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The Privilege of Burdens

Being involved in the most intimate aspects of the lives of people who live in the Saki Naka community is a privilege with chains attached to our heartstrings. We feel their pain, eat their food sitting cross-legged in their homes, attend birthday celebrations and mark births and deaths in this slum community that bulges with despair and happiness, not always in equal measure. We debate whether we did the right thing or the wrong thing, not enough or too much. We sometimes struggle with the responsibility that comes when someone hands us the right to decide what is best for them in their darkest hours. The following stories are but a few of the issues and problems we share with the Saki Naka community on a daily basis.

Sugun Hospital is a small private hospital. When possible we take patients here instead of a BMC (government hospital).

When They Are Sick

We were almost to the set of crumbling stairs that lead up and out of the Saki Naka community. At the top of the stairs we would try to move into the shadow caste by PikNik hotel to wait out the traffic that always chokes the roadway until we could flag down a rickshaw. Noorialam, a young father of three children, who lives on the backside of the community, waved to us and interrupted our forward motion before we could set foot on the stairs. Directing his intense gaze at Indu, his handsome, perfect features out of sync with his usually happy demeanour, he rushed to tell us that his neighbour’s young wife was very sick. Could we help?

Todd and Indu pay for a patient's medicine after a visit to Ashirwad Hospital.

Trying to stay still in the scorching heat of the early afternoon while he explained the situation, we wished we had been stopped under the bridge that would offer a shadow of shade, but we gave him all the time he needed to tell us that Pinky, the neighbour’s wife, was in Sion Hospital with an undetermined illness and their medical bills for pills and pain medication were mounting. The family couldn’t pay the bills and his wife was in no condition to be released. His children were sleeping with relatives on the floor of the hospital while he worked during the day. Faced with the ability to help in some way, we grasped, as always, for the right way to proceed. Pinky’s husband wanted us to take over, to make the decisions about his wife’s medical care, relieve him of the pragmatic, practical and financial responsibilities he was facing. He would carry the emotional burden of his wife’s illness, but once we assisted him with financial respite, out of respect, he handed us the decisions regarding ongoing treatment. We were in charge and responsible for her care, for better or for worse. We opted to await test results and keep her at the BMC hospital where despite the overcrowded conditions, she was getting good care and the requisite tests. We monitored her situation and continued to pay for her medicine, food and subsequent medical tests as well as giving her husband a small amount for food and taxi fare. Pinky’s condition improved gradually with no apparent conclusion regarding her illness despite numerous medical tests.

The cost of Pinky’s hospital stay/medicine: 12,490.30 Rupees (CAD $254)

This is a BMC (government) hospital - the only choice for the poor of Mumbai.

Dark Hours with a Family

The relatives had gathered - plastic tub chairs formed a tight semi-circle in the lane way outside Shakuntala’s pink brick home. Men from far away villages and cities sat expressionless in the chairs, in the heat of the day, wiping their faces with squares of cotton they had balled up in their hands. Women stood in the doorway, pulling the curtain back to reveal even more people inside the dark confines of the small two-room home. Indu and I were asked to come in. Moving through the tight ribbon of people lined up against the wall inside we were taken by the hand to the back room where Shakuntala lay on a soft mattress, her head cradled in the lap of a young man. Her husband sat against the wall, his long legs folded underneath him, and gently stroked her hand. Her pedal sewing machine, once used daily by Shakuntala, had been pushed into a corner, now used to store clothing and accumulated household effects. Shakuntala was happy to see us and whispered something to the young man. Indu prodded me to change places with him. I felt awkward and out-of-place and quickly looked around the room. Surely there were other people that she would prefer to be be holding her in her final hours. Indu was insistent that Shakuntala wanted me to cradle her. The young man lifted Shakuntala’s torso forward, holding her head steady and as he slid out from under her listless body, I moved quickly to replace him. I stroked the side of Shakuntala’s face, pressed my cheek to hers, massaged her arms and held her hands and reminded her we would continue to pay her small son’s school fees. She smiled and a small grunt escaped her lips. She died four days later.

School fees for Shakuntala’s son per year: 8650 Rupees (CAD $176)

12 yr old Rhuksar has never been to school. She cleans and cooks for her family.

Encouraging School

They stare at the kids trouncing down the lane way dressed in smart school uniforms, the girls’ hair in tight braids secured with coloured ribbons that look like butterflies. The boys are more solemn in their parade to school and their sock and shoe clad feet are a contrast to the bare feet they will adopt once they are finished school for the day. For the kids who don’t attend school the march to school by their friends is met with curiosity and frustration. There are parents who don’t believe school is necessary and can’t afford to send their children to school, especially their daughters. I see the folly of that mindset in the pre-teen daughters and sons who can’t read or write, but they can sew a button or make rice and dal or wash dishes and clothing on the ground with a bucket of water. I feel the need to interfere; to change the impossibilities into possibilities. Indu and I speak to parents and prod and promise to pay school fees, to buy uniforms, to allow their bright children the benefit of being literate at the very least. We have succeeded in some cases, but not all, and I feel both the burden of the promise to pay school fees and the burden of not being able to convince some parents. We need to keep them in school and continue to try to convince illiterate parents of the benefits of sending their children to school instead of to work. The parents of Noorsaba and Dinesh reluctantly agreed to send them to school after much prodding by Indu. We were anxious to have them start school because they are 6 and 8 years old. Their three older siblings have never been to school. The two oldest girls, ages 10 and 12, remain at home caring for their youngest brother who is 4. They wash the family’s clothes and prepare food. The oldest son (14 years) works at a factory sewing buttons on jeans. Noorsaba and Dinesh are doing very well in school and the whole family is excited about their progress reports.

School fees: Noorsaba - 6300 Rupees (CAD $128.42)/ Dinesh - 7600 (CAD $155)

Estakhar has never attended school. He works at a factory sewing buttons on jeans.

One of the private schools where DWP pay school fees for numerous students.

A Matter of Food

Her husband died suddenly of a heart attack ten days before. Barely 30 years old, he worked long days toiling for meagre wages and dropped dead in his stifling 8 foot by 6 foot slum home. His 23 year-old wife, left with three small children, had reached the depth of despair when we were summoned to her home. She sat dazed in a corner, her eyes still moist from days of stupor and tears. Her youngest daughter snuggled behind the drape of her sari, peeking out to see the faces of strangers who might hold the key to any possible happiness in their future. The husband was the only wage-earner for the family which also included is mother. They were facing a shortage of food and the neighbours could only help so much. Could we help? My stomach was churning as Indu grabbed the young woman’s hand and asked what they needed most. I knew we could only do so much. I searched the faces in the room, stopping to memorize her features. Desperation and fatigue had changed this beautiful young woman’s face into a creased, frozen, featureless mannequin. She required so much more than we could give her. We can’t change the fact that she would never marry again. She would be seen as a burden to another man as she was now a burden to her family and her in-laws. We decided on a monthly payment for rations of food, to be revisited as required. Her mother-in-law firmly chided the young woman to make us tea. She made a real but feeble attempt to fulfill her duties as a daughter-in-law but the burden of making tea brought tears. She wasn’t ready to be dutiful just yet.

Monthly Rations: 1000 Rupees (CAD $20.40)

Six reasons why DWP supports the Saki Naka community.

Domestic Abuse

Her young daughter grabbed my hand while I was kneeling nearby watching two little girls fill bottle caps with dirt in the recesses of the railway ties that resemble a broken zipper. Her mother needed to speak to us. We offered to come later in the day when we would have more free time. With her little voice pressed to my ear she persevered. “But she needs to speak to you now”. Following closely behind her we arrived at her home. She swiped the curtain back to reveal the inside of the small, brick walled, one-room home. Her mother was sitting in the soft glow of the pink painted walls, looking serene, not moving. In the shadow of the curtain, her father leaned against the wall where the soot from the kerosene burner had smudged the wall with a blur of black. Flecks of oil bled into the black stain and feathered out around his head. He almost looked angelic. The little girl pulled back her mother’s hair at the hairline and pointed out the large bruise. Once our eyes adjusted to the diffused light in the room we realized her mother was crying and her eye was also injured. Emboldened by our presence, the mother quietly re-enacted the physical abuse her husband had inflicted on her the night before in the presence of their two children, who had also been subjected to slaps and punches. Her husband started to smirk. In the stuffy confines of the small room my knees were almost touching his as I sat with my back against the opposite wall, my legs folded under me, my head cushioned by a mound of clothing hanging on the wall. The little girl underscored the horror of the previous night in dramatic detail. Her father quietly admonished his daughter to have some respect for him. She was more furious. I was enraged and out of my depth. In this patriarchal society, he can do what he wants and he was exercising that right after a night of drinking. I couldn’t keep quiet. I shouted emphatically, I begged him not to hurt his wife ever again; I reminded him that we have helped his family and that if he continued we would have to withdraw our financial support. He stifled a grin. I felt exasperated and beaten by his smug attitude. I was horrified at my outburst fearing I had made it worse - that I couldn’t possibly protect this woman or her children in a situation where even the police would laugh. I felt sick. I carried this burden home and asked Indu to please call the woman every hour that night to make sure I hadn’t done more damage; given this man a reason to beat his wife out of exasperation and hurt ego. We visited her early the next day, fearing the worst. He was angry at her for telling us about his abuse, but his ego was more concerned with how she had embarrassed him in front of us and he promised her he would not beat her again - until this year when he did it again. Did my rant help keep her safe for a year? I will never know.

Deepak is deep in thought. There are many problems behind each doorway in Saki Naka.

Despite the emotional side-effects, we are lucky to be able to help, to carry some of the burdens. When Kane started Dirty Wall Project years ago he didn’t know he would have such intimate relationships with strangers in life and death moments; be witness to moments of such despair and such joy. All of us have spent many sleepless nights worried about the outcome of a situation; concerned about the reaction to how much help or how little help we decided to give. Rickshaws, taxis, tin-walled slum homes, and blood-stained hospital wards have contained us on our quest to help. We have laid marigold wreaths around the necks of deceased men and women, held new-born babies, and been witness to the joyful celebrations of marriages and birthdays.

Sometimes there is no solution, sometimes there are many solutions. The privilege of these burdens is what keeps us immersed in this community. To be allowed to witness all the best and all the worst of a community, to be intimately tied to families who we have the privilege of helping in their darkest hours is both an honour and a burden even when it is sometimes very difficult to respect the customs and opinions that form the basis of how people act and react in difficult situations. It is out of respect for the donors of DWP and the Saki Naka community that we keep trying to get it right. We can’t look the other way.

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