema didn't want to separate the kids, but  had no choice. The boy had asked for a gift at the local village fair. It would cost her Rs 1000. She didn't have that kind of money  at that time, after having spent all of it on building the house. The husband did. So the boy went to the husband.

All for a thousand rupees.



Rekha gave birth to a little girl sometime during the second week of my  stay in the slum.  She was visiting her brother during the Ganpati festival. While over there, her water broke. She boarded a train by herself (the brother for whom she had taken gifts despite the fact that she had no source of income that month did not deem it important enough to bring her home) and came back home in that condition. Then she was in labour for a whole day, and gave birth right in the house. She had planned for 14-year old Poonam to help her with the delivery - a plan that I had tried to dissuade her against. As expected, Poonam panicked during the delivery.So Hema rushed to Rekha's aid. She cut the umbilical cord with a razor and then it slipped back in. Rekha had mentioned that if  the placenta is not fully removed then it endangers the life of the mother. Hema had to put  pressure on her stomach to remove it. The doctor's report read that she had lost a lot of blood and was severely anemic. When she went to get the birth certificate of the baby girl, she mentioned that she had only two children and that this was the third child. I had not known of this, but apparently the government makes you pay Rs 500 for a  birth certificate if you have more  than three children. Rekha had to borrow Rs 40 from me to pay for her rickshaw ride to the doctor after the delivery, so obviously Rs 500 was a huge sum to pay.

It was a miracle that I wasn't in the house on that day. I am not sure how I would have handled a birth in the house - umbilical cord, placenta, blood and all. What I did hear from her neighbours was a lot of murmuring about whose child it was since her husband didn't live with her. And then some specualtion about whether she would keep the child. I wasn't quite sure why this topic was being discussed, till a lady she called "mausi" told me in confidence that Rekha had given birth to a baby boy two years back  and had sold him in the village for Rs 5000.

I could not bring myself to ask Rekha why she had done that, since I wasn't supposed to know about this in the first place. But it did make me wonder what her motivation might have been to sell off a male child when she had two daughters and one son at that time. It also helped me understand the ''mummy bol rahi hai ki bacche ko bech degi" jokes the kids had been cracking before and  after the delivery.
What I couldn't quite reconcile was Rekha's past action with her present indignation at being told by Mausi that there was someone in the village who was  ready to buy this daughter of hers as well.In her own words, she said "I will die, but I will not  give this girl to someone else."

I wasn't sure if it was guilt, or a charade.

Sanitation. Or lack thereof.

I have received more questions about sanitation and requests for pictures of the 'mori' than any other aspect of the slum-stay. So here goes.




For more clarity, these are the purposes it served.



The mori sufficed in every way, except one. Defecation. 
Legal slums that I visited, like those in Wadala with numbered houses and proper addresses, have closed toilets. No running water, but there are four walls within which one can defecate. You carry your bucket of water and endure the smell, but you have some privacy.
Since this slum was an illegal one, there was no such provision. So men and women just went in the open, next to this area by the sea where fish were dried. It was more of a dump yard really. 

The only cleaning mechanism in the area was the presence of pigs. Anyone familiar with a pig's diet will know what I mean.

No water, no lights, no walls.

In the adjacent slum, women are frequently dragged into the bushes by men and raped when they go to do  their business. These are then discussed in hushed tones, but rarely reported.





I hadn't quite been able to bring myself to visit the place till another friend of mine living in a more decent slum came visiting. She was intrigued, and I finally mustered the courage to go see this place with her. Poonam and Neelam took us for the tour.



Neelam found a 2 rupee coin in the area that she quickly picked up, while we were busy absorbing the shock.


The silver living was that you couldn't smell the fecal stench. Because you were overpowered by the smell of dried fish,  which hangs like clothes right next to  the area. 


A dash of humour during this expedition came in the form of my friend's curiosity and, well....guts!

Alpita : I don’t get it, where do the women go?
Me : Right where you are walking in.

Alpita : (Keeps walking in) But there is no place to go here, it is an open dump yard. I  don’t get it.

Me: Stop going in!

Alpita :  (Walking in further) But……(Stopping in mid-speech) Ok, I can see shit.  (And she wasn't speaking figuratively)

Me : Very brave! Now get out of there!

Alpita :  (Out of  the area) I think am in shock. And I need to take a shower.





There was a hilarious perspective-building exchange I had with Rekha soon after.
She was telling me of a visit to this village called Shanishingnapur near Pune. It is reputed because no house in the village has doors, so strong is their faith in the powers of the local god, Shani. There is never a theft in the village because it is believed  that anyone trying to steal will end up in front of the mandir, no matter where they try to go.
No doors also mean no closed bathrooms. The women of the house wake up by 4am and take a  bath outside the house before the men wake up. Rekha found this to be an invasion of privacy and refused to bathe outside. 

She succinctly summed up how violated she felt there - "They had no mori!", she said. 

I had to bite my lip to keep myself from laughing. 

Before going into the slum immersion program, I had been concerned about finding a clean toilet. Soon after, I re-calibrated my priorities. I now prayed for a closed toilet.

Bijlee, Paani aur Makaan

As one begins to explore slums in the city, it becomes clear that certain areas have people from particular communities and professions.
For instance, slums near my schools in Malad have a Muslim majority and they do a lot of zari and jewelry making work from home. Often for as low a price as Rs 60 for a kg of pearls which they make into necklaces.

This slum in Versova that I was living in is dominated by four groups of people - two groups of fisherman or 'Kolis' that Bombay is famous for, daily wage labourers from UP and Bihar, and locals who mainly do housework or contractual work.

The Kolis in the area belonged to two very distinct categories -
One group was the rich Koli people who had been given land by the government to moor their boats. This land was the place they had converted into the illegal slum. Boats are moored at sea now, and most of these Koli people have enough land to have constructed about twenty 10x6 feet 'houses'  which they have rented out for approximately Rs 2000 per month. 
In addition to this income, they hire fisherman who take their boats out into the sea and catch fish which is then sold to the frozen food corporates at Dockyard. These Kolis are the big players - they are the ones who have the legal concrete houses in the slum, with the legit water connections.
And so they are the ones who control the resources. The jhopris, being illegal, have no real water or light connections. They have to pay Rs 100 per month to the Koli from whose house they want to get water in their kalsis. Or Rs 200 if they want it through a pipe. Timings are fixed as per the municipal water timings - which is 5pm to 9pm in this area.

Truth be told, access to water in this slum seemed to be far superior to the ones I saw in legal slums in Wadala or more illegal ones in Dahisar. 

In Wadala, it sounded like the water mafia was in charge. Rs 500 a month for 10 minutes of water by pipe right into your house on alternate days. Fill as much as you  can in those 10  minutes. Or wait till  the day after if you miss your turn because you were not at home. (I found out about this much after I had downed almost half a bottle of cold water from one of the houses, where the people were generous enough to offer it to us while we were visiting with another NGO).

In Dahisar, again since it was an illegal slum, there was no water connection. One had to buy water by the can - about 20 liters for Rs 6. Or 35 liters for Rs 9. Bulk discount and all.

In comparison, the kalsis seemed like a privilege.




My questions about water and the jhopris weren't entertained by the Kolis in my area - they threw furtive glances sometimes when I would pass by because they were confused about my presence there. And a little alarmed by the questions about their illicit money making scheme. So I found a friendly dhobi from Uttar Pradesh who filled me in on these practices. During the conversation, one well-off Koli guy who hadn't rented out any illegal jhopris  in the area started talking to me about the fish business and the dynamics of the land holdings. He had nothing to fear. He was a B.Com-second-year-fail guy, whose grandfather had been given a lot of land by the government. Good karma, I guess.



Electricity was another amusing aspect to observe. Bombay slums, by and large, aren't dunked into darkness as often as the village area I visited in Rajasthan or Indian villages I have heard of in general. The legal slums have electricity connections and pay regular monthly bills sent to their homes. Not so for the illegal slums. The one I visited in Dahisar is plunged into darkness when the sun goes down. I did see one very enterprising family that had installed a solar panel, and would get the batteries recharged on rainy days, but they were the exception not the norm. In Versova, illegal electricity pimps flourished. Rs 500 for the month. Or you could get a few quotes and compare on who was offering a better price.
The downside was that if your connection was pulled from someone's house, you were at their mercy. But some pimps knew how to pull directly from the electric poles in the area. You and your neighbours could split the cost of the wire that would be needed to supply it to your house. The discipline of wiring was another story of course. Random parallel connections with your neighbours meant that the speed of your  fan depended on theirs. And if you switched off your light, your neighbour's fan would go off. 

That was why I had to sleep with the light on for one whole month.




The entrance to my house was narrow enough to not be able to accommodate an open umbrella. And a gutter stood right in front of the door - home to the scary rats, who would DIG into your house if you kept the doors closed. 


Once inside, one corner was the kitchen, one corner the mori and just enough space in the rest of the room for five of us to sleep side by side.



The yellow bedsheet on a waterproof plastic sheet below and an air pillow on top was my bed for the month. I carried my own. Rekha offered the single 'gaddi' in the house to me, which I politely refused. Sharing food, utensils, mori and space were all fine. Bedding is where I drew the line. Neelam and Rohit would take turns, and great pleasure, in inflating and deflating the pillow for me every day. 

The most amusing discovery was the address on Poonam's Adhaar card. It read "XYZ(Name withheld here on purpose) building ke peeche wali jhopdi, Versova". And the census-count marks were visible on the jhopdis.



In Retrospect

Earlier I had thought that I would write as and when things happened. But logistical issues got in the way during my stay in the slum. Now exactly a month after I came out of the slum, I think I am in a better position to reflect and condense the observations and learning of that phase. So here goes....

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Bombay Slum Immersion - First Impressions

For most of the 20 of us in Bombay and over 150 others in locations across rural and urban Gujarat and Rajasthan, the opportunity to "officially" live in  a slum or village house for a month is what set the Gandhi Fellowship apart from others programs of the ilk. The stay was 'sanctioned' - you were going into the fellowship knowing that it WOULD happen and neither you nor your family could change their minds at the last moment out of panic or concern.
Like the Unbreakable Vow, for Potter-maniacs.

I had mixed feelings while leaving for the slum two days back. Good and bad butterflies in the stomach.
Good ones because this is what I had been waiting for - looking at a slum in India's most challenging city, as an insider for one whole month. Understanding what poverty is and how it affects the everyday choices of the individuals living in it.
Bad ones because it meant dealing with the sanitation and hygiene issues - my biggest trepidation.


One of the houses I had selected was in Madh Island - a 5 minute ferry ride away from the area I had been working in. It was home to a lot of students from two of the schools I was working with. My introduction to Madh was through the teachers and heads in  the schools - saying that during Bombay's terrifying monsoon students couldn't come to school because ferry services would often become irregular. And that Madh was a filthy place.
Other fellows heard I was heading off to Madh and squealed with delight - that's when I found out that it was a resort town with picturesque beaches.

Perspectives.












Bags carefully packed, I arrived at the jetty and called the family I was going to stay with to ask for further directions. I had risked not checking out the house in advance, because I had already examined living conditions on this side of the ferry and was mentally prepared for what lay in store. It couldn't be worse than what I had seen on this side of the ferry. I was already living vicariously by my standards.
So I called my host in  Madh. A panic stricken voice on the other end of the phone told me that they couldn't find a year-and-a-half old kid of their family, who had been playing nearby during the Ganpati festivities. It didn't sound like she wanted my help. I was an outsider, and this was a family matter. She still called me home for a visit because she felt bad that I had come all the way and she wouldn't be able to accommodate me in these circumstances. I told her not to worry about me, and talk to the police instead. The next two weeks that had been planned with this Bengali family and the community dissolved.
(People had thought I was playing safe with a Bengali family as my host. Not many had realized the trouble I would have had with my vegetarian food habits in that household.)


So it was time for Plan B.

I took the ferry and crossed over to the other side - to the house I had kept as a back up option. I hadn't confirmed a date with my host Rekha - what with this house being my back up option anyway - so I was unsure if she would suddenly take me in that night itself. So I called. And she did.
Her son Rohit, to whom I had taught English for a few weeks as part of the program, was very excited about 'dinner with didi' on that festive Ganpati day.

For me the upside was that this was a community I was somewhat familiar with - where the kids knew me from school and the classes I had taken for them in a temple in one nook of the slum. Also, the family I was going to live with comprised a mother, two daughters of 7 and 14, and a son of 12. Relatively safe environment.
Only snag was that Rekha was 8.5 months pregnant. I didn't know while narrowing down on this house, because she didn't look it. There is the distinct possibility of her giving birth any day now - something that I think I am living in denial about. Or rather thinking of crossing that bridge when it comes. Vicarious Living - Example 2. For now, I am facing one of my most uncomfortable fears - coming face to face with a pregnant woman. I seem to be doing ok though.



Two nights in the slum so far and some glaring anomalies and deviations from the glitz and glamour of Bombay just cannot be ignored. Notes have been exchanged with fellows living in other parts of the city and some things seem to be common across locations. Bombay is not always the dream city it appears to be, to starry-eyed people with aspirations of a better life.



Of Houses in the Slums:
Usually one room. Two if you are very lucky. Standard size is an estimated 10x10 feet. Some have a single bed, but most have a folding mattress or pieces of cloth sewn together with some sort of cushioning material. One corner of the room is usually the kitchen. Another is the 'bathroom' or "mori". More about that later.
Houses in my slum are usually made of the same material as tin sheds. The sheets are of varying sizes, usually with holes and a direct line of sight into your neighbour's house, who is on the other side of the same tin sheet.
No windows, so of course, I had wondered about ventilation. The ingenious solution to that is an open space between the horizontal roof sheet and the vertical wall sheets. And this does not just open to the outside, but to all sides, including the sides that open right into your neighbour's house. Makes conversations easy.

But when Rekha had to burn wood on her brick 'chulha' because she was too cash-strapped to book an illegal LPG cylinder or even get kerosene for the burner, her neighbours complained of the smoke. Three days back the smoke stopped. There was no food in the house, thus negating the need to cook.

The children went to school for the mid-day meal. And she had two cups of tea that her neighbouring chai-wallah gave her. No wonder one can't tell she is pregnant. Incidentally, it is also the reason she is out of work, with four mouths to feed.






The "Mori"

It is that place in the house where, unhygienic-ally enough, people of the house urinate, take a bath, wash dishes, wash clothes, brush and generally freshen up. The urinating and washing dishes in the mori happens even when the women of the house are menstruating. Rekha explained it to me with a very matter-of-fact "What to do? There is no where else to go."
When I first entered the house, 14 year old Poonam was taking a bath in the mori. Stark naked. With other people walking in and out of the house, and not so much as a sheet to act as a visual obstruction.
Some houses do have curtains around the mori. Some have a partial or half wall. Till someone walks into the line of vision. Some just have it as it is. Without any privacy or scope for dignity.

I woke up the first morning with no plans of getting into the mori for a bath, let alone anything else. By evening though, I had reconciled to bathing fully clothed with a sari acting as a temporary curtain. I practically stood on tiptoe and was in constant fear of a rat or mouse poking its head out of the drain.



Which brings me to - Rodents!

As I had feared, yes they are there. Some families that have beds pack their clothes in suitcases and sleep on the bed with the suitcases to save the clothes from attack. Rekha hangs her clothes at a height. She also takes great pain in making sure that the mice or rats don't eat the leftover food at night or the vegetables she hangs off a hook. Fridges are luxuries in the slum. Very few houses where I have seen them so far. With that food out of the way, the rats and mice have little else to do than to whisk food right off your plate if you stop to pay attention to something else for a while. Or lick the leftover from a bowl or cup you just finished eating out of and put out to wash. And yes, these are the same rats that move between the mori and the sleeping area too.

I have been sleeping on high alert for the last two nights. I pack myself in my sheet like cling-wrap, from head to toe. And if I sense any movement or squeaking around me at night, I shut my eyes tighter. Very (apparently) ostrich-like, I know. Rekha regaled me (or so she thought; I was petrified!) with stories of how they ran around the house and only last week, how a cat had pounced on one and dragged it away from inside the house.




Of Water:

My slum in Versova gets water from 5 pm to 9 pm everyday. Running water comes to certain areas and houses in the slum (I am guessing they are the legit houses that were not built on land given by the government to fisherman for parking their boats) and these houses pay higher rent to the seths. Everyone from the slum gathers with kalsis and handis and plastic dabbas to fill and store water for the next 20 hours, till the slum gets running water again.
One of the headmasters in my school had mentioned that scheduling a parent teacher meeting after 5 pm was useless. Now I understand what she meant.


At eight and a half months into her pregnancy, Rekha doesn't fill water anymore. 12 year old Rohit pitches in, but he is a boy. So if he wants to play instead, it's ok. 14 year old Poonam goes to work in the morning (she cleans dishes at a house for Rs 500 per month), then goes to school in the afternoon, and fills water when she comes back from school.Lot of responsibility for a 14 year old.

Yesterday was the first day of the Ganpati idol immersion - a time of great revelry in Bombay. There were dishes to wash in the house, but Poonam wanted to go for the procession with her friends. Rekha let her, but on the condition that Poonam comes back when it is time to fill water. No such request was made of Rohit.
Poonam didn't come back on time. When I got back from work at 8 pm, I saw Rekha was on her way to the pipes. I went with her. Day 1 had just been a fun trial run for me to see if I could carry the water. Poonam had effortlessly carried one on the side and one on the head on the first day. Rohit, half my size and age, had carried one on his shoulder with such ease that it had looked like the most natural thing on earth. I had realized that the waist and shoulder were not my sweet spots, but with some minor neck-pain, I could manage one on the head. Having found my sweet spot in a timely manner came in handy yesterday. After 7 trips and 16 handis, and with my heart in my mouth from seeing Rekha carrying the weight in this condition, we were done - all the containers in the house had been filled.
Rekha was furious with Poonam when she came back home at 11 pm. Neighbour's came and explained her mother's condition to her and how she needed to help. I couldn't blame her though. Ganesh Utsav happens once a year; water-filling - every day. Poonam had missed two years of school (which she loves to go to, by the way) because her mother's pregnancy had become a common hindrance by now. She chose one night of escape from all these duties.
When you are this poor with so many difficult choices to make, who can you point a finger at? Everyone is fighting their own battles.



I bathed and washed all my clothes with one bucket of water that night.




Toilets. Or lack there of:

Without a doubt, this had been my biggest concern about slum immersion. And for good reason.

In the fancier chawls, I am told that 80 families share 4 toilets with timed running water. In the not-so-fancy slums, there is usually a public toilet close by where you have to pay Re1 or Rs2 for usage. Usually, at a minimum of 4 members per family and 30 days a month, that works out to Rs 2 x 30 x 4 = Rs 240 per month, just to tend to a family's morning ablutions. In families where parents usually go hungry at the end of the month and children usually get their meals from a neighbour who is slightly better off, that is precious money.

So people just go in the open.

I have still not been able to muster the courage to go see what it looks like, but Rekha tells me that when she was working before her pregnancy, she would just prefer to go at work. This, coming from a woman who has spent her entire life in these conditions. It kind of makes me wonder if one can acclimate to unhygienic conditions if they know that there might be a not-so-readily-accessible-but-not-totally-impossible-option elsewhere.

I had read horror stories of how men lie in wait for the women to go so that they can sit and leer. How desperate would a man have to be to enjoy such a sight just for some female skin show.
Rekha says here the areas for the men and women are at opposite ends of the slum, so it is safe.
I will just take her word for it. And spare myself the indignity.
This is not a problem that I cannot solve with some mind-over-body control and a metro station with a clean public toilet that is half an hour away.





Of Marital Relations:

Bluntly put, most people are living a lie. Had they been in a Western country, they would have been divorced by now. Most houses have a drunkard for a man - a fact that has been confirmed by the teachers of the schools in the community; by those of us who were having a hard time finding a family to stay with, because the women were scared of how their drunk husbands would behave with girls like us; and by the slum dwellers themselves.

I had heard of my maid's husband abandoning her for another woman when she was 7 months pregnant. My maid's sister's husband gambles away all the money his wife earns from her job as a domestic help. Rekha's husband had an affair with another woman and fathered her children while Rekha herself was pregnant with their second child. He comes back to her every few years, gives her hope of change, knocks her up and leaves when she is about to deliver.

The men drink. They philander. They beat their wives.

One wonders if they start drinking to escape this cursed existence and then get addicted and can't quit.
Two days into this life and I am already spending substantial time by myself in secluded mandirs and parks to escape the dim reality. One can only imagine why these people need their own coping mechanisms while living this life day in and day out.


Rekha said her neighbour's 6-year old son undressed her 7-year old daughter away from their houses and said, "Now let us take turns lying over each other."
Children do as they see.