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Posts Tagged ‘contradictions’

Today I spent the entire day sitting inside, waiting. But I guess that days worth of killing time is nothing compared to the 60 years many people have waited for what transpired.

It was a big day in India, as you may or may not have heard. After decades of waiting, demolitions, murders, riots, religious furor and constant delays the Allahabad High Court declared a verdict on who controls 2.7 acres of land in Ayodhya.

You might wonder why so much drama and history was needed over a small piece of land. I would ask the same thing about certain parts of Jerusalem. But, as with many epics, it came down to religion. Is the alleged birthplace of Ram (a king who, in the legend of Ramayana, served as the human ‘avatar’ for the god Vishnu) as well as the site of a 16th century mosque that was demolished by Hindu nationalists in 1992. The demolition caused widespread riots and over 2,000 people were killed (riots 10 years later after a related train bombing saw another 1,000 people killed).

It is a long and complicated story as to how this tale that started with a mosque in 1528 and a court case beginning in 1949 ended up in a courtroom today. If you’re interested in a full timeline of events, I suggest you look at this helpful timeline, and if you want a full accounting of the ruling today read this.

For me this is not interesting just because of the outcome – the ruling stated that the land should be divided between 2 Hindu groups and one Muslim group, but all sides said they would appeal – but because it is just another fascinating display of what happens when religions collide.

How can a court even begin to decide whose religion deserves or has right to land? But they certainly tackled it head on here. To me the most befuddling part of the ruling is this: One of the justices, Dharam Veer Sharma actually wrote in his opinion, “The disputed site is the birth place of Lord Ram.”

As an American it is fascinating to see how religion can be woven into a court decision as though it is fact. And perhaps for many it is. But that’s hardly consolation to Muslims who think that their almost-500-year-old mosque was destroyed. And the land for the Muslims is no consolation to those who would swear that the mosque was built only after an original Hindu temple was destroyed.

The thing that gives me faith is this: as of now (knock on wood), there have been no major instances of violence. After a week of delays and waiting with bated breath to see what would happen, there’s a collective sigh that nothing has happened.

Has India moved beyond its religious tensions? Of course not. But in a country that is reeling from its embarrassment over the Commonwealth Games, maybe this is a moment to stand proud. It’s not over yet, but perhaps the long-running suit can now hope for closure, instead of fearing more bodies will be added to the count of this saga.

And birthplace or no birthplace, mosque or no mosque, that is something to celebrate – especially now that I feel safe enough to leave my house.

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I’d like to think that the name Pitlochry is difficult for almost anyone to say convincingly. It took me a good number of years living in Scotland before I could pronounce many of their town names.

So why is this the name of a building around the corner from me?

I know I’ve written before about the interesting trend of not having real addresses in India. It is true that I do not really have a street address- only a building name and a naive hope that friends and delivery-people alike can somehow locate my abode.

Our neighboring building

But the more hilarious (sad? preposterous?) part of this equation is that most of the building names are not easy for any Indian person to pronounce. My building is one of the more innocuous ones — La Paloma — and even that is difficult for most people.

The building next door to us is called Chez Nous. Imagine not knowing English or French and then trying to pronounce those letters together. Two of my neighbors who live in Chez Nous often describe their pronunciation to delivery-people as “Chez Noose” (with a hard C-H like chair and a full pronunciation of the Z). It’s all they can muster to get anyone to find them – otherwise their pizza will be carted around by a person looking for a building with the words ‘Shay Noo’.

C'est mo

Down the street from Chez Nous is another inexplicable french masterpiece: C’est Moi.  Do they think it adds a touch of elegance to the dilapidated exteriors to make their names unpronounceable but foreign? The funniest part of C’est Moi is that the I has fallen off the end of the sign – so if you lived in that building you’d probably have to describe your place as ‘Sest Moe’.

It would be funny if we weren’t already on the one-way street with no discernible landmark without a main road to turn off of. We live in a bizarre European hamlet that no one can find with buildings like Chez Nous, Suares and Rendezvous.

Oh well. C’est la vie.

Another aptly named building

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My motto in Mumbai is to say yes to anything I’m invited to because you just never know what to expect in this city – and it’s almost always a good story.

So in that vein, last night and today I found myself in two scenarios that anyone who knows me would have thought were highly unlikely: at a packed club dancing to a trance techno DJ (I really don’t know the difference between ‘trance’ and ‘techno’, let’s be honest) and at Mumbai’s Fashion Week.

Both were cases of just saying yes: our broker, with whom we’ve kept in touch, mentioned to me that one of her favorite DJs was going to be in town Saturday night. She said it was going to be a really fun night and we should come. So I said yes. Why not? Separately, I was at a drinks event and I met a guy who runs a non-profit that tries to bring the arts into impoverished schools. His organization was partnering with one of the designers at Fashion Week and he had extra tickets – so he invited me to go. Who knew what on earth this event would be? But I said yes.

So last night I found myself in a room full of elegant high-heeled Mumbaikers sipping their overpriced drinks waiting in breathless anticipation for ‘Dash Berlin’, a Dutch DJ who everyone kept reminding me was “rated as the 14th best DJ in the world.” I kept wondering what a DJ would have to do to make it to 13.

When he came out the crowd went absolutely wild. And this guy was working for it- he jumped around, smiled widely while waving his hands in the air, played ‘air drums’, and intermittently held up an iPad with scrolling words saying things such as “Hello Mumbai” or “Make Some Noise”. One time he just held it up with hearts going by. Each time the crowd roared. (See video below – it’s not something I shot, but it gives you the idea!)


I didn’t know whether to enjoy it or laugh at it. My boring old self had the instant reaction of: why is everyone in this room staring at a guy fiddling with a Mac and some turntables? He’s not playing anything. The guy must be on some kind of drug to have that much energy and some members of the crowd were also channeling the same energy source that allowed them to dance with complete abandon.

Models strutting their stuff at Lakme Fashion Week

I had a similar reaction to the Fashion Week show. Was it really fun? Or taking itself too seriously for my taste?

We walked in and it was certainly larger than I had expected. Mumbai Fashion Week (also known as Lakme Fashion Week) had been advertised around town but I didn’t know how big it was. When we walked in it certainly looked like a fashion show (or at least the photos of fashion shows I had seen). It looked professional and I was standing in line to get in behind Fern Mallis, the head of New York Fashion Week, so I supposed this must have some credibility.

But it was just so funny to me – everyone scrambling and haggling to get the best seat they could (a very Indian spin on the concept of a Fashion Week). A hundred photographers stood at the end waiting. But when the lights went down and the music came on, models strutted out it was certainly a bit thrilling – who doesn’t enjoying getting a glimpse of the fashionable life that seems to exist outside of my world? It looked like a New York fashion show but with slightly less impressive models and some very fancy saris mixed into the more traditional fashion. And there I sat, in my Old Navy skinny jeans and H&M top thinking I was an imposter.

In both the club and the fashion show I had the reaction of: this is fun, but is it me?

But that’s a stupid question here – the whole point of coming to Mumbai was to test those boundaries. It’s to walk through the streets of Dharavi one day and then watch an absurd fashion show the next. It’s to breathe in all the wonders and incongruities Mumbai has to offer.

So at the fashion show I just took it all in. And at the club I just let myself dance. I cheered for Dash Berlin, I closed my eyes and let the strobe lighting and bass music carry me for just a little bit. I’m ok with getting swept up in Mumbai. I’m going to keep saying yes.

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Driving out of Bombay was a shock to my senses — could we really be this close to lush green mountains? Apparently it had been here all this time while I was living in my little city cocoon.

I took a bit of small break from writing for the last few days because Daniel and I took a long weekend to Pune and I wanted no computer distracting me from my first moment away from Bombay.

On the highway driving out of Mumbai

And it was those first moments that truly stuck out – the feeling of traffic fading away, of noise and honking dissipating, of seeing rolling hills and no crowds of people. This was a piece of India I hadn’t seen yet, and it struck me that while I felt at home in ‘India’, my whole notion of India was based on Bombay.

We had decided to break up the four-hour drive by stopping at the Karla Caves. The literature I’d read about these caves was oddly imbalanced – the caves are beautiful, but not a major site. It’s an important historical landmark but certainly something you could skip. The caves are hard to believe, but not if you’ve been to any of the more major caves in India. So I didn’t really know what to expect.

We drove up to the base of a hill and started hiking up. On the way Daniel and I ate some roasted corn while we looked out onto a spectacular vista. I was already convinced this was a good stop. We made our way past sellers jockeying to play their Bollywood music the loudest while women weaved garlands together. But none of the usual attempts to sell us items came our way – they were mostly baffled to see white tourists.

When we’d hiked up and paid our 100 rupee entrance ($2 compared to the 5 rupee entrance for Indians) we entered the main cave. And it was magnificent. In the 2nd century Buddhists had carved out the interior of the cave to create a hall with grand pillars lining the walls. At the entrance and above each pillar were intricate carvings.

I am the tiny person...

The Karla caves interior

I stood there and took in the site, marvelling mostly at the fact that this is a site considered “off-the-beaten-track”. In a country so large and so full of rich history it’s amazing how much goes unseen. And I’m sure that if I had gone to the Ejanta and Allora caves (something I’m hoping to do while I’m here) before coming to Karla, I would also have been fairly unimpressed. But here was a cave that more than 2,000 years ago people had dug into (with no modern tools or explosives) and created a pillared hall out of the stone. And it still stands today in pristine condition. How is that not something to shout from the rooftops about?

It mostly just gave me a big reality check that I cannot get too settled into Bombay – I have to see this incredible country.

Of course, after feeling that, the rest of Pune was ironically slightly underwhelming. It certainly is a vibrant city – it’s three or four hours south of Mumbai, a hub for colleges and universities with a thriving cultural scene. I’ve heard it described, for all these reasons, as the Boston of India.

View from a fort in Pune

But we were mostly there to see some of our friends who were in town from the US – and as such the few forts and temples we went to took a backseat to the enjoyment of seeing familiar faces (especially since these forts and temples were not as nice as other temples and forts we had already seen. I’d already forgotten my earlier reminder that we shouldn’t stop appreciating the seemingly less-impressive-by-comparison sites).

One other thing that did strike me about Pune was the presence of Marathi, Maharastra’s main language. I know a lot of people speak Marathi in Bombay (in fact, many native Bombayiites try to argue that everyone here should place more emphasis on Marathi), but Hindi and English rule outside of residential areas. But in Pune, Marathi is king.

Of our two friends (both American second-generation Indians), one spoke Marathi and the other Hindi. And our Hindi-speaking friend (and Hindi-speaking driver from Bombay!) had quite the difficult time. I had heard so much about India’s multi-lingual idiosyncracies, but since in Bombay I am always the foreign one, it amazed me that even a few hours away, Hindi speakers also were lost.

On our last day in Pune we ventured up to a temple on the top of a hill that overlooked all of Pune. It was beautiful to see the whole city laid out in front of is. It was large and sprawling and just another reminder of how small we are in this country with so many people, cities, languages and cultures.

And so we drove back to Bombay, but with a newfound determination to see the rest of India – not just the small India that I know.

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It’s amazing how in Dharavi something as small as a mat can make you feel accepted.

This afternoon I went to the home of a woman who volunteers with the non-profit I am going to be making the film for. She had invited one of the field workers to come and talk to her neighbors about domestic violence.

Her home was approximately fifty square feet (or about seven feet by seven feet). She, her husband and three sons shared one twin-sized bunk bed. They had one stand-alone dresser, a television, a small fridge (that had a built in lock), a television, and a kitchen counter whose space was taken up by a small burner. Washing hung from lines above the bed. The walls were cement and the roof was made of aluminum siding that was held up by wooden beams. If you looked straight up at the ceiling you could see small slivers of light peeking through in various places.

But despite the small venue the home was filled with life. Photos of her parents stared down at us (unsmiling, as all Indian photographs are). Pictures of Hindu gods were interspersed with small posters for Bollywood movies and brightly colored calendars.  And despite the treacherous path filled with garbage and feces that existed outside her home (hard to ignore), you probably could have eaten a meal off the floor.

When I walked in she clapped her hands excitedly and stopped me as I tried to sit on the ground with the rest of the group. She pulled out a small mat and insisted that I sit on it.  I tried to tell her that she should sit on it, but she told me through my translator (who is a budding filmmaker and someone I am very excited to have on board) that she was so glad I was there and that she was very adamant that her guest should be comfortable.

As the women arrived it was explained to me that our host had encouraged her neighbors to come and listen. She had become involved in the non-profit through one of these meetings and she felt very strongly about preventing domestic violence. She shared that her sister’s husband was an alcoholic who had beaten her sister very badly. Ever since then she had wanted to try and affect even the smallest change in her community.

The meeting started when everyone was seated. It was a small group – five women, our host, the field worker, my translator and myself. We all sat on the floor and we could barely fit. It struck me how time consuming it must be to have these meetings in such small venues. But the field worker explained that most of these women wouldn’t come if they had to travel all the way to the non-profit’s office. While you could drive there in 10 minutes, they would have to walk, and it would take too much time out of their day. So having small meetings with the neighbors of volunteers is the only way to effectively spread their message across the crowded maze of Dharavi.

The meeting started with everyone introducing themselves and my translator started by explaining who we were and why we were there. She said her name and then started to say my name but I stopped her.

“Meera naam Ali hai,” I said to the whole group. My translator looked at me. “Its one of the few things I know how to say in Hindi – I wanted to say it myself!” I said, and we both laughed. She translated my second comment to the women who all laughed as well. It had broken the ice a bit and we were ready to start.

As with all these meetings they had to start with general issues. The field worker explained the work their organization did – she said they could help with rations (Indians below the poverty line are entitled to food rations, but the system is very corrupt and its often difficult for people to actually get a ration card), legal services, health services and other basic issues.   She also tried to entice them by saying at one recent event two Bollywood stars had shown up and given presents. My translator explained that sometimes this is the best way to get people involved – even more than free vaccinations or free classes for children.
The field worker asked if there were any questions.  One grey-haired woman in a bright blue sari spoke up – she said in her neighborhood there had been a problem with people stealing electricity, causing everyone’s bills to rise. The field worker then emphatically responded with a story about a similar situation where they had helped put in safeguards and reduce the bills. Apparently this has been a large problem across Dharavi.  She encouraged the woman to come into their office for further help.

She then started to ask about domestic violence. First, she asked, did everyone know what constitutes violence? She said there were four kinds of violence and she started with physical violence – everyone nodded their heads, acknowledging the concept. She then continued by explaining the three other kinds of violence – emotional, financial and sexual.

As she talked about each kind of violence the mood in the room shifted.  The topic of emotional violence was met with some skepticism. Everyone seemed to agree that fighting for financial independence was important. The most uncomfortable reaction came when the field worker explained that even if a couple is married, it doesn’t give a man the right to have sex with his wife whenever he wants.

The woman in the blue sari leaned over and started talking softly to the woman sitting to her right. The field worker asked her to stop talking in general, but (as my translator conveyed), she had also had to ask her to stop talking in Tamil. Apparently these women had originally come from Tamil Nadu and as such they spoke to each other in Tamil.

I tried to break the awkwardness of the moment.  “Tora, tora, Hindi boltay. Tamil, neh!” I had said that I speak only little, little Hindi but no Tamil. Everyone laughed. I can always use my terrible Hindi to amuse people.

The field worker continued. She explained that her organization helped with counseling and legal action as well as awareness. The women listened intently.

The conversation was broken up for a moment when our host’s teenage son walked in.  He stood in his crisp blue school uniform with his Liverpool football club backpack and said hi to the crowd of women taking over his small space. He put the backpack down and waved goodbye- there was nowhere for him to stay. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what on earth it must be like to be a teenage boy and share a bunk bed and room with your parents and siblings.   Every time if I try to look at Dharavi with rose-colored glasses that notice the colorful pictures or the clean floors or the posters on the wall, I have to stop myself from the attempts to glorify. These people are doing the best they can and are trying to improve their community, but this life is incredibly hard. And just seeing the happy but resigned expression on that boy’s face reminded me that every individual in Dharavi is working with a set of cards that gives very little. The poverty here is so much more pervasive and extreme than the poverty we see in America.

I was brought back into the conversation as my translator explained that now we were talking about individual experiences. The field worker obviously had to ask, “Do you know anyone around you who has experienced violence”. By framing it this way women often feel more comfortable raising issues that are happening to them without revealing themselves. They could get questions answered about the available services without feeling embarrassed in front of their friends and neighbors.

Once all their questions had been answered and the conversation about the non-profit was finished, our host served small cups of chai and all the women turned to me. Did I have any questions for them?

I asked (through my translator of course) whether they felt the meeting was useful. The all nodded enthusiastically.

“Will you tell your neighbors about this meeting?”

All of the women started talking – they were telling me how they all gossiped and all the women would definitely share what they’d heard today. The field worker, listening, seemed relieved that they all felt this way.

“Would you feel comfortable if I came back with a camera? Would it be an invasion of the meeting?” Everyone shook their heads adamantly and started talking.

My translator laughed, “No, they say they think it is important to tell this story and speak about these issues, but they admit that they might come very dressed up if you are going to film them.”  I responded that I might have to dress up too, then.

They laughed. One of the women started talking to me and motioned towards her sari. I assumed she was asking if I had a sari.

“Sari, neh. Kurta!” I said, pointing toward the green and gold kurta I was wearing. They all laughed and started talking to each other.

“They’re saying you have to come and they’ll show you how to put on a sari. They are all inviting you to their homes.”

I felt really touched. I asked if they had any questions for me, since they had answered all of mine.

My translator asked and then said, “They say they have no questions, but they want to tell you they are really happy you came here. They are so proud that a foreign white person wants to take the time to tell their story and try to help an organization that is focused on Dharavi.”

I didn’t know what to say. I always feel a little weird that my whiteness always factors in – why should I be more welcome or more exciting just because I am white? It reeks a bit of a bizarre colonial legacy but on the other hand I think most people are just glad to see that their stories and their issues are not lost to the world at large.

Either way, I was glad that they were receptive to the work we wanted to do.  And by the time I left I was invited to four houses for a cup of chai, one Independence Day ceremony this weekend and one woman’s daughter’s wedding.  It was certainly something to feel honored by – even more than a mat to sit on.

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Late last night I saw a full-fledged brawl between ten men break out in the middle of a main street. Somehow, though, this wasn’t the place where I came into contact with the Mumbai police.

The night had started promisingly. We headed down to South Bombay to go a birthday party of a friend. It was nice to escape the smoky bars of Bandra and get a change of scene.

Everyone was having a good time, but as the early evening deepened into late night, there was a knock on the door.   In walked two serious-looking men dressed in khaki from their yellow-embellished hats on their heads all the way down. They were police officers, and they were not there to join the party.

It hadn’t seemed to me like we were actually making a lot of noise – the party was just fifteen or twenty people, and while we did have music on I hadn’t noticed it being overly loud. I got the sense that we were about to be the subjects of a shakedown.

Our hosts went outside to try and talk to the officers. We had turned the music off and we were all prepared to leave, if need be. I later found out that the officers had tried to start with a game of bluff- first they wanted to take us all to jail (for what?). Then they were going to take just the host/birthday boy and his set of speakers to jail (seriously). Of course, they really just wanted a bribe.

Another friend at the party, who grew up in Bombay, tried to intervene. She thought if the cops were paid off then it just contributed to the culture of corruption. She appealed to their sense of Indian hospitality, telling them that since some of the guests at the party (ie: us) were Americans who had just moved to India, it was inhospitable to create a scene at the party. Sadly they were unmoved by this line of reasoning (although she did take down their names and vow to report them).

They were, however, moved by a payment of 2,000 rupees (about $42).

As the police left we figured it was late enough at night that we should probably leave as well. A group of us going back to Bandra hopped in the car to make our way north.

The only time in Mumbai when there is little to no traffic is in the middle of the night, so I was surprised when, only fifteen minutes into our journey, we started slowing down. I looked out the window – a huge fight was taking place.

We were on the Worli sea face on a three-lane road, but only one was moving. Parked cars and a group of men fighting one another occupied the rest. They were taking a no-holds-barred approach: a few were swinging at the others as fiercely as they could while their friends tried to hold them back. Another friend had stepped out of the fight to direct traffic (how thoughtful!). But the fighting was brutal.

I noticed, as we slowly drove by, a few brightly colored Lamborghinis and Ferraris parked at various points near the fight. I had to imagine this was a drug deal or mafia related incident (unless otherwise very wealthy people decide to stop traffic and pick fights randomly in the middle of the night).  The people fighting didn’t notice or bother any of the cars on the road driving past. They just seemed to want to pick the most dramatic place to stage their showdown.

Of course, for this incident, the police were nowhere to be found. Who are they to get involved in an underworld dispute? After all, there are important parties to break up and get paid for.

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I have to be perfectly blunt and say that I can’t possibly fathom what it is like to live in a 10-foot by 10-foot room with one window and one stove and no bathroom with my entire family.

In fact, I don’t really know how to realistically process and respond to my first foray into residential Dharavi without falling into the trap of minimizing, dramatizing or romanticizing the experience.

All I can really say is that now I have seen with my own eyes the living standards that I have heard so much about since moving to Mumbai. And there are a lot of impressions and thoughts that came with my first visit.

I went back to the hospital to meet up with the supervisor who I had been shadowing. He informed me that today, instead of a group meeting, he and his field workers were going out into the community to distribute information about hygiene. This monsoon is the worst in five years and there has been a serious outbreak of malaria and dengue.

I tried to ask in the most polite way, as I had every day, what this had to do with curtailing domestic violence (since that, ostensibly, is their main mission).

“It has nothing to do with violence. But we give information, which is good. Then some people will come to meetings about health care, which they are interested in. Then, once they are involved, we can talk about ending violence. If we start with violence, nobody cares.”

I followed him out of the hospital wondering how he and his field workers get the energy to go out every day when they can’t even raise the topic that they are interested in. It just seemed so daunting.

He informed me that we had to drive to the area we were going to (Dharavi is, after all, very large. At least a million people live here). As we drove he tried to warn me.

“Just… be aware of your feet.”

“My feet?”

“Yes, your feet. They will get dirty. I hope that’s ok.” He didn’t elaborate, but I got the general gist.

We pulled over once we’d gone as far as we could go – I very quickly realized that walking was going to be difficult, let alone driving.

The method for the day was to go “door to door” (I put that phrase in quotes because most of the homes did not have physical doors beyond a makeshift bed sheet).  We walked in from the street and it immediately felt like we’d entered a maze.

They path between houses

Walking into a residential section of Dharavi is actually kind of reminiscent of walking through the tightest alleyways some small European town – if the town were made of poorly constructed cement structures and if you’d been transported back to a time with little plumbing and amenities.

Each home is directly connected to the home next to it, and you maneuver through the area with only a small 2-foot wide pathway serving as your sidewalk. In the middle of this pathway is a hole running the entire length that serves as both a place to lay small pipes and as a moat of sewage.  This is the part that really gets to you if you’re not used to it – there’s a constant pervasive smell of garbage and sewage, which is only exacerbated by the lack of fresh air making its way in. The lanes are so narrow much of it is covered with tarp, so the smells and the heat combine together throughout.

This also creates a trap for the heat– so even though I hadn’t been too hot before we entered the slum, once I was inside the narrow pathways the stale air, confined quarters and number of people surrounding me ensured that I existed in a permanent sweaty state.  But, on the other hand, it started making me cognizant of the small victories: every time a breeze came through I felt it was the coolest moment of my life. I quickly appreciated every wisp of the wind in a way I never had before.

The scene that was laid out in front of me at each turn of the corner was similar– every home had one room, the structure was made of some combination of cement, brick and wood, the roofs appeared to be made of a kind of sheet metal.  Inside every room there was usually a stove, some mats for beds, and a few personal items. A good number of the rooms had televisions – one of the many contradictions that existed in the slum. When at one point I found myself standing at a vantage point where I could see above the structures, I noticed that every third home appeared to have a television dish.  And for every person watching television there were five more staring down at his or her mobile phone.

Color along another path between houses

There was also color everywhere – walls were painted in bright hues, varying clothes dried on the outside of every single house, and children in school uniforms were always running through, brightening the alleys. I don’t know whether it was purposeful or not, but the constant explosion of color gave the slum a vibrancy that seemed to defy the darkness that pervaded in each of the individual rooms.

I mostly just watched as the field workers approached each home and handed out pamphlets  (which had words and text depicting healthy bathing habits, proper garbage disposal and boiling water properly). Some people would only politely accept the handouts without any discussion. Others would take more time and ask questions.

I asked the supervisor what sorts of questions were most common. He said that some people couldn’t read the pamphlet and so they needed to understand the content. Others wanted to know more about the organization. It was in these instances that the field workers could try to encourage the residents to come to a meeting (and they were going to hold one directly following their leaflet distribution). It was their first stage in getting people involved.

Sometimes the discussions took longer – a few people wanted to share their difficulties with the field workers and they would stop to listen and encourage. One woman got angry. She started yelling and talking very animatedly. I had to ask again what was happening.

“She thinks we are useless,” the supervisor said matter-of-factly, “She says if we really wanted to help we would bring medication and other supplies. She says no one will help her and her family.”

“How do you answer that?” I asked.

“Well, we gave her information on clinics that she could go to and places that do give out medication. I understand why she is angry though.”

I didn’t respond. It was still hard for me to shake my previous thought: how could these people be strong enough and motivated enough to do this work every day? These community workers were standing there being yelled at, and instead of being frustrated they were sympathetic of where the anger came from.  I was constantly struck by their enormous patience.

I felt pretty useless in the whole endeavor, but the women kept nudging me along and helping me find my way. They still seemed to accept me, and I felt sort of flattered that they’d actually let me come along for the task. The Dharavi residents themselves mostly just stared at me. Since the pamphlets we were handing out were from Unicef most asked if that was where I was from. It usually started with pointing towards me and then I’d heard the words “gora” and “unicef” thrown in until the field workers responded with “Ali” and “film”. I could usually tell once the conversation had ended because they’d all stop paying attention to me.
The only people who never stopped staring were the children. Every single one, from toddlers to teenagers, looked at me for however long I was standing in their doorway. At many points children would just appear, clearly after having heard that a white person was in their midst. The ones who were learning English wanted to practice. They’d ask to shake my hand and they all wanted to know my name.   When I tried to respond to them in Hindi (saying what my name was or letting them know that I spoke only a little Hindi) they laughed and tried to repeat what I had said in my clearly very foreign accent. But their laughter filled up the constricted alleyways and brought it to life.

The only difficult point for me came when I almost fell headfirst into the narrow sewage stream in the middle of the pathway. Every time I walked I had to focus on putting one foot in front of the other – the pathways were certainly not paved in any standard way and there were often steps or cracked tile or a steep inclines. One turn that looked like a path ended up being mud and I started to slip. But I quickly had at least 10 pairs of hands on me – every field worker and every woman they were talking to had reached out instantly to stop my fall. When I didn’t fall in they all smiled and patted me on the back.

I don’t want to extrapolate too much from one isolated incident, but it certainly made me feel the sense of community that existed there. Maybe that’s my outsider desire to see the good in a dire situation, but it appeared to me that everyone’s instinct was to protect even the visitors. It’s a difficult life and it seems like everyone has accepted that they all need to come together to co-exist.  And maybe it’s from there that the field workers keep the momentum to do the difficult work that they do.

I don’t know if any of these instincts are right. But I’m certainly looking forward to delving in further and trying to tell these women’s stories.   Watching the number of people who showed up for the post-distribution meeting I certainly started to feel more empowered. I sat in a schoolhouse – one room with a broken fan with one chalkboard and no chairs – as the field workers gave an in-depth discussion of disease prevention to the fifteen women who’d showed up. It’s slow work, but little by little they are enacting changes in their community.

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