What does a mirror, an elevator, and a bus ride all have in common? That’s all it took to make fifty-two kids pretty happy. Add some rides, a fancy mall, brand-name fast food (yes, McDonald’s), a giant bouncy castle and bumper cars and the fifty-two kids are ecstatic. A high-end mall, or any mall for that matter, is as foreign to a slum kid as going to the moon.
Kids from the slums don’t usually get too far away from the confines of their tin-walled homes unless they are walking to school on vehicle clogged streets breathing in choking dust and side-stepping gaping holes in the pavement. The kids and their parents don’t have a reason, or enough rupees, to visit one of the many air-conditioned fancy malls springing up all over Mumbai, but they know about them.
Diwali vacation is in full swing in India and we wanted to come up with something exciting to do with the kids in Indu’s Tuition Class. We can only do so many crafty things, or play Housie more than ten times, and I’m tired of winning at badminton, so we decided to rent a bus for the day, fill it with kids and give them some time away from the slum and into the clean, air-conditioned environment (it’s been extraordinarily hot in Mumbai this October) of a super mall that happens to have a large play area called FunCity. The mega-sized, super bouncy castle structure fulfilled the desires of the kids who are under 4 feet tall and the bumper cars jarred the most jaded of the pre-teens into fits of laughter.
As much fun as the attractions of FunCity were, the star of the outing wasn’t the amusement rides; it was the toilets and the mirrors in the bathrooms and the sinks and the faucets that turn on with a wave of the hand. The glass-walled elevator we took to get us to the 4th floor of the mall was a treat worth shrieking over.
If there is a mirror in a slum home it is usually tiny, and stepping back from it is the only way to get a full head view. The mirrors in the mall bathrooms run the length of the room from counter height to the ceiling. The kids couldn’t get enough of themselves as they preened and posed and pouted. Used to seeing only their faces in the tiny reflections in the miniature mirrors hanging in their homes, it became hard to tear them away from this larger, enticing view of themselves.
While the mirrors were amusing, the toilets were a challenge. Most kids in the slum use public squat toilets without running water, or squat in a corner of their homes outfitted with a drain. When I opened the stall doors for the girls, they stood in awe of the bulbous white porcelain bowl, and motioned to me with wide-open eyes and up-turned palms and wondered what they were supposed to do with this. (I have the same reaction to a squat toilet or using the drain in someone’s home). A quick explanation using hand-gestures and actions (like they do for me in the community) and they sorted it out. There was a lot of flushing and watching just for the sake of flushing and watching the water disappear.
The novelty of washing their hands in a sink with the frothy, neon-pink liquid soap that dispensed automatically brought giggles. They quickly became experts at waving their hands under the faucet to activate the sensors that brought water spewing from the tap. As much fun as they were having, I was concerned about the amount of water (Mumbai has water shortages) they were using, but also worried when I noticed that a few of them had scrubbed off Indu’s phone number. In a stroke of brilliance on the bus to the mall, Indu decided to write her phone number in ink on their forearms in case they got lost. The inked phone number would have to be reapplied to their flowery smelling arms.
While the kids enjoyed the rides and the bathrooms, McDonald’s employees were busy preparing a fast-food feast for fifty-two. For most of these kids, the only food they eat is prepared by their mothers in their homes. They’ve been nurtured on dal and rice and don’t blink when chills are added for flavour. When the McDonald’s Happy Meal was delivered to six-year old Shlok’s table, he unwrapped the round package and looked wide-eyed at the unfamiliar food. He slunk back in his chair as if to get away from the pasty white bun nesting a deep-fried disk, smeared with thick orange paste. Tiny Mariam, Fiza and Sanya, also at his table, looked at me with concern until I explained that the disk was aloo (potato) and mutter (peas). “Ah, ah aloo, aloo”, they all echoed, nodding to each other while they poked their fingers into their food. Mariam tried hers, declared it fit to eat, and the four of them munched away until all traces of the Mc Aloo Tikki were gone or dropped on the floor.
The play zone in the mall was great fun. It was safe and clean, and organized. But, like a kid who prefers to play with the box the toy came wrapped in, instead of the toy, the fifty-two kids also took simple enjoyment from just being out of the slum lane ways. They got to see the city from the perspective of a bus, watching the bridges and buildings flit by in a blur; the unknown parts of the city presented through the haze of pollution and the tinted bus windows, and feel the warm rush of air through the open windows when the bus picked up speed. They revelled in the opportunity to get dressed up in their finest frills and long pants, (safety pins holding torn pockets or ripped ruffles in place), and the chance to whiz up and down inside a glass elevator that opened onto a world full of colour.
When the bus chugged up the road back towards the community, the kids who weren’t sleeping, started cheering and gathering their things. For as much fun as they had had on the ‘picnic’, the community is home. Though their parents all desire and deserve a respite from the strangle hold of poverty, the kids have a while before the facts of their lives are painfully apparent.
Hearing the bus return, some of the parents had gathered in the dirt and gravel and garbage-filled plot of land that separates the slum from the road, eager to welcome their kids back home. The older kids filed out of the bus and gradually disappeared into the maze of lane ways so familiar to them, while we pushed back curtained doorways to deliver sleepy toddlers to the dim light of their tiny homes. It was a great day.
Cost of Fun and Frivolity for Fifty-Two Kids:
Bus and driver: 4000 rupees (CAD $72)
FunCity: 5200 rupees (CAD $94) (tokens for 52 kids)
McDonalds: 5000 rupees (CAD$90)(Happy Meals for 52 kids)
Bus treats: 1080 rupees (CAD $19)(bananas, oatmeal biscuits, juice)
Total Fun Cost for 52 kids: 15,280 rupees (CAD $277 - $5.34 per child)
Thank you to Indu and her husband Akilhesh for helping to arrange the outing, being kid wranglers, and for translating undecipherable phrases from kids with their mouths full of Mc Aloo Tikki.
Thank you to the unknown man who approached Indu while we were in the food court and pressed 1000 rupees into her hand to help pay for the outing.