“Do you like Mumbai?”, a teacher inquired of us while we were waiting at Nandchhaya School to watch students perform a Navratri dance.
“Yes, yes, we do”, we insisted and backed it up with an additional nod of our heads.
“Oh, that is so nice, but I am so sorry for the mess”, she replied as she motioned towards the window facing Saki Naka Pipeline Road.
We’re never complacent when arriving in Mumbai. Stepping out of the airplane and into the arrivals hall, we expect the first whiff of Mumbai air to be a stew of damp, dirty carpet, diesel fuel and a touch of jasmine incense. However the airport is being renovated, and this time the only smell was of industrial glue and newly shellacked surfaces. Even finding the correct baggage carousel was easy because of well intentioned signs marking the way. We were only reminded that we were in Mumbai when we noticed a quick shuffle of feet and the sudden jerky movements in the crowd at the prepaid taxi counter. A large, slow-moving rat rambled between the forest of legs and climbed over open-toed sandals, hoping to find dropped morsels of food or perhaps the way out of the airport just like the rest of us. One woman, unfazed by the size of rodent ambling its way toward her, bent down and remarked how cute the rat was and I thought she might pet it.
Despite the fancy new airport, Mumbai is still Mumbai. The city heaves with tangled ribbons of belching, honking traffic. The hot, moist air is thick with leaden exhaust fumes and millions of pedestrians trip on broken chunks of concrete, clenching handkerchiefs in their sweaty palms to prevent drops of perspiration from clouding their vision. A misstep could mean a four foot drop into the slow moving blue-black sludge in a gutter or becoming entangled in loose hanging electrical wires.
New, mega-block apartment buildings are being constructed everywhere, hidden for now behind corrugated tin fences, while sleepy, paan-chewing security guards (who live in near-by slum communities) keep watch. The glass and concrete buildings with the bamboo lattice scaffolding will eat up more of the Mumbai skyline, and like barnacles on the underbelly of a ship, slum hutments will cling to the perimeter of these new buildings, housing a desperate, eager and ready workforce for the people who can afford to live above the fray.
There are few apologies for messy Mumbai from its inhabitants. They love their city. Lapped by the Arabian Sea and dotted with blue tarps covering mossy buildings, Mumbai is intoxicating and irritating with all its faults, chaos, heaped garbage, glitz and glamour and slums and high-rise luxury apartments.
While we can appreciate what Mumbai has to offer those who have cash in hand, we’re here to spend time with the Saki Naka slum community, one of many slum communities in this city of almost 20 million people. Their hard-scrabble, desperate, and unsanitary living conditions compels donors of DWP to open their hearts and wallets and allows us the privilege of assisting families with school fees, medical costs, and to indulge the kids in some frivolous fun, free of constraints.
There will also be hard choices made by us and the families concerning their children, family issues, deaths, births, and there is always the possibility of slum demolitions.
We are guided by Indu who grew up in Mumbai in a community much like this one. She has empathy and street smarts and helps keep us focused on the real issues. She recently started a Tuition Centre (funded by DWP) in a slum home and we are as committed to this endeavour as she is. As well as offering children a safe place to be while their parents work, up to sixty kids a day benefit from her patient help with their English homework. Her beautiful, bright, 1 year old baby girl, Agya, plays happily near mom, enchanting everyone who enters the space. The Tuition Centre will be a focus for DWP. We have purchased supplies (books, paper, pencils, crayons etc), a filtered water container, another overhead fan, a new light, and a supply of nuts and dried fruit to nourish the kids at the start of each class. Over the upcoming Diwali Holiday, the tin walls will be cleaned and painted and the kids will make and hang decorations. They eye every bag brought into the centre hoping for paint and fancy paper, but first they must study because they all have exams this week. While Indu is busy at the Tuition Centre, we’ll be going to neighbourhood schools to pay fees for at least 50 kids.
We are living in an apartment only a few minutes walk from the community. Every morning and evening when we walk to and from the community, we are reminded about President Modi’s pledge to put a toilet in every house in India. A stretch of road, about 1000 metres long leading to the community, is a toilet for the masses in the slum as well as drivers who need a break from the jarring roadways. Barefoot kids often walk me home at the end of the day, pointing at and carefully steering me away from piles of poop while expertly avoiding oncoming traffic. It’s great to be back. Really.
Check out what we’re doing daily via DWP’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts.
What we've spent (to date) for the Tuition Centre:
Tuition Supplies (notebooks, pencils, paper, crayons etc) = 2330
Ceiling Fan + Hardware = 920
Filtered Water Unit = 1500
Giant Light Bulb = 550
Nuts and Container = 1000
Plastic Mat = 299
60 Toothbrushes = 900
Total = 7499 (CAD$136.00)