The Mobiustrip

The Mobiustrip

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.


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 on the edge 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 it 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, possibly with me in the room - something that I think I am living in denial about. Or rather thinking of crossing that bridge when it comes. Living on the Edge - Example 2. 

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. Neighbours 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.

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