We pushed the heavy door open and stepped inside the cool comfort of the cavernous bookstore located in our city that is green with gardens and fresh ocean air and slowly walked down the aisles looking for the children’s section. In a week we will be back in Saki Naka, to the kids in the slum community, and we wanted to bring some small educational gifts for the those taking tuition at Indu’s Excellent Tuition centre. The aisles of the bookstore were busy with parents and children picking out books and toys, pencils and crayons. In hushed tones a few parents read passages of stories to their young children while older children perused books promising stories of adventure, mayhem or first love. We wandered some more. I pulled book after book off the shelf with covers that intrigued me and caught my eye with quirky graphic design, or titles with the word “learn”, and smiled at the classics I read to my own children years ago. Flipping through each book I became more frustrated. The stories and illustrations in these books depict life in an affluent world where literate parents read to children, where bookshelves in beautiful, spacious bedrooms bulge with spines that say “Goodnight Moon” or “Harry Potter”. As beautiful and gift worthy as these books were I couldn’t imagine giving them out to a community of slum children. The stories depict children who live in homes with gardens and furniture, rugs and plants, bookshelves and bathrooms and kitchens and bedrooms. The parents in the stories drive cars and go to work in offices and cheer on the sidelines while their child plays baseball or soccer or performs in a ballet. The children in these stories have bright beautiful worlds displayed on crayola coloured pages with dancing alphabets. They have pets that act silly and grandparents who spoil them with attention and gifts. There are obvious, glaring cultural differences with few images or words that would have, at best, a tenuous connection to a child living in poverty in a slum in India. Even the numerical and letter books have illustrations of things foreign to kids living in a slum. This is not Saki Naka.
There are no four bedroom bungalows or driveways or small modern condos lining the laneways of the slum community in Mumbai. These kids live in one room homes the size of a parking spot at a mall constructed out of scavenged materials without windows, plumbing or toilets. What they lack in amenities, toys and books they make up for in imagination, ingenuity and guts. We found it difficult to find a suitable book in our small beautiful city in Canada that depicted their lives, their culture, and their aspirations because they are busy surviving day to day in a city of millions with not a bookshelf in sight in any of their tiny homes.
Moving between two worlds isn’t seamless. Leaving Mumbai and returning to Canada to the wealth and relative ease of living in a functioning city with clean streets in a home with drinkable water and machines that wash my clothes and my dishes, to the convenience of a car sitting in my driveway and a garden to tend, comes with both dread and relief. Conversely, arriving back to Mumbai to the unrelenting chaos of millions of people, the heat, humidity, dust and pollution that hangs at eye level and finally to arrive to the Saki Naka community where the stench of open sewers, incense and the slap of hands making roti is a welcome mat for DWP, there is inner turmoil, emotion and wishful thinking. We ready ourselves for the onslaught of problems that we hope to fix or repair or bandage, to the burdens we hope to help lift, to our entanglement in this heaving community of rickshaw wallahs, servants, toilet cleaners, private car drivers and factory workers and their sweet, engaging, curious children.
Despite the appalling lack of infrastructure, the unhygienic conditions and the reality of aspirations, the children of Saki Naka make up their own stories, play with discarded toys found in garbage dumps and assemble nuts, bolts and rubber bits into new toys that they share with others. Their creativity doesn’t require fancy craft sets or how-to books or stories of daring-do. We would have to find a book that manages to be all things to all children anywhere, anytime.
Soon we will be back in the thick of the crowded laneways amongst hundreds of children and women waving us in for cups of sweet chai and we will bring with us the energy of the many donors who make DWP viable. As we continue our aim to ‘see a need and fill it’ we need to thank our incredible, selfless donors for allowing us to be ambassadors for your generosity. We promise you updates and stories of the men, women and children of the Saki Naka slum community. We are all in this together.
So what did I find at the bookstore? “Where’s Waldo?” - just Waldo trying to find his way in a mass of humanity. The kids in Saki Naka are good at finding things, facing adversity and creating adventures where there are heaps of problems and twists and turns. Finding “Waldo” will be perfect. Well, it would be perfect in Saki Naka if it were called, “Where’s Akash?”