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What About Latifa

Latifa starts her day like most kids in the slum. She wakes amid a tangle of familiar bodies on the floor of her family’s one-room home. One of them will open the narrow door to let some air into the windowless room while pulling the curtain across the opening for a sense of privacy. Latifa will peek out the door and she might trawl the laneway barefoot until her mother or older sister call her back for a helping of dal, rice, or a chapati, and a small cup of chai. While her two brothers and her older sister rummage for their school clothes hung in plastic bags on the wall and take turns taking bucket baths, Latifa is left alone to watch cartoons on the small television while absentmindedly scooping food into her mouth. A few hours later, her mother, her ten-year-old sister Kushmana, and her two slightly older brothers, leave their home for school and work. They put Latifa outside and wave good-bye. She watches forlornly as they walk away and for the next six hours she’ll be left on her own. This doesn’t work out well for Latifa. She falls into the gutter many times, she finds garbage to snack on in the laneway, she drinks liquids she finds in discarded bottles and she wanders barefoot, naked from the waist down so it’s easier for her to squat to pee, and occasionally her relatives bring her into their home for a few minutes. Latifa is three years old. The other children call her ‘gutter baby’.


Latifa is moon faced, wide-eyed and so docile that she never appears anxious despite being left alone for hours every day for months. We walked by Latifa many times each day while on our daily business in the community. She is one of many children crowding the lanes, popping in and out of homes. On our way out of the community one day she motioned for me to pick her up. She’s hard to resist, so I scooped her up. She was wearing a t-shirt and nothing else and her bare bottom stuck to my arm and left flecks of dried excrement. Her face was dusty, her mouth was ringed with dirt. I asked her where her mother was. Indu, who was just behind me, said she is cared for during the day by relatives. With Latifa on my hip, I went looking for the relatives. Each door I peered into, someone told me to look for another relative, casually pointing in a vague direction. Behind one of the curtained doorways there was a group of people napping in the mid-afternoon heat with a few children sitting mute beside them. They knew Latifa and reached out to her. I put her down and reluctantly left with one eye on the doorway and then I wandered down the laneway until I reached the open lot just before the road. I stopped to talk to some families and felt a tapping on my leg. Latifa, wide-eyed and sad, had caught up with me and motioned for me to pick her up again. I tucked her back on my hip and reluctantly took her back to the home where I had just left her. She stayed put and I reminded myself to check on her whenever I saw her alone.

Latifa - the first day we brought her to the tuition centre to bathe her

A few days later I rounded the corner of a laneway with my head down to watch for piles of debris while gently nudging a large goat tied to a crate that was blocking my passage, then took a short detour around a man stirring water into a mixture of concrete and pebbles splayed into the laneway, and there was Latifa, face down, crying and filthy. I picked her up and examined her for cuts. Her hair was full of grit and her sweet face was covered in dust, a smear of white paste of some kind, and a few days worth of grime. She had a stick in her hand that she had frayed with her teeth. This time I took her to the Tuition Centre, frustrated and worried that she was in this condition and that her relatives were not concerned about where she was. In the small toilet area, Indu and I ladled cool buckets of water over head and scrubbed her with soap until she was clean. Indu dressed her in clean clothes from her daughter’s cupboard and she stayed with us for the rest of the day. She spent four hours with us before Kushmana came home from school and was told by some children that Latifa was with us. The next day, her mother, a sturdy, handsome, no-nonsense woman with broad shoulders and a beautiful, but stern face, asked Indu to watch Latifa for 250 ($5) rupees a month. There wasn’t much conversation, just a quick transaction and some head nodding and she was gone. She told Indu in rapid Hindi that Kushmana has been caring for her siblings full-time until she recently put her in a government school with her brothers. Her husband works a labour job outside of Mumbai most of the week and the she works in a factory six days a week.


It’s normal in a slum community to see children with dirty faces, dressed in filthy clothing they’ve worn for days. This describes most of the children in the slum, but who I call the “day-orphans” are the most vulnerable of the hundreds of children who romp through the laneways. We know many of them and we keep an eye out for problems, or a crisis in the making, which isn’t always glaringly obvious despite the condition of the children. They all play outside their tiny one-room homes surrounded by other kids and a few lazy dogs, amidst the hustle of foot traffic. If both parents work, toddlers are often looked after by barely older siblings or relatives. By anyone’s standards, childcare in the slum is informal and the living conditions are precarious. There are dangers everywhere in the form of rabid dogs, deep gutters, sharp objects to pick up or step on, waist deep garbage piles where children play and a steady stream of vehicles jostling for space on the road just outside the perimeter of the slum. We stop to chat with the most vulnerable children; we remind them to get to school, or to get to the tuition centre; we ask if they’ve had food; we send them to their parents, or cousins, or neighbours when we leave. Day-orphans aren’t unusual, but they’re sometimes difficult to notice among the hundreds of children roaming the lanes.

Latifa near her home

Is Latifa’s mother heartless and irresponsible, or is she beaten by poverty with no reproductive rights in a world of rigid patriarchy? Latifa is her youngest child, her second girl, and in this society girls are disposable. They have little value except to clean and cook and care for younger siblings. Like other slum families, Latifa’s family exist in a crowded slum community with no resources or help. Latifa is a burden to her family. Her mother tells me often, ‘Just take her with you to Canada. I don’t need her.’

Indu teaching Latifa a nursery rhyme at the Tuition Centre

Most slum parents toil seven days a week, twelve to fifteen hours a day, as housemaids or in crowded factories in slave-like conditions to earn meagre monthly wages. They are exhausted, anxious, worried and burdened to an extent that’s hard to fathom. With never enough money to cover regular monthly expenses, a sick child with a medical emergency, a school fee to pay, or a slumlord to satisfy with a bloated payment, life for parents in a slum can feel like an overloaded freight train hurtling towards them and they are powerless to stop it. There is a stoic acceptance of their life, a day by day existence, bound by tradition. Some of them are able to grasp the notion that their children can have a different life if they keep them in school instead of sending them to factories to sew buttons on shirts.

Todd with Aagya (red shirt), holding Latifa while visiting families in the community

The Tuition Centre is the place where many of the kids who are home alone come to, assured they will be safe and cared for. This small room in the community, that is also Indu’s home, with its smooth tile walls and clean tile floor has a cupboard full of craft supplies, books to read and some toys to share. The kids can be assured that Indu, or we, will pay attention to them - we’ll fix a cut, take them to school, or take them to a doctor. The Tuition Centre is never closed to them. Latifa, like many other kids who are left alone during the day, has found a new home where she is safe, nurtured and loved by us, Indu, and the other children. Along with Indu’s three-year-old daughter, Aagya, we take her everywhere we go. She’s been all over Mumbai doing errands with us, she loves to visit Ranjana’s home for chai and biscuits and she’s always clean, fed and clothed. She’s one of the many kids who flock to Indu’s Tuition Centre to learn, play, celebrate birthdays and feel the love.

Latifa in front of the Tuition Centre

Tuition Centre Monthly Rent: 3000 rupees ($60)

Art Supplies: monthly average of 1000 rupees ($20)

Birthday celebrations: cake, chips, small gift - average cost: $15 per birthday which buys enough cake and food for up to 50 children at a time. Each child hosts a celebration on his/her birthday.

Special thanks to these generous people from Mumbai:

Ajoy Kutty for supplying the Tuition Centre with boxes of new books on a regular basis. From Mumbai, he now lives in London, England with his wife and children but takes the time to order books online and have then sent to us. He recently visited the community and spent hours reading with the kids on a one-on-one basis. He encourages Indu and provides her with inspiration and support via regular phone calls. Thanks Ajoy!!

Prasad Dabholkar for dropping in and bringing note books, clothing and offering encouragement.

Neha Sharma and Chetna who rounded up new and used toys and clothing from their friends and came by the Tuition Centre to drop them off and spend some time with the kids.

Neha Sharma and Chetna who rounded up new and used toys and clothing from their friends and came by the Tuition Centre to drop them off and spend some time with the kids.

Aditya Saool for volunteering his time once a week to teach the children how to play the tabla.

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