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Suman - The Fairy Tale Life

"Where will you see sleep tonight?"

I asked this question to eleven-year-old Suman, who was surrounded by her two younger brothers, her friend Rani, and a well-tended, friendly baby goat belonging to Rahul. The children's legs and bare feet were coated in patterned dust, bloody scrapes and dotted with old and new mosquito bites. We were trying to keep our balance while standing on piles of broken bricks, twisted corrugated tin, tangled and torn blue tarps and irregular shaped chunks of thick cement. Dust hung in the air in drifting shapes trying to find a place to settle. Suman pointed to a small clearing a few hundred yards away. "There is where we will sleep", she said as she shifted her four-year-old brother to her other hip.

A few days before, Suman, who speaks English, invited me, Indu and Todd to come to her house for chai. While we removed our shoes, she sorted through a stack of blankets and rumpled clothing and found a piece of a discarded vinyl billboard once used to advertise consumer goods to the Mumbai masses. She laid the piece of vinyl on the cement floor, smoothed it with quick motions of her long, scrawny arms and invited us to sit, please. Suman's mother, a weathered beauty with razor sharp cheekbones, dressed in a gold-trimmed, bright blue sari, had just returned from a long day of work cleaning and preparing food for four families who live in actual buildings. She quietly tended to her boisterous four-year-old son who craved her attention while she made chai in a dented pot on a gas burner that sat atop a slab of wood with legs made of brick. Suman disappeared returning with a small packet of biscuits to offer us with our chai. As we dipped the biscuits into our sweet tea we listened to her weary mother tell us the BMC (the Municipal Corporation of Mumbai) had given twenty-four hours notice to this section of the community to vacate their homes in preparation for demolition.

Suman's house of corrugated tin walls is one of a hundred or so just like it staggered in a meandering lane way on the backside of the pipeline community between the permanent long-term slum homes on the main lane way and the low wall separating an inky black river polluted with sewage. Like other sections of the Saki Naka pipeline community, this is home to rick-shaw drivers, cleaners, maids, Bollywood labourers, security guards and private car drivers who have formed a tight-knit group determined to carve out a life in Mumbai versus going back to the villages they fled in search of something better. Some of Suman's neighbours had already started to clear out their homes and piled their belongings in a covered area of the community reserved for visiting politicians.

The next day as we walked over the foot bridge towards the community, we spotted Suman smiling and waving us towards her. She greeted us and took my hand pulling me past the piled belongings, through the sludge of overflowing drains into the lane way where she lives. The homes were now empty of all but the most broken and unusable belongings but the people were still there, sitting in doorways, defying the BMC to knock down their meek homes. Suman asked for my camera and started taking photos of families who quickly posed in their empty homes as bulldozers started lining up to make a meal out of their jagged tin walls and cement floors. Her parents had gone to work leaving Suman to look after her two brothers and mind their meagre possessions stashed under a blue tarp. They would all be homeless in a few hours.

That's all it took - a few hours for the entire area to become a man-made disaster zone. "Look, there is my neighbour's door", Suman mentioned lightly as we carefully trudged through the knee-deep debris. The light blue door with the bolt still attached lay covered in dust and footprints atop a pile of rubble. Suman picked through the broken pieces of someone's home and smiled when she found a still usable hair-clip, a school photo of a small boy, and a piece of cardboard with a colourful rendering of an elephant. In the distance, sifting through the remains of their homes, women in bright-coloured saris appeared as apparitions in the bleak, devastated scene. But Suman, barefoot and nimble-footed, held our hands and guided us through this new landscape, already aware of where the dangers lay and how best to navigate through the loose wires and spurting water pipes creating streams and forming black puddles. They would all need food, Suman quietly told us as she pulled her fingers through her thick, curly hair. Indu, Todd and I walked up to the tea stall just outside the community and ordered 200 samosas and chai - a tall order for a small tea shop but in India anything is possible. Then we ordered rice and dal to be delivered at eight o'clock that night. Two hours later we went back with kids in tow to fetch bulging bags of samosa, each one wrapped in newspaper. The children excitedly doled out the newspaper packets to their neighbours who stopped scavenging to eat the spicy snack. By nine o'clock that evening, the employees of the tea stall were wrestling huge pots of rice and dal down the stairs into the community where it was ladled out onto paper plates or bowls found in the stacks of belongings. We ordered poha, (a breakfast food of rice and puffed wheat, spices and finely chopped vegetables), to be delivered for breakfast the next morning, served with pots of chai.

By nightfall, Suman's father, who works as a labourer on Bollywood sets, had cleared a small area of unbroken cement which had earlier that morning been the floor of someone else's home. He salvaged two doors and laid them over layers of rock and broken bricks, creating a place for his family to sleep that night. By day two, they had dragged their belongings to their new "home" and had begun to set up a home without walls. Suman rummaged through their dishes and found a pot and made us chai. A squat toilet, still intact, was uncovered a few feet away. The men built walls around the toilet with scavenged tin and attached a piece of rubber hosing to a broken water pipe, creating a private place for the women of the community to bathe. The hose when not in use in the toilet, is used by everyone to wash dishes and clothing on a slab of cement. Some of the families camped among the piles of belongings stored in the politician's area, including a twenty-day-old baby sleeping on the cement wrapped in a dust-infused blanket.

On day four, Suman's family invited us to have food with them. We brought crayons and paper, and a doll for Suman. Indu, Todd and I sat in the sun with Suman and her brothers, scraping ants off our bare feet and watching flies congregate on the fresh chapati dough while her mother, Nirmala, chopped cucumber and tomatoes into a tin plate. Her four-year-old brother Sameet poked his finger in to the dough distracting the flies while Suman cut a pair of discarded trousers into strips to dress her doll. Indu translated the conversation between us and Suman's parents. In a moment of quiet, Indu, who is also from a slum community, wondered aloud if the people Suman's mother cooks for in their fancy apartments would eat the food she was about to serve us in her "home". Amidst their jumbled pile of belongings, Suman rifled through a broken chest of drawers to find clean clothes for her brother while her mother rummaged through a rice sack to find dishes to serve the food on. Children congregated in bunches showing us prizes they had unearthed in the rubble while their parents stoked fires in the distance, gathered usable sheets of tin and bamboo poles and hung clothing to dry on makeshift lines. Some families are building again in full view of BMC security guards stationed on the property and some have moved on to other slum areas because there is a rumour of a service road being built as the reason for the demolition of their homes.

Two weeks have passed since the demolition took place. The air is still thick with dust, families are still building, albeit less permanent structures for now. The BMC security guards are posted around the clock at the top of the site and the bulldozers are sitting idle on the roadway. There is now an obvious path made by the thousands of foot steps coming and going flattening the debris, leading to the new "homes" that have been built, for now defying the bulldozers and the BMC. Suman's parents are looking for a new home in another community, aware that while they are at work, the BMC could order a second demolition and their children would be home alone. While they search for a new community, they have moved their belongings to another broken cement pad and have managed to cobble together four walls. Yesterday, Suman greeted us in her school uniform, her curls tamed into slick braids and tied in white ribbons. Proud of her new walled home, she invited us in for another round of chai and was excited to show us her new drawings of butterflies, princesses and the one she is most proud of, a free-form map of India with the caption "I love India" written in her loopy, sweet printing. Suman's happy nature defies her situation perhaps because her happiness doesn't rely on any expectation. Life for Suman is a day to day struggle in squalid surroundings with the added burden of being a care-giver for her younger brother. She is bright, beautiful, empathetic and nurturing and for those of us who get to hang out with her every day, she provides us with wonder. Suman will turn twelve-years-old on December 17th. We plan to celebrate.

Many slum families are forever on the move trying to keep one step ahead of the BMC demolition squad. With a population of 20 million and counting, Mumbai is home to well over 10 million people who live in slums or on the pavement or on construction sites. There is a grey area regarding legal and illegal slums. All slums are technically illegal but some communities have survived for years without demolition. Slum dwellers are encouraged by corrupt developers to squat on land in a random game of cat and mouse with the BMC to secure expensive plots of land for development. Politicians require vote banks and slums provide hundreds and hundreds of voters who can be bought. The wealthy and middle-class of Mumbai require maids, drivers, cleaners and security guards. Their employees are from slum communities, of low-caste and are paid abysmal wages. Most people who live in slums work seven days a week and some work without pay for weeks while employers make excuses. For those living in India who treat your maids and drivers with compassion and fairness - thank you.Why do they stay in such a dismal, unforgiving situation? They can always find food in the cities while those left behind in villages crippled by drought or who live in tribal areas where they live on subsistence farming, can't feed their families. The city offers some hope (with hardship) and a chance at an education for their children.

Update: Suman's family has found a home a few miles away in a more established area of a different slum. We visited the home today with Suman's mother, Nirmala, to help her pay a deposit. The new home is about 5 feet wide by 8 feet long, windowless and two feet below grade with a hobbit door. It has a cement floor, cement walls and smells of stale, humid air. We walked through a large garbage dump before we found the lane way where the home is located. Nirmala, her eyes adjusting to the light, asked the "landlord", a slinky, small man who seemed actually quite nice, if he would be providing a hanging ceiling fan and a hose to access water for her "kitchen". He pointed to the corroded metal hook hanging from the corrugated ceiling, showing where he would install a fan. Water will come from a communal tap. Indu, Todd and I, looked around the tiny room and tried to imagine five people living here. They will move in two days and DWP will help pay for a small tempo truck to shift their belongings.

One more update: Suman's four-year-old brother suffered severe burns on his entire back when a neighbour was transferring boiling water to another vessel and he got in the way. The family now feels that the new slum home has bad spirits because this accident occurred just a few hours after Nirmala paid a deposit on the new home. They are searching for another home. Suman will be moved back to their native village in the state of Bihar once the current school year is complete. Her mother is fearful Suman will become the victim of sexual abuse while left alone during the day while her parents work. She will live with her grandparents.

DWP donations provided:

-Three meals for 200 people:

200 samosas

200 servings rice and dal

200 servings poha/chai

Rupees 4900 (CAD $84.48)

-Forty-one pairs of flip-flops:

(provided to children from the demolition with leftovers given out in the community)

Rupees 2720 (CAD $27.06)

-Paper/crayons/doll for Suman:

Rupees 230 (CAD $3.96)

-Photographs (122) printed and given out to families:

Rupees 850 (CAD14.65)

-1 pair canvas school shoes for Suman:

Rupees 150 (CAD $2.58)

-Deposit for Suman's new home:

Rupees 10,000 (CAD $172.00)

TOTAL: Rupees 17,698 (CAD $304.73)

Thanks to the ongoing generosity of DWP supporters we are able to help when needed. "See a need and fill it"

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