The Mobiustrip

The Mobiustrip

Sunday, 26 October 2014

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.

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