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Posts Tagged ‘slums’

I’ve been really lucky — through my various film projects and Book of My Own- to be able to spend time in many different kinds of schools in India. But few stand out like the one I went to today.

A friend of mine works for an organization called Mumbai Mobile Creches, and she suggested that Book of My Own do a donation at one of their schools (If you didn’t read about Book of My Own before, click here for a previous blog about it). Mumbai Mobile Creches is a particularly special organization because they are looking out for the children who probably have one of the hardest upbringings imaginable – in slums on construction sites.

When you drive around Mumbai you can’t miss the shells of empty, growing buildings around you.  Everywhere you look another skyscraper is rising from the ground, aided by giant cranes that take over the skyline. The city is expanding as quickly as could be imagined and it seems like the construction is never-ending.

One of the untold stories of all this construction is the slums that pop up around the building in order to accommodate the influx of migrant laborers that work on-site. 30 million Indians live like this. They move from site to site, shifting their homes every few years after they’ve built homes or offices for someone else.  And it’s often entire families that are along for the ride.

What Mumbai Mobile Creches does is set up daycare, pre-school and primary school on the grounds of the construction site. Often they put the school in the building itself, as it is being built. The kids learn Hindi and English, they’re given three meals a day (a life-saver for many parents) and a doctor visits frequently to make sure the children have adequate medical attention. Essentially, they’re creating a life and a community for those who otherwise might have nothing.  I was excited that Book of My Own could give back a little bit to this organization and the kids they are serving.

Books in hand, we drove into the construction site that held one of the schools – on the site three thirty-story concrete buildings stood half-completed. The school was in its own stand-alone building. The classrooms were painted with charts similar to the kinds you would see hanging in a school at home, only these were more permanent. It was a good attempt to brighten up and liven the rooms.

Students picking out books

As soon as we walked in the kids were curious. But once we started laying out books a group crowded around to see. The floodgates burst when we finally let them in the room. They rushed over to the wide pile of books to start finding the one they wanted. They all carefully surveyed the books, walking around them and staring at covers before gingerly picking one up and flipping through. The students were different ages and different reading skills. Some were only mastering the English alphabet. Others could manage basic reading. But all were excitedly trying to decide which book to take.

 

Reading books

I love watching the kids pick out their books and seeing what they love about them. Some like the more tactile books – with pop-ups or different materials. Others are attracted to pictures. Some love the particular stories, if they can read that much. But I don’t think I’ll ever get used to watching how excited these kids get over a book.

After the first round some of the kids went to swap and found new ones. Eventually they started putting them back in the original pile. I didn’t understand — but apparently they didn’t really grasp the concept of keeping the book. They thought they’d have to give them back. We explained that they each got one book to take home. One of the teachers started handing out books without looking at which ones they were, but I insisted that the kids pick the books out, again, themselves. One girl started searching and could not find the book she wanted. My friend who works for Mumbai Mobile Creches asked her which one she was looking for, and she started jumping up and down like Tigger. We immediately located the Winnie The Pooh book she had been looking for.

With a round of ‘goodbyes’ from the teachers and children we left, our box of books much lighter than when we began. I craned my neck to look up at the huge concrete buildings and really appreciated being able to be part of this incredible program for just a day.

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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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When I asked our new driver where we could buy cheap plants for the apartment, I wasn’t expecting the place we ended up.

We drove into Santacruz, a few miles north of Bandra. Once off the highway and down a long road, we started slowing down.

“Ok, here ma’am,” the driver said.

The side of the road plant market

The houses behind the plant market

I looked out my window as he pulled over and stopped. I hadn’t noticed as we’d been driving, but the entire roadside was lined with plants. Plants up and down as far as the eye could see – trees, bushes, flowering plants, everything . And behind the rows and rows of flowers and trees were small slum houses. It was a jarring sight – colorful luscious plants hiding the homes of the people selling them. And the many sellers were out, watching us emerge from the car.

We immediately got a sales pitch: “What you looking for? What you want? I have good plants, very good trees. Or flower you like? This one tree is 300 rupee,” one seller said, pointing at a large tree.

“Teen-saw rupiya? Neh, neh” I replied, indicating that 300 rupees was too much. In reality 300 rupees is only $6 and change. It’s hard to see a five-foot tall tree for the price of a large ice cream in New York as a bad deal. But you can’t think like that here – if you constantly convert in your head you’ll allow yourself to be overcharged over and over again. You have to bargain for what is fair.

As it’s been with most locals, the seller found even my very very limited Hindi quite surprising. No one expects me to know anything, so the most basic phrases and numbers get me far. I kept walking, with the hopes of now being taken more seriously.

For shopping, this tactic has generally been working for me now that I’ve learned the basic numbers. And once I’ve confused people with my little bits of Hindi, I use a foolproof phrase that makes them like me as well (or at least gets them to laugh at me enough to like me a little bit more than they would normally). I had realized the power of this phrase a few days previously while negotiating with a man selling me bananas.

“Kitna huah?” I’d asked (How much?).
“40 rupees ma’am”
“Chalees rupiya?” He looked at me, surprised that I knew the word in Hindi for 40.
“Yes,” he laughed, “Chalees rupiya. That is the price.”
“Neh, neh.” I said, knowing full well that a dozen bananas should be closer to 20 or 30 rupees. But I knew my white face was stopping him from treating me fairly.

“Kyoo gora tax?” I asked

The banana seller laughed. I had asked him why he gave me a white person tax. He found this very amusing and immediately changed the price. With some price knowledge attached to a bit of humor I could at least escape some of price gauging that came with my race.

So I asked the flower seller the same thing: “Kyoo gora tax?”

Nisha started laughing immediately while the seller just looked at me. He started chuckling, clearly amused. He walked over to his fellow sellers and began to talk animatedly. He was telling them what I said and they all were looking over and smiling. I’d won them over – I was willing to make fun of myself and so now we could begin to bargain with real prices.

potting the plants

We picked out one large tree and four medium flowering plants. After my cajoling and Nisha’s instance, all the plants together were priced at a more realistic 345 rupees. The young boys who’d been watching the negotiations intently were now instructed to begin potting the plants. They sat down on the wet ground, dug up mud, tenderly picked away old dirt from the roots, and placed my new plants in their containers.

I’m not used to slums yet. It’s still hard for me to negotiate with a man when I can see that his house is barely standing and that he has no toilet or running water. But for this time at least I felt like everyone had gotten a fair shake – and perhaps a little amusement.

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