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Immersed in Mumbai

Nikita, Indu, Yogita and friend celebrating Ganpati.

It’s a dark and stormy night - really dark, until the lightening brightened the sky for a second. Thick sheets of rain blur the buildings on the opposite side of the street so they appear as murky watercolour ghosts and the thunder almost drowned out the sound of auto rickshaw horns in the street below the window. The watery relief from the current heatwave in Mumbai is delicious with the added benefit of adding to the dwindling water reserves and giving some nourishment to Maharashtra’s parched farmland.

Cindy, Simran, Noorsaba, Kushmana, Todd and Ganesh.

Dirty Wall Project is back in Saki Naka. As our flight descended over the city the first view was of flashy, multi-story buildings in the distance puncturing the low-lying orangey haze. The vast slums hugging low hills and spreading like tentacles soon came into view, laying flat and fragile, hugging the ground in mismatched patterns of squares and rectangles brightened with sheets of blue tarp and advertising banners used as roofing material. My heart skipped a beat - the Saki Naka community is in the middle of that dirty patchwork quilt of ragged homes. Immigration was a snap and our carry-on only bags allowed us to skip the long wait for baggage to come rolling down the chute. We rushed by the throngs of people holding signs, looking past us as if we didn’t exist, waiting for their loved ones and exited the passenger-only terminal and jumped in our pre-paid taxi - Saki Naka is only a ten minute drive away. It took three tries to get a hotel in the area - the first dismal hotel didn’t receive our booking, the second changed its name so it was a different hotel than the one we hastily booked and kicked us out, the third hotel had a room with filthy walls and stained sheets that an engaging, smiling, excited clerk welcomed us warmly to. It would have to do at least for one night. Leaving our bags on the broken tile floor, we closed the door to the room and carefully climbed down the narrow ladder-like stairway leading us to the street and hailed a rickshaw to the community.

In Abrar’s house. Indu and Aagya speak to Abrar’s mom about school fees.

It was just past ten in the morning and the first session at Indu’s Excellent Tuition Centre was well underway. Sisters Fiza and Saniya, playing in a parked rickshaw near the road were the first to greet us. We gathered their tiny, bony bodies in our arms and our noses twitched with the familiar scent of coconut hair oil combined with dust. We began the short walk through the lane way to the centre, collecting more children and managed to side-step murky pools of water, feral cats and uneven bricks laid in hasty patterns above gutters thick with grey goo. We spied the piles of flip-flops heaped near a blue door hanging crooked in the door frame, ducked our heads and entered Indu’s Tuition Centre. Beaming, familiar faces and a few new ones greeted us. There were screams, joy, somersaults, dancing, gifts, and once we settled down, the kids reciprocated with chocolate candy and faded roses clutched in grimy sweaty hands - later planted in my hair. There were hugs, lots of hugs. The new kids stared at us with open mouths and glazed eyes wondering why the fuss? The heat in the hut was beyond stifling, foreheads were glazed with drips of perspiration, the kids were wilting despite the excitement - Indu shouted to Sachin to turn on the fans. Rose petals rained down on us and the energy in the room went into overdrive. Sweet, gentle, twelve-year-old Sachin had meticulously placed rose petals on the top surface of the fan blades awaiting our arrival. He insisted that Indu not turn the fans on so as not to disturb the rose petals until we arrived.

The community worships Ganpati before the immersion.

It’s been about ten days since our arrival and much has happened. Mumbai has once again swallowed us whole, our emotions are saturated with joy, frustration, laughter, sadness and lots of hope for what we can accomplish. Jaiyvant immediately sought our help for his teenage son Deepak who hadn’t eaten for two weeks because of severe stomach pain. Medical tests, hospital visits and jolting rickshaw rides through the Mumbai madness gave them some answers and some medication. An infection, maybe a blockage, but not typhoid fever as the first tests revealed. In a few days he was much better and able to celebrate the Ganpati Festival with the community.The immersion of the Ganpati idols in Powai Lake was preceded by hours of celebrating and dancing in the community before taking to the streets for the miles long walk to Powai Lake with thousands of others. We found a perch just above the lake and craned our necks to watch hundreds of idols floated on rafts to the middle of the lake and immersed in the crocodile infested water by devotees.

Noorsaba and friends play near their homes.

Indu and the kids at the tuition centre gave us their wish list of missing supplies including their pent-up desire to play Housie for prizes. Karan and Sachin were dispatched to buy ten small prizes and we let the games begin. Housie, similar to Bingo is a popular, well-loved past-time in Saki Naka. A game of chance with a possibility for a prize, like dangling a ball of yarn in front of a kitten. They love the possibility of snatching a prize and then settle in to help those who have yet to win.

Noorsaba (in blue t-shirt) plays near her home with friends.

Parents have started their appeal for school fees and we’ve been checking our extensive list from last term. We’ve started making house visits to determine who can pay some of their children’s fees and who can’t. Hard choices will follow emotional pleas and emotional pleas will sometimes determine hard choices. Cultural differences will prick our conscience especially where the women are concerned and we’ll have to pick our battles or retreat into silence and be observers who help despite the frustrations that build in our privileged psyche. Looking back and forth between cultures causes whiplash and indecision and we need to make decisions while sometimes seething about the indignity and inequality faced by poor families living in slum communities.

Preet photographed by Sanjana using my phone.

Our grimy hotel room has been replaced with an apartment a short walk from the community, thanks to the efforts of Varun Agarwal who, once again, walked us through the onerous process of finding a furnished apartment, the tedious verification checks at two police stations, and the meeting and approval of the Society Manager at our building. Once our paperwork was approved, Zahid, the manager warmly welcomed us, as have our neighbours who peek through the safety bars of their doors as we come and go, as curious about us as we are about them. Made up of mostly Muslim and Catholic families who appreciate and maintain their building, we are excited to have a home base in their midst.

The Ganpati idol is lifted onto the truck to take to Powai Lake.

Like Ganpati, we are once again fully immersed in Mumbai, sometimes bobbing above the waves, sometimes lying just below the surface, but always swimming in a mix of simultaneous burdens and joy. We hope to be the remover of obstacles for at least some of the families in Saki Naka who require small mercies or the lifting of giant burdens. That’s why we come and that’s why we so appreciate the support of donors, family members and friends who allow us the time and the honour of being the heavy lifters in Saki Naka.

Oh, and the Where’s Waldo book that I mentioned in the previous post… the kids love it. Waldo may have met his match.

What we’ve spent so far:

Deepak Amruskar’s Medical Tests/Medicine:

- sonography and x-ray -1,600 rupees (CAD 33.33)

- medicine - 1763.69 rupees (CAD 36.74)

- blood test - 500 rupees (CAD 10.41)

- Doctor’s consult fees - 750 rupees (CAD 15.62)

- Total: 4613.69 (CAD 96.11)

Housie Game Prizes:

-10 assorted small gifts (barrettes, cards, pencils etc)

Total: 290 rupees (CAD 6.04)

Supplies for Tuition Centre:

- pack of drawing paper: 190 rupees (CAD 3.95)

- tape, crayons, glue sticks, rubber bands for crafts: 567 rupees (CAD 11.81)

- 3 plastic mats used for seating: 987 rupees (CAD 20.56)

- one month supply of nuts for 50+ kids:1500 rupees (CAD 31.00)

Total: 3244 rupees (CAD 67.58)

Rent for Indu’s Excellent Tuition Centre:

- 2800 rupees per month (CAD 58.00)

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