The Good, the Bad, the Ugly and the Humorous moments of 2015 in no particular order because there is no order in India and I have come to some understanding of that fact on most days.
- Awaiting our arrival back to Saki Naka, twelve-year-old Sachin placed rose petals on top of the fan blades in the tuition hut. We stepped inside, he turned the fan on and we were all showered with dusty red rose petals.
- The joy and anguish of holding and spoon-feeding milk to tiny Riya, a four pound baby girl whose mother’s attempt to commit suicide succeeded a few days after her birth, but not before forcing Riya into the world two months early.
- No bulldozers or police with bamboo sticks arrived to demolish any part of the community so far.
- Courtesy of DWP donors, Asha and her family of five children have four tin walls to call home instead of just planks and a blue tarp.
Amisha and her sister in front of their new home
- There was a vicious murder in the community of a drug dealing father of two, committed in daylight in front of many children, by a machete wielding group of low-life thugs. His eight-year old son was left to fetch the police and help his mother load his dying father’s body into a rickshaw to go to a hospital because everyone else was frightened they would be next.
- The amazing children of Saki Naka who pull scraps of metal, wood and wire from the gutters, the roads, and the garbage pile to create something out of nothing. They talk on handmade mobile phones made from broken tile, the numbers scratched into the surface. Dolls are fashioned from scraps of fabric, the round heads stuffed with dirt, bottle caps become play pots and pans, leaves are cut and woven to make doll beds, fires are built along the pipeline to make play food; as long as there is garbage, there is something to play with.
Steely determination at the start of the spoon race at Nandchhaya School
- The agony of pulling back the curtain on Arpan’s home to call him to his dentist appointments and having him flee to the farthest corner behind the hanging tarp, waving us away with huge round eyes flashing fear and loathing at us. He endured three root canals and a lot of screaming.
- Arpan’s excitement when he survived numerous terrifying appointments with the dentist, only topped by his wide-eyed excitement of a gift of toothpaste from the dentist.
Arpan finished his final dental appointment
- Our gratitude for doctors, dentists, clinics and hospitals who waive or reduce their fees so we can help more kids.
- Receiving packages of Hindi/English children’s books sent by DWP supporter Ajoy Kutty from London,England via book dealers in New Delhi and Bhopal. The children in Indu’s tuition hut devour the pages of every book, sounding out words and lingering over beautiful illustrations. The books are aimed at their demographic and depict their world in words and illustrations immersing the kids in situations that aren’t foreign to them. The books are the first thing they grab in the morning class.
- Our apartment in Marol, a 20 minute walk to the community in Saki Naka, is filled with interesting, caring, neighbourly Bohri Muslims, who love to chat about the day, show off their new born grandchildren and ask us how we are doing as we come and go each day.
- The happiness we get from living in Marol village which is a microcosm of India outside our window. We witness nightly wedding processions (Hindu and Christian) and lay awake for hours listening to and watching these celebrations from our window (the banging of drums, the whooping of guests, the dancing procession, and the clip clop sound of hooves on the road of skinny white horses taking grooms to the reception. Of all the shops and stalls lining the lanes, we favour the vegetable seller by the bridge who knows we like basil and broccoli and just happens to have it when we drop by, the Lucky Tailor shop who copied a dress for me in record time, the lovely, gentle owner of Mongini’s cake shop where we buy birthday cakes for the kids, and the nearby one-stop shop filled with everything from shampoo packets to open bins of grains layered with dust and the soot of Mumbai.
- Receiving discounts without asking from some of the shop owners where we buy supplies for the tuition hut because they want to help us help the kids.
Marol village - the neighbourhood where we live
- Drinking tiny cups of sweet masala chai flavoured with cardamom and ginger at Ranjana’s home everyday. She is our touchstone in the community. We have watched her three children grow into decent caring individuals and her family prosper year after year. She presides over a neat and tidy small, two-room, brick walled home with grace, dignity and never-ending good humour.
No day is complete without masala chai
- We are often invited to eat with families in the slum community whose simple home-cooked meals are their way of showing gratitude for the help that DWP provides.
Indu, Aagya and me sharing stories with Mubeen's family
- We are often invited to spend special days at school with the children to watch them run a race at sports day or listen to them recite a poem. We try to capture these fleeting moments for them with photos and lots of clapping to encourage their feats of endurance or reading performance.
- Every day we feel lucky and grateful to have survived another day as a pedestrian in Mumbai. Forget the honking buses belching grey soot in our faces, or the buzzing rickshaws zig-zagging through the clogs in traffic, or the expensive private cars floating through the muck dented on all sides; it is the relentless, reckless drivers of motorbikes that get our prize for most hated traffic frustration.
- The honking. It is the ubiquitous, buzzing, tinny, chirpy, ear-splitting sound of Mumbai.
- We have spent hours at the Vodaphone office (internet, talk-time on our phones) trying to make sense of their disorganized, on again, off again, maybe tomorrow service. We can buy some time but not a lot of time, we must wait until next week, we can’t move forward our already paid for time, all the while the customer service personnel are nodding and agreeing to our frustrations and asking for the tenth time, “how may I help you?”
- Rickshaw drivers win the prize for most frustrating and the most loved when they allow us into their bumblebee shaped vehicles and get us to our destination in one piece. A simple nod of the head and a flick of their eyes towards the back seat means we win a coveted seat in one and might get where we are going. Their driving skills have provided us with the best and worst rides of our life. Nothing makes me feel more alive than surviving a speeding rickshaw ride on the highway to Bandra. The high-pitched buzzing of the straining motor, the relaxed pose of the driver while he careens through traffic oblivious to the danger of pulling out from behind a large truck into the oncoming path of a bus. I have the nerve to never close my eyes, and instead just enjoy what I always assume is my last ride to anywhere.
Riding in rickshaws
- The time a rickshaw driver actually flinched at an oncoming car hurtling toward us. (They never flinch). He turned his head and closed his eyes tight waiting for it all to end one way or the other. We could only watch wide-eyed in horror and then let out a whoop when the car swerved two inches to the right.
-The infectious energy of Mumbai and the resourcefulness of the poor from our community who manage to set up small businesses such as key making, shoe fixing, snack selling and chai making on broken pavement on the sides of busy roads to feed their families.
- Witnessing the quiet excitement of a healthy baby born in a slum home.
- The terror and fascination of watching kids dance in toxic kerosene fog in the laneways, oblivious to health concerns, excited to play hide and seek in the thick, blue haze that now sits forever in their lungs. (kerosene fogging is used all over Mumbai to eradicate mosquito larvae)
Children running into the fog of kersene used to kill mosquitos
- Surviving Saki Naka by taking a break in Powai where there is wide streets, calm traffic, well-tended parks, coffee, free wifi and western food products at the Haiko supermarket.
- Fighting, pushing, tackling, elbowing and taking pride in our hard won ability to get on and off a suburban train with millions of others. Spooning sweaty strangers for an hour, holding our own in the never-ending staring contest, and being impressed by our determination to remain in place despite the constant crush of humanity embarking and disembarking the train every 5 minutes.
- The sweet relief when we take a head count after an outing with 40 to 70 kids and no one is missing.
- Saturday at the tuition centre. The ABC books are put away and we encourage the kids to draw, paint, create, and dance to “DJ Karan’s” sounds of Bollywood.
Getting creative at Indu's Tuition class
- Celebrating birthdays! Hearing the kids sing Happy Birday loud and not so clear. Eating cake before a meal is a tradition I can get used to.
- The beautiful, random gifts we receive from the kids and mothers - paper bracelets, flowers stuck in my hair, drawings, combs, bejewelled rings and hairpins, chocolate candy and small bags of indian snacks flavoured with cumin, too much salt and chilli.
- Everyday with Indu and Aagya makes us happy to be here.
- Shouting “shabash” when a child does a cartwheel, reads out loud, draws a picture, or runs the fastest in a race to nowhere.
- The smell of the methane producing gutter by the tuition hut is almost unbearable on the warmest of days.
- Wandering the laneways of the community and admiring the skill and artistry that goes into the quilts airing in the hot sun, and the hours that go into making them. Small skilful stitches combined with scraps of old sari’s or men’s shirts make art out of random patches of worn cloth.
- The kids who make our hearts ache (Mubeen, Riya, Sohil) because they are unloved by relatives but not unloveable. They require all our efforts to make them believe they have worth.
- I’m bewildered by the resilience and immune system of every kid in Saki Naka and their ability to pass on to us every cold they manage to acquire.
- The kids using my camera. It is both priceless and time-consuming as I spend an hour each night deleting photos of toes, blurry walls, backs of heads, close-ups, and marvelling at the most excellent photos that sometimes turn up on my digital screen.
Dinesh takes first prize in the spoon race
- Bohut tension syndrome: A grandmother berated Indu for not paying her grand daughter’s school fees in front of the kids at the tuition centre (the family can afford the fees and then some). I watched Indu remain calm for a very long time despite her mounting frustration. Then I stood up from my cross-legged position, stepped over numerous children in my path to the door and told the grandmother to leave. Some yelling ensued. Mostly from me as she kept talking over my protestations. The room was noticeably quiet when I turned around. Then the kids erupted in giggles. One kid stood up and imitated me by pulling his hair straight up to imitate my head exploding and yelled, “Cindy Mom, bohut tension!” and collapsed to the floor in a fit of laughter. This moment has lived on in infamy as now they yell “bohut tension” whenever they think I’m upset or frustrated.
- The Call to Prayer — that insistent call to believers of Islam that echoes throughout the neighbourhood. The Muslim girls in tuition centre silently cover their heads when the call to prayer begins. My cynicism about absolute poverty and the part religion plays in the psyche of the poor is often overtaken and overwhelmed by witnessing devotion to Hindu puja rituals, kids in the Muslim prayer room reciting Urdu in hushed tones, Hindu altars in homes with lit diyas, and Muslim flags hung with care in laneways.
Kushmana and her brother with their handmade dolls
- We get frustrated with the the chaos of India while loving the chaos of India and all the colour and excitement it provides us on a daily, minute to minute basis. Everyday we see something we have never seen before. Nothing is routine, nothing is for sure, everything is in flux creating a blur of scenes that we pick our way through on our way to and from the community.
- The highs and lows of leaving India and coming back to India. We never experience the community in the same way, year after year and this fuels my desire to come back and also leaves us anxious as to what problems we’ll face each year while trying to ‘see a need and fill it’.
Pratigya and Arnima listen to Simran read a Hindi book
There is always optimism in Saki Naka amidst the hell that poverty creates and we can only hope that 2016 brings some small relief and joy to the families who continue to survive, create, build, work and play in the rows of huts lining the water pipeline.
To all of you who play a part in allowing us to bring relief to this community, we wish you all the happiness and joy you can gather in 2016.