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Posts Tagged ‘Dharavi’

Through the Lens

I felt a tugging at my kurta. I looked down and saw a smiling face staring back at me. She reminded me of myself when I was ten: gawky, wearing a neon blue shirt and bright red jeans with a blunt haircut and bangs that were cut unevenly – although, I never had sported a gold and pink nose-ring. This tiny person just wasn’t the picture I’d had in mind of the person who would be meeting us to take us on this particular trip through the maze of residential Dharavi.

I shouldn’t have been surprised – R, one of the field workers at the domestic violence prevention center in Dharavi we’d been working with, had told us she was sending her daughter to get us. And while R was only 26 years old, I knew her eldest was 10. But it was still daunting to watch this little 50 lb girl confidently navigate the way from the hot sunny streets outside the hospital where met into the dark, confusing tangle of houses.

We were finally about to start filming – after months of research, waiting for equipment, delayed meetings, and permission slips signed by the husbands (yes, this was still a requirement for a women’s health organization in order for filming to be allowed), I felt like I understood what these women were doing enough to tell their story. We had decided that we would follow three of the field workers to illustrate the work being done to eradicate domestic violence in Dharavi. All of them had grown up in Dharavi and all of them could have stayed at home like so many other women here– but they had decided to wake up every morning and combat an issue that is so entrenched it’s hard to fathom attitudes changing.

So we were starting with R. We were going to go to her house, film her morning routine and then interview her in her home. I was going with K, my translator, who was going to have to conduct the interviews, since none of the women spoke English. I was nervous about not having control over the interview, even if I had written the questions. I was nervous about not being able to properly shoot a space too small to capture. I was nervous that I couldn’t ever really tell the story properly, since I was so foreign and so clearly outside. But I was certainly going to try my best.

R’s daughter brought us to their home. It was a five-foot by five-foot room, covered top to bottom in lilac tiles. The bed took up a third of the apartment – it was a steel frame cut short so it could fit exactly from end to end of the room. R, her husband, and their three children all slept in this bed, in their windowless house, with one fan every night. When I came in R was lighting incense for a statue of a Hindu god that she had to stand on her bed to reach because it was up in one of the few cupboards the room had. She and her husband had been able to afford a fridge and a television – and the two youngest children were sitting on the bed watching a dubbed Hindi version of Looney Tunes. I watched as Bugs Bunny chewed on a carrot and leaned in to say, “What’s up Doc?”, although the words came out as whatever the equivalent in Hindi was.

R stepped off the bed and greeted us. She told K that she was just going to do her morning routine and we could film whatever we liked. I felt sort of voyeuristic taking out my camera, but I kept reminding myself that she wanted us to be there, she wanted us to make a film about the subject she worked so hard for every day, and she had no qualms sharing her life.

We all danced around each other in the small space over the next two hours as R painstakingly completed all the household chores (while her husband mostly sat and played with the children). She cleaned everything top to bottom. She went out and gathered water. She gave each child a bucket shower with the water out in the alleyway because there wasn’t enough space in the house. She washed all the dishes in the alleyway, crouched down, scrubbing each meticulously. She came in cut onions and coriander to make a morning pulao for her family and offered some to K and myself. Her portable gas stove took up the entire small counter.

While we were eating, the kids came over to study my camera and play with my iphone. They giggled and pushed each other around – I couldn’t help feeling like their games and actions were so familiar even if I couldn’t understand the words. Two older girls and a toddler son – just like how my family had been. The sisters tickled each other and poked each other, giggling at the games and pushing each other around every time their parents stopped looking.

It’s a conflicting feeling, watching a woman in Dharavi’s morning routine from the lens of a white, privileged person. You don’t want to glorify it by saying, “Oh, they are so happy. They don’t seem to care that they are poor. They work hard and love each other.” But you don’t want to diminish it by saying, “How can they live like that? How can people survive without space or light or privacy? How can this powerhouse woman, who I’ve spent so much time with over the last few months, possibly find the strength to do this every single day?”. The truth seems to lie somewhere in-between that – it’s not beautiful and its not impossible. It’s not a glorified life of poverty but it’s also not a miserable existence. This is life.

R’s husband left after breakfast- he works ‘cutting fabric for pants.’ R’s kids were out of school for Diwali so she instructed them to either leave or keep quiet while we set up the interview. R sat on her bed and K and I sat on the floor – although K had to kneel and try and keep herself on R’s eye level so it wouldn’t look weird on camera. It was assumed that no one around us would have a chair she could use.

And so she began talking – it was really hard for me, to sit back and hope for the best as my interview took place, essentially, without me. Because I didn’t want to interrupt the interview, K couldn’t translate for me until R finished answering each question fully, and even then she only gave me a summary, since I thought it would be awkward to have long pauses for R between questions. When I interview someone I normally can listen out to make sure the question has been answered, or whether I need to rephrase it to get a little bit more – here I’ll only find out whether it worked or not once everything is transcribed and translated.

But I was able to understand the basics of R’s story: her husband – the one who I’d marveled at moments before for his tenderness towards his wife and children – had previously had a habit of beating his young wife. R had confided to an aunt about the beatings and she directed R towards the non-profit she now works for. Initial counseling was difficult – her husband didn’t think he was doing anything socially unacceptable – but eventually he came around. She feels lucky, because so many of the women she sees now can never convince their husband that anything is wrong. R eventually began volunteering and was hired by the NGO a year ago. She doesn’t think violence will ever come close to being eradicated. But she’s hoping that they can make even a small difference.

When the interview ended we thanked R for letting us in and sharing her story. She smiled, we said goodbye, and made our way back into the alley.

As we put our shoes back on, K looked up.

“Can you imagine stepping outside your house and not knowing whether it was night or day?” she said. It was true – the layers of sheet-metal and drying clothing and extra stories and tarp all made it very dark and difficult to see the sky, even though we were outside of the house.

“I can’t,” I said honestly. But the thought was interrupted as R came out too, purse in hand, ready to walk us back out to the street. She led the way.

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Book of My Own

Yesterday was one of my proudest days since moving to India.

As I’ve written about before, I recently went back to the US for family reasons.  It was jarring. To go from a place where poverty is in your face and most people around you have very little, into the crisp clean wealthy world of American life was fairly overwhelming.

And it made me really look at what we own in a different light. While I was sitting at home in Charleston, I was especially drawn to all the books that were sitting unused on our bookshelves.  I couldn’t help but think of all the time I’ve been spending in Dharavi. Wouldn’t just one of these books be an inspiration for a child who has so little to call their own? Didn’t we all as children read the same book over and over again anyway? (I certainly read Goodnight Moon more times than I can count).

So the thought marinated for a bit. Why couldn’t we somehow get these unused books to people here in India?

Children with their new books!

From that initial germ of a thought came the concept for Book of My Own, a project a few friends and I have started to encourage expats and travelers to bring old books from the US for kids in need here. We believe that book ownership is empowering – by having a book that is theirs these children can remain inspired even when school lets out for the day.

The idea has spread more quickly than we imagined. Within a few weeks we already had two travelers bring books. And yesterday, we really got started. We gave out books to 30 students in a kindergarten classroom in Dharavi.

A child holding onto his new book

It was amazing to watch the kids’ faces as they picked out the book that they wanted to keep. Some of them clutched to their books once they got one. Others immediately plopped down and started reading and pointing pictures out to their friends.

When we had story time their enthusiasm was even clearer – every page was a question. Why is that lion there? What is happening next? Why does that tree look like that? Will it all turn out ok in the end? These are kids that are engaged, excited and ready to learn, in spite of all the difficulties that surround them in their daily life. They only spend four hours in their classroom each day. Now they get to keep learning and thinking at home.

Reading to the kids

I hadn’t written about this before because I didn’t want to get my hopes up that the kids would care about it as much as I thought they would. I didn’t want to seem self-congratulatory when we hadn’t really done anything.  But I’m going to go out on a limb now and say I think we really did make a small change in each of those 30 kids lives. Maybe it’ll be nothing; maybe the excitement will have vanished by today. But I get the sense that those books are going to get well worn from being read over and over again, just like my copies of Where the Wild Things Are or Eloise eventually did. And in a place like Dharavi where the small things count, I’m suspecting this will have a large impact.

We’re just getting started. I’m hoping that within a few months 30 kids will become 300 kids. But no matter what, yesterday was a great day.

(And, as a plug, if you’re at all interested in donating or bringing books or you just want to know more you can always go to our website: http://www.bookofmyown.com)

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The Choices We Make

When I was in high school we took a class called ‘life issues’, which was essentially meant to be a sex-ed class coupled with self-esteem and health issues. Everyone joked about it and laughed off the content (what teenager isn’t uncomfortable in a glorified sexual health class?) but the school made it very clear that these were important issues that we needed to understand.

I mention this now because I was thinking about ‘life issues’ quite a lot as I sat in a small room with no windows in Dharavi, sweating through my long sleeved cotton kurta and long linen pants, watching a field worker explain sexual education and health to a group of Muslim teenagers – most of whom were married and many of whom already had children.

At this particular meeting (I’ve now been to so many I’m starting to get the hang of it), the field worker was fearless. Here was a Hindu woman in a sari trying to explain female anatomy to a group of women whose only visible anatomy was their face and hands. She had started on the topic of periods. Did anyone in the room want to open the discussion by relaying when they got their first period?

Silence.

My translator piped up, telling her story to try and break the ice. It seemed to make the girls less uncomfortable as they laughed and giggled at her trials and tribulations. They started sharing more about themselves.

But then the conversation took a more somber tone: “How many of you feel that your periods make you dirty?” they were all asked. Everyone raised their hands. I was really surprised – how can you have given birth to a child and still feel ashamed about your body’s natural reproductive cycles?

But the field worker was not at all surprised by this response. She began a very stern tirade – she explained that this was a beautiful and natural part of our humanity. She was adamant that they not let their religious views lead to unsanitary practices.

Apparently, in their religion (or their practice of their religion within their particular culture), when a woman has her period she is considered unclean. Anything that she touches becomes impure and she cannot go near her mosque. I had seen similar signs relating to Hindu temples in Indonesia, instructing menstruating women to stay away, but it was amazing to me that this practice is so widespread across varying religions.

Most of these women could not afford sanitary pads (and tampons don’t even exist here for anyone) so they used rags. And when the rags were dirty they would often clean them and then hide them away for drying. This apparently can lead to infections when the rag is used the next time, because without sufficient space to dry, the wet rag can become a hotbed for bacteria.

I’m going to pause here for a moment to acknowledge that this is a very uncomfortable and graphic blog post. But it is astounding the things we take for granted – I rarely consider my period because the modern marvel of tampons makes it as insignificant as possible. These women are getting infections in large numbers because they do not have access to something as simple and cheap as sanitary pads, and their shame about having their period stops them from drying their rags in the sun or out above a flame or even on a drying rack. It’s just astounding to me the number of hardships these women face every day.

I watched as the field worker continued to encourage and explain sanitary habits. The women listened, uncomfortably but attentively. Some of the women began to open up and ask questions.

One woman, who is 15 and has been married for 6 months, had not yet gotten her period. She had not met her husband because apparently in her tradition you don’t meet for one full year. She was worried that if she didn’t get her period soon that she wouldn’t be able to continue being married.

The field worker kindly explained that if she never got her period it would not mean she couldn’t stay married, but it would unfortunately mean that she could not have children. The woman looked stricken – apparently she wasn’t confident that she could stay married without the ability to have children.

Again, as with most of the other meetings I have been to with this particular group, the discussion had nothing to do with it’s stated goal of reducing domestic violence – it was just another way to bring people into the organization. Little by little, person by person, they just try to help in the many many places where help is needed.

As the discussion came to a close and most of the women (girls? How do your characterize young teenagers with such adult responsibilities?) said goodbye, we were left with the girl who had hosted us in her home. She was 15 and her mother had ‘chaperoned’ the discussion.

She had stayed behind to ask the field worker about computer classes- she wanted learn but she only could read and write in Urdu, and all of the classes were in Hindi or English.

I asked why she had chosen to go to an Urdu-only school.

She laughed and started talking. My translator said she was explaining that it wasn’t a choice. The only school she could go to was a madrassa, and the only thing they learned was the Koran.

“You mean that’s what you learn most of the time?” I asked.
“No,” my translator translated. “It’s the only thing we ever study.”
“Can’t you go to another school?”
“There is no other school available. And the men in my family wouldn’t let me go to another school anyway.”

This is the point at which I started to get angry. She and her mother and I then began a thirty-minute discussion where I kept asking why and they kept laughing at me and answering that, “This is just the way it is.”

She couldn’t go to a different school because there wasn’t one that would take her.
She couldn’t take lessons in English because she wouldn’t have time for that and the men in the family wouldn’t allow it.
She couldn’t wait to get married because that would bring shame to her family.
Her school couldn’t teach anything other than Urdu because they could only spend time reading the Koran.
She couldn’t get a job because the men wouldn’t allow it.

I just kept sitting there stunned, trying to find some alternative. Could these women really just allow themselves to be subjugated in this way when they understood what was happening? I asked what kept them from just leaving.

“This is our home. This is our life. Would you want to start completely over and never be allowed to see your family or anyone in your community again?”

I answered that no, I would not want that. That seemed to settle it for them. I was starting to wonder if I had overstepped, so I apologized for asking so many questions. They, again, just laughed at me.

“It’s ok. We understand that you live your life differently.”

I nodded, thinking we were having a moment. But then the mother started saying something that my translator wasn’t translating. I asked her what they were saying.

“You don’t want me to tell you – now they’re asking if you can help them in any way. They want you to maybe help the men in their family find better jobs or for you to give them some money.”

I guess our moment was over. I tried to respond that I was going to be helping by making the film about the organization. They didn’t seem moved.

I walked out still feeling angry. It’s one thing to not understand that there was another world out there. It was another to know that other people are free and to just calculate that it’s not worth it for you.

The meeting and my conversation swam in my mind as I walked out. These women can’t even stand up for themselves by demanding that their rags dry out in the open, let alone demand for education or the ability to work. It was the first time I had left a meeting where I didn’t feel inspired or empowered. So now they knew about their reproductive systems and proper menstrual hygiene – so what? Would they even use the information they would be given? Or would they just continue to be under-educated child brides with no ability to break their own cycle?

I said this to the field worker. I asked her how she keeps going every single day when there are so many battles to fight and change comes in such small incremental steps?

“Because it needs to be done,” she replied. Yes it most certainly does.

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Drawing the Line

Today in Dharavi I got the giggles. And perhaps that seems strange on a day where the heavy monsoon forced me to wade through ankle-deep puddles consisting of rainwater, dirt, garbage and inevitably sewage. I felt as wet and as dirty as the huge rats that scurried through the small moats dug in the side of the narrow residential pathways.

But I couldn’t help but get the giggles.

The staircase up to the house

It started with a meeting and a ladder. A field worker brought me and my translator to the building where we would be attending a discussion on ration cards. When we arrived the field worker pointed up at a steep metal ladder. To get into the home of the woman hosting the discussion, we would have to climb a nearly vertical incline in the pouring rain. I said a little prayer and climbed up – this was, after all, the climb that every member of this family undertook multiple times every day.

Safely inside I washed my feet off and sat on the cold stone ground. My whole body was wet and a fan was humming right above my head – it was my first time since arriving in India that I’d actually been cold. I almost relished the feeling.

I looked around at the home. It was larger than some others I had been to, but more sparsely furnished. There were no beds or refrigerators or televisions. A teenage boy slept on a mat on the ground, oblivious to the meeting going on around him. Our host explained that he was her son. I blinked back at her, unsure of how to respond. This woman looked about 30 years old.

“He’s your son?” my translator asked in Hindi. The woman laughed.

“I know, we don’t look too far apart in age. But he is 18 and I am 33. I got married to my husband when I was 14.”

This sparked a discussion about everyone’s children – I found out that the 26-year-old field worker had an 11-year-old son. She passed around her mobile phone to show photos of her 11, 5 and 3 year old children. I guess at 25 I’m practically a spinster in Dharavi.

After this small-talk, the meeting began.  As with most of these meetings, the topic was not domestic violence (the non-profit’s stated purpose). Instead, today it was ration cards.

ration 'card', more like a book!

It’s hard to even delve into the statistics on ration cards in India without feeling a bit overwhelmed. In India, if you are ‘BPL’ (or Below the Poverty line) you qualify for a ration card.  The ration card entitles you to subsidized wheat, rice, dal, gas, oil and sugar.

But it’s shocking to hear what BPL actually is. While the exact number depends on the state you live in, to quality for BPL you have to earn less than 30,000 rupees annually for a family (approx $640). That works out to about $50 a month for an entire family to survive – and the average family in India is 5 or 6 people, which means each person is living on less than $10 a month.  330 million people qualify as BPL and theoretically receive ration cards. (Just FYI, these stats come from Indian government websites, which may or may not be totally accurate).

If you put this in perspective, our normal ‘Western’ heuristic of extreme poverty looks at individuals living on below $1 a day. However, about 45% of Indians fit into that category. If you expand the criteria to $2 a day 80% of India is included. By contrast, to qualify as BPL you would have to live on around 30 cents a day.

You would think that existing on 30 cents a day would be enough to go through, but apparently the Public Distribution System (which runs the ration cards scheme) is infected with corruption from the top down. And as such many (if not most) families have difficulties getting their rations.

The women we were speaking with faced all kinds of problems: The proprietor of one woman’s Fair Price Shop (where rations can be purchased) insisted that each purchase came with a 50 rupee (approx $1) surcharge. Another claimed he had run out of oil and had not supplied it for months. Another claimed that if the women complained he could take away their ration cards. And almost all received much less than their allotted rations for the month. It seemed to be widely known and accepted that the shopkeepers stole the remaining rations and sold them on the black market.

So the field worker began to explain to the women their rights – they could demand to see the price list, they could demand to write in the shop’s government-issued complaints booklet, their ration cards could not be taken away by anyone.  She said she was going to take them all to their Fair Price Shops to show them where all the items were located and to make sure the owners understood that they now knew their rights.

And so off we all went, down the treacherous staircase, and further into the streets. We were the most colorful and spirited mob of women you could find – 15 Indian women and one white woman in saris and kurtas, all soaked, still trying to avoid the rain – but with spirits bolstered by the newfound knowledge.

Some of the women in front of one shop

And it was on this trip that I got the giggles – because try to imagine a large group of women approaching one man who has systematically screwed them over time and again.  And then imagine his face once he realizes what’s happening.

I watched as the field worker stood in front of him and started explaining to the women what their rights were. She demanded to see his complaint book, she demanded to see his price list – and all he could do was watch and cooperate, looking angry and sheepish all at once.

“His face is damn priceless!” my translator whispered to me as we watched. She apparently also found the situation highly amusing.

And clearly this wasn’t going to solve the problems that existed on the state and national level – politicians and government workers are still going to steal rations and the money for rations. Our one day wouldn’t solve that.

But it was hard not to feel empowered by the scenario. These shopkeepers at the ground level had been put on notice. People who deserved to get food subsidies were closer to getting what they needed.  And all it took was a little bit of education – these women just needed to know that the shopkeepers couldn’t hurt them. They needed to know what they were entitled to.

How could I not feel good watching that? The problem wasn’t fixed, but these women had certainly taken a large step.

And so I just stood back, let the rain soak me through, and laughed while watching the tiny victory taking place in front of me.

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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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It’s funny when my old world information sources suddenly collide right into my new world.

Last night I came across an Op-Ed article in the New York Times about slum tourism. It was written by a Kenyan who has been appalled by the growth of this cottage industry that shows mostly Western tourists what life is like in the slum. Mumbai is mentioned as a ‘hot spot’ (if there is such a thing when it comes to slum tours).  The article is now sitting in the New York Times’ most emailed list.

Living in New York, I always read articles like this one with great interest – what are the many things I am not seeing from my small island’s perspective?  We often rely on journalists and writers and filmmakers to teach us about the vast portions of the world we’ll never experience or see in our lives.  And we hope their perspective would be our perspective

So it was very strange to see my go-to paper covering an issue that doesn’t appear to be high on the radar here (in my experience, at least compared to much more pressing issues)– and claiming Mumbai as part of this horrible trend. I certainly can’t claim to know the feelings of most people here about slum tours. But I do have my own perspective – one that has changed since I came here.

I heard from various people when I arrived that you could take a slum tour. My initial reaction was the same as the author of the article – it’s exploitative, it’s degrading, you’re making people’s lives into tourist attractions.

But as I spent some time in Dharavi I started to realize that it’s not so simple to just dismiss it.  The most recognizable slum tour here is run by Reality Tours – they do not allow photography (one of the main complaints in the NYT article), they focus on showcasing Dharavi’s economy (recycling factories, leather workshops etc), 80% of their profits go to Dharavi NGO’s and they fund and run a school.  They are trying to show and improve a community, not just stare at poor people. How can this side of the story be dismissed so easily?

This particular subject has been on my mind a lot lately because obviously I’ve been spending a lot of my own time in Dharavi.  I’ve really thought a lot about how to not be intrusive, how to write in a realistic but sensitive way, how to possibly keep even a basic perspective on something I can’t possibly understand. But while all of these issues should be considered, I think the most basic fact I’ve come away with is this: the people I have encountered in my short time in Dharavi all just want to improve their community. Slum tours (that are run in a thoughtful way) raise money that provides education and services. So most people that I have met seem to not be bothered by it. A few people I have asked have actually wondered why we would think it is bad.

Again (once again with the caveats!), this is only my one experience. I’m sure plenty of people in India and Dharavi (who have lived here much much longer) hate the tours. But my own experiences changed my opinion pretty quickly.

So, with all that percolating and marinating in my mind for weeks, reading this article struck me in a strangely personal way.  I’ve only been here a very short time, but I suddenly became defensive of my perspective – how could this person who has only seen Kenya’s experience lump in Mumbai, without ever having seen it?

And I guess that is the funny thing about perspective and why it’s been so important for me to travel and experience the world: you can read every article, watch every news program and study every book, but making sure you have your own opinion in the narrative is essential.

I just feel grateful that on this subject I can even begin to have a semi-informed opinion and engage in the debate.  And so, Kennedy Odede, Op-Ed contributor in the New York Times, I respectfully disagree with your assessment because I think it ignores the good some slum tours do. But thanks for raising the subject – and I welcome any others to disagree with me.

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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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Try to imagine sitting in a meeting where you don’t understand the language that the meeting is being conducted in. You’ll either be really bored or you’ll start to notice the details of a conversation in a way you never could if you were just focused on the words. Perhaps it’ll be a little bit of both.

This is the scenario I found myself in on my second day of observing in Dharavi. I wanted to sit in on one of the afternoon group meetings. The supervisor who was leading the meeting spoke perfect English so he said he could translate the basic agenda throughout the afternoon. Of course I should have guessed that the person leading the group wouldn’t have a lot of time to lean over and translate.

While we walked from the hospital to the field office I asked what today’s meeting was about.

“Today the meeting will be about lots of things. The women who come will get information from us and then they can spread that back among their community. So we’re talking about senior citizen benefits and rations and health care during the monsoon.”

I tried to keep up with him as we walked. I was attempting to maneuver through the streets without stepping in garbage or getting run over while still maintaining a conversation. After sidestepping a tethered sheep, I endeavored to get more clarity, “But what does that have to do with domestic violence?” I asked.

“Nothing today. But we always try to bring it up a little bit and then build trust and stay in their minds as a resource. But today is just about spreading information for daily life.”

I nodded while falling back to accommodate a bus coming by. We turned the corner into the field office and I was relieved to be off the street. I took my shoes off (today I had more wisely chosen waterproof footwear) and walked in among a much larger group than I had seen the previous day. About 30 women of all ages had come to the meeting. I sat down at the front with the supervisor while they all stared at me.

He started talking and gesturing towards me. I could make out a few words- Ali, filming, etc – so I knew he was explaining who this white person was and why she was here. As he talked everyone started nodding and smiling towards me. And with that, the meeting began.

Every once in a while I would get the basics translated (“Now we’re talking about how to set up the benefits if you are a senior citizen” or “Now we are answering questions about taxes”) but mostly I just listened as the words went in one ear and musically drifted out the other without meaning. Every minute or so I’d pick up on a phrase or a number I knew. Or I’d hear a word or phrase in English (for example, Senior Citizen Benefits is just referred to as Senior Citizen Benefits. I suppose they use terms like that when they are the official government term, since the government of India’s official language is English).

So I just watched. And even without understanding the content I got the distinct sense that this was a group of women who wanted to gain every piece of knowledge they could. They hung onto all the words that I couldn’t understand. When a question was posed calling for a show of hands, the hands shot up enthusiastically. All eyes were on the speaker as every woman sat on the ground for over two hours in a hot room with nothing but fans to keep them cool. They all had questions – and when they were called on they spoke animatedly and excitably, as though the entire world depended on the question’s answer.  They clearly were there to better their communities and to use the resource that had been placed in front of them. You don’t need to know the language to feel like you understand the sense of the urgency each person is feeling.

And it was apparently acceptable to them that I was just sitting in. Every time one of them would catch me watching, they didn’t look away – they always smiled and looked me right in the eyes. One child came over to give me a closer look (as one might imagine, the children here have no hesitation to overtly staring at a white person) and when I looked at the mother to see if it was ok, she gave me an approving nod. The child sat down in my lap and took a nap. No one seemed to notice. I guess if I wanted to come be a part of their community no one was going to give me a second thought — even if I couldn’t communicate beyond the most rudimentary basics.

At the end of the meeting a number of women stood around to continue to share their ideas and questions with the supervisor and the field workers. I walked out with the last group and everyone waved and said goodbye to me. I hadn’t understood the words, but I was glad I had come.  I think sometimes its important to see the work and see the excitement. And then perhaps, sometime soon, the translations will come a little bit more quickly.

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We marched out of the Dharavi hospital with a sense of purpose. I’d come back to begin my project here with the domestic violence prevention center. I’m going to be documenting the work they do and so I’m starting by shadowing for a few days.  I’d met up with the supervisor in the main office, but he was taking me to the field office, in the heart of the slum.

We had to go single file – there are no sidewalks in Dharavi that I’ve seen. We were walking along 60 Foot Road, which is named quite literally for the width of the street.  It’s a bustling thoroughfare with shops on either side and then trucks, cars, motorbikes, people, stray animals, and trash all crowding the road.  Because of the monsoon everything is wet and mud sticks onto my feet and legs within the first steps. At times I had to breathe through my mouth when passing a particularly garbage-filled (or excrement laden) area.

I tried mostly to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other and following my leader. I kept one eye on his black shirt in front of me and one eye on the ground so I didn’t fall or step on anything that could hinder me. We maneuvered through large good carrier vehicles parked on one side of the road while cars and motorbikes went around us on the other side. It’s like an elaborate game of Frogger getting through the Dharavi streets, and you can’t stop paying attention for more than a moment.

But when I could steal away moments of attention, I tried to take in the energy of the place. It’s like it’s own small city in the middle of a metropolis. The commotion has a pattern and every shop and stand is bustling with the breath of the community. It’s colorful and chaotic and exciting – even while you’re trying not to get run over.

By the time we got to the office my sandals were soaked through and the bottom of my blue kurta was splattered with mud and dust and who knows what else. The office is mostly just an empty room with no windows and no formal door – paint cracked on walls that were entirely empty except one team photo. Everyone sat on the floor, paying no attention to the one piece of furniture in the room, a desk with an unused old computer. But the circle of women that occupied the space filled the room with their vibrancy.

I took my shoes off and sat with the women, who were diligently writing in notebooks on wooden trays perched on their laps. One volunteer, who had been brought along to translate for me, alerted the group to my presence. In Hindi she explained who I was and why I was there. Everyone looked up and smiled at me – without words I knew I was welcome.

Through slow translations I began asking questions. The most vocal of the group, a woman of approximately 30 in a blue kurta with her hair pulled into a tight bun, started by explaining their day to day activities. In the morning they document the previous day’s work (hence the writing when I walked in) and do office activities. In the afternoon they hold sessions.  The sessions consist of groups of women from the community who want to talk about any issue that’s bothering them, whether it be sanitation concerns, food rationing, or safety. The field workers try to use these sessions to solve community issues as well as raise the problems of domestic violence.  Even though all of this was being said to me in Hindi, the woman speaking looked straight at me as she talked, as though she wanted to make sure the message was coming through.

I asked why the subject of domestic violence had to be addressed in such a roundabout way. A quiet woman in an orange sari with a slew of bangles and earrings responded animatedly once my question was raised. She said it’s an impossible topic in Dharavi. No one would come to their group sessions if they were just speaking primarily about domestic violence. Most of the time, if a woman raises the issue, she begins by saying she has a cousin or a neighbor who is experiencing violence in the home. Then the workers have to approach her later to find out if it is really she who is in need of help or counseling.

We talked for over an hour through translations about the various work they do beyond the group sessions – outreach campaigns and talks and films, youth groups and now even a men’s group. They have an upcoming campaign August 15th for Indian Independence day where they will try to recruit new members. They’re also now training more active members in how to deal with domestic violence throughout the community beyond the group sessions.

The women truly lit up when I asked why each of them had decided to make a career out of community work. All the field workers are originally from Dharavi and all the ones I spoke to had originally gotten involved through the groups they now lead. Most of them originally didn’t even know you could have a job where your duties were just helping others. But as every one went around the circle and told their individual stories it was clear that each had been inspired by the small changes they could create and now all were devoting their life to it.

We took a break for lunch before they went out into the community for their afternoon work. I sat, hesitant. I certainly didn’t want to get sick from eating street food in Dharavi. But even before the Hindi was translated I could see that they all wanted to share their food with me. They all now had questions for me and it was my time to share. As they pulled out their rotis and various vegetables they started quickly asking questions to my translator while motioning for me to eat.

I didn’t want to be rude. I couldn’t be rude – they had answered every question I had and had welcomed me in without hesitation.  And now they wanted to share with me.  So I took a roti, said a little internal prayer hoping to not get sick, and ate. As I ate I answered all their questions – why was I here in India? What country did I come from? Did I like being in Mumbai? Did I miss home? Did I like Indian food? Through the translation they all laughed and smiled and kept asking more and more questions.

And when lunch was over and they were off for their afternoon work I said goodbye and made my way back through the crazy streets of Dharavi. I’d be back the next day to see the group sessions and I already felt truly lucky to be able to watch them work in this place they loved so much.

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I have finally begun what I hope will be a long-term effort during my time here in Bombay.

Everyone has been asking me since I arrived: What are you hoping to do here? And the answer to that question ranges from vague to very specific. It’s either: “I’m hoping to take a step back from my hectic life and do something valuable.” or, the more honest and blunt, “I have no actual plan.”

I knew one thing: I wanted to use the skills I’ve learned over the last few years to be truly valuable somewhere in a way others couldn’t. The only question was, what on earth would that entail?

Luckily I was put in contact with a woman who certainly understood my vantage point. She is a former journalist who tired of the profession and started her own non-profit that aims to give underprivileged women a voice through the use of media and communications.  After listening to my story and hearing what I was hoping to do, she suggested a seemingly great solution: I could go to the various NGO’s her organization partnered with and document their stories. They could use it for their websites, or presentations or fund-raising — wherever it would be helpful.

We decided to start with an organization that works with domestic violence victims in Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums.

It’s hard for me to explain Dharavi in any knowledgeable context, since my first visit was very short and contained. But just the statistics alone can bring some perspective. It’s estimated that at least a million people live in Dharavi — an area that’s less than one square mile. Or, to use a National Geographic estimate, there’s 18,000 people living on every acre. Rents can be as low as $4 a month. And you won’t have trouble finding it – Dharavi is a 15-minute drive across the highway from Bandra. This prime real estate has led to some controversial re-development proposals in recent years (although none seem to be quite able to get off the ground, from what I have been told).  Most people in the West became familiar with Dharavi (even if they don’t know it) because the childhood scenes in the film Slumdog Millionaire were shot there.

With all that in mind I drove into Dharavi to discuss the work that I would be doing.

I didn’t see a lot – the organization is based in a public hospital on one of the main roads, so I have yet to experience the teeming mazelike interior of the slum. But even just driving down the road you can understand why there are two very different mindsets about this place.

The obvious negative descriptions are apparent – Most of the structures appeared to be built with sheets of materials cobbled together, often rusting and filled with holes. One building’s owners had tied ladders horizontally in-between wall materials in order to create an open window. Dirt was everywhere, casting a dark pall on the haphazard structures. The bright bursts of color that exist everywhere else in Mumbai were only visible on the saris of women walking through the street.

But it was clear from the outset why this place is also known for a sense of community. Those sari-clad women chatted animatedly as they walked together down the street.  Down the road, a man tried to lift something into a truck and another man crossed over the street and offered to help. The main road was lined with every kind of shop imaginable – grocery markets, restaurants, clothing stores. You can understand why residents have been so vocally against development — they have created a life here and their neighbors and families own businesses. It is a city unto itself.

I went into the hospital, up to the small area cordoned off for the domestic violence center. The woman accompanying me told me that the public hospitals are often empty because the doctors who are appointed to work there just don’t show up. Since they are political appointees, no one higher up notices (or chooses to notice) the absences that take place throughout the system.

But the center itself was full of life – the women who worked there were in full motion — holding meetings, typing away at computers, and discussing work over chai.

I took a glass of chai when it was offered and began speaking with the center’s director about what might be useful. What she wanted was to be able to tell the story of their work to the outside world as well as to the organizations that give them funding.  We agreed that I should begin by spending a few days with the women before filming in order to gain a bit of trust and goodwill before jumping in. I could then start filming the women’s daily life in Dharavi as well as the work of the center.

We shook hands and agreed to touch base next week after she’d run the plan by her board. As I got up to leave she announced to the office, “This is Ali. She’s going to do some work with us.” I was immediately inundated with various women coming over to shake my hand and welcome me.

Even in that first meeting, I got the sense that this was a place where I could bring some value. And I hope in the next weeks and months I will be able to.

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