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Picnics, Problems and Pure Joy

The children know when we are back in Mumbai that there will be picnics so within hours of our arrival they are whispering in Indu’s ear and grabbing our hands, asking where and when we’ll go and giving suggestions. For weeks we shook our heads and mumbled, “money problems”. For awhile, every time a child would gently enquire again about a picnic, some other kid would poke them and remind them sternly, “money problems”. It was to be this year’s theme. No access to cash equaled money problems. The government’s decision to demonetise the currency kept us (and a billion others) lined up at ATMs for weeks and weeks to be able to withdraw only a paltry sum after standing in lengthy lineups in the heat of a Mumbai day, leaving us with a scant amount of cash to operate with - definitely a no-fun problem until we found a solution to the Great Picnic Problem of 2017 - Uber and our personal credit card.

While cash was being restricted, credit cards were usable; while hiring a bus to take thirty or forty kids on an outing required heaps of cash, hiring an Uber car only required a credit card and an App downloaded onto my phone in seconds. Instead of taking a bus load of children to one place, we would take four to six children at a time on an outing using an Uber car for transportation. For short distances, we would dip into the meagre cash fund we’d scraped together after hours spent lining up at numerous banks over days and weeks, and squish the kids and us into two or three rickshaws. The kids, upon hearing the news that the money problem was solved, quickly divided themselves into groups where animated conversations ensued as they chose their picnic destination. Once a week we took a different group of kids to near and far flung parts of the city for hours of fun. Supplied with my camera and another camera we gifted to the tuition centre, they took turns being the photographer and posing for each other. Their long day of adventure and play, food and shopping always ended with us holding happily exhausted or sleeping children on our laps for the long ride back to the community.

Krishna at Juhu Beach

Arpan, Aditya, Danesh, Dilip and Fakhriallam - a trip to Elephanta Island

Fakhriallam and Arpan are funny, mischievous, best friends and devil-may-care, requiring us be vigilant about where they are and what they might get up to so we braced ourselves for a long day of calling out their names over and over. Danesh has hearing and speech impairments and is sweet natured and easy to please. His brother Dilip is level-headed and very protective of his Danesh and Aditya needs to be close, wraps himself around one of us at all times and loves to have his hand held. This was their first time in a car. I only had one plastic bag - the drive to south Mumbai where we were headed was endless that day and clocked in at almost two hours - Sitting in the middle of the boys in the back seat, I first noticed Danesh looked pale. He was the first to use the bag, then his brother turned green, then Aditya couldn’t hold it. Todd and Fakhriallam, completely comfortable in the front seat with the driver, looked back in amusement as I juggled the bag between the boys. The very non-plussed Uber driver stopped the car and Arpan and I jumped out to search for more plastic bags while Todd made the other boys take a breather outside the car. Mission accomplished - we all piled back into the car just in time for Arpan to need the plastic bag he had balled up in his hand. My daily supply of hand-wipes had already been wiped-out. We finally made it to our destination at the Gateway of India - the departure point for the boat we would have to take to get to Elephanta Island. Fakhriallam was the only one who survived the car trip without incident. By this time we had serious concerns about getting on a boat even though I still had a few plastic bags left. Remarkably, or maybe because they now had empty stomachs, all of them survived the hour long ride on a creaking wooden ferry to Elephanta Island. Once on Elephanta they ran ahead of us, played thrilling games of tag in ancient ruins, climbed and posed on pillars, fed feral, snapping monkeys, ate ice-cream, refilled their stomachs with a plate of pav bhaji, and shopped the market stalls for a souvenir trinket. On the boat ride back to the Gateway, they kept busy feeding seagulls bits of chips and making us crazy by hanging over the edge. Back on land without losing one or two overboard, we strolled through the early evening crowds of tourists and locals milling around the congested roads near the majestic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and found a small restaurant with enough space at two tables for all of us to crowd in for dinner. When the sun finally set and it was time to head back to Saki Naka, which is worlds away from south Mumbai, my Uber App failed and we had to bargain hard with a taxi driver to take us to the nearest rickshaw stand miles away, where a rickshaw driver took pity on us when we plead our ‘money problems’ allowing the seven of us to pile into one rickshaw for the still hour long ride to Saki Naka. No plastic bags were needed on the journey home.

Fakhriallam, Dilip, Danesh, Aditya and Arpan taking a break on Elephanta Island

Arpan, Dilip, Fakhriallam, Aditya and Danesh

Fakhriallam checking out the wheelhouse on the ferry

Karan, Sachin, Karishma and Preet - New Year’s Eve and Tabla Concert

These four kids are in their teens, mostly easy going, happy and grateful for the time spent outside the community. With Indu, her husband Akhilesh, and their daughter Aagya, we took them to Powai for New Year’s Eve street celebrations. Powai is an upper middle class area of swish apartments and wide shopping streets with restaurant chains and fancy mall-type shopping along tree-lined streets. Every December this area has beautiful seasonal light displays. The green manicured parks are lit up with thousands of lights and the kids love to play on the grass amidst the flicker of coloured lights, use the playground equipment, race along the smooth paved walkways and marvel at the tall buildings surrounding the area. We stopped for ice-cream, watched the New Year arrive, then patiently waited for a table in a pizza restaurant where Karishma and Preet tasted pizza for the first time. A few weeks later we were invited to a Tabla Concert and we took them with us for an afternoon of incredible music in a fancy hall and the chance to see inspiring tabla musicians. Before the concert started we had time to wander the large cricket ground nearby, stopping briefly to watch cricket games in progress, and took a side road through the Dadar neighbourhood to while away some time on a small beach where the kids took turns taking each other’s photos with my camera. These outings were a chance for this group of teens to be free for a day from family responsibilities and to see parts of Mumbai they don’t normally experience, to eat in a restaurant and hear music played in person. They are all learning the tabla at the tuition centre so the concert was inspiring, requiring them to sit still and listen, to feel a part of something outside their limited experiences in the slum community. After the concert we purchased a tabla for them to practice with, inspired by their enthusiasm for the music they heard and the dedication of the tabla instructor, Aditya Saool, who volunteers at the tuition centre once a week to teach them how to coax beautiful sounds from a drum.

Karan with Indu, Sachin and Karishma (behind) at the beach near Dadar

Sachin, Aagya and Karan in Powai on New Year's Eve.

Kushmama, Ritesh, Roshni, Atulhesh, Shailesh and Manesh - An evening of rides and pizza

A kidnapping incident and Kushmama in tears is how this picnic started. While the kids staggered into the meeting place in the parking lot at the edge of the community, we waved two rickshaws down to take us to Powai for an evening of carnival rides, sweets, dinner and games. I gathered Manesh, Roshni and Kushmama into one rickshaw and we sped away assuming Todd was in pursuit in the other rickshaw with the other three kids. Before my rickshaw left, Todd and I had a quick conversation about where to meet and by the time he’d turned around, the remaining boys had jumped into a rickshaw and left without him. One of the mothers pointed to a rickshaw full of boys speeding away. A quick sprint into the heavy traffic that had stalled the get-a-way rickshaw and Todd had the offenders back in his grasp. They started again after a lecture, with Todd inside the rickshaw, and before they got too far a policeman on a motorcycle pulled up alongside and demanded they stop. He wondered if Todd might be kidnapping the boys. The rickshaw driver started to laugh, the kids giggled, leaving Todd to explain the situation. The policeman was not happy, he was demanding more of an explanation. The boys finally stopped laughing and explained how they know Todd Sir and pointed to their forearms where my phone number had been scrawled in ink. This seemed to satisfy him, although he probably should have called one of their parents to confirm the story. After ten minutes of further interrogation, they were allowed to carry on. Meanwhile in my rickshaw, a once excited Kushmama began to sob, dropping tears on her yellow dress. She never leaves the community without a family member and she was overcome with worry. It took Roshni to convince her that going home would be crazy, that fun was just a few minutes away, and finally the tears turned to quiet anticipation. When we arrived at the amusement park, Kushmama was in awe of the rides, the toilets, the candy floss and the very unsafe pellet guns that the kids took turns shooting at balloons to win a prize. For four hours we followed the six kids from ride to ride, game to game, until they were too tired to want more. We dined on pizza at a restaurant on the fancy main road of Powai and finished with ice-cream before piling into rickshaws for the twenty minute ride back to the community. There were no tears and no police stops; only tired, happy children and parents waiting up for us.

Ritesh, Manesh, Atulhesh, Shailesh, Roshni and Kushmama

Atulhesh, Kushmama, Manesh and Roshni

Kushmama, Ritesh, Shailhesh, Manesh, Roshni, Atulhesh

Sohil, Dinesh, Mubeen, Mukesh, Krishna, Sorabh and Sakhid - a day at Juhu Beach This would be an easy, carefree fun day at the beach with six spirited, athletic, fun-loving boys, except it wasn’t. We knew they would plunge into the murky water of Juhu Beach to cool off and wrestle each other in the sand, but we didn’t think they would try to swim after the new soccer ball that they had been throwing at each other in the knee deep water when it started to drift towards Africa. Standing on shore watching the ball drift slowly out to sea, I sensed they might attempt to go after it so I reluctantly waded in just far enough to feel the squish of the slimy, muddy sand creep up my ankles as the tan coloured water soaked the hem of my pants, yelling all the Hindi words I know until my voice became hoarse as I watched Sohil sputter around in the water fully clothed in a feeble attempt to reach the ball. Once the other kids started repeating my words along with vigorous arm waving, he finally gave up and waded back to the safety of shore. We attempted to lure them from the water’s edge with kites and a frisbee, and they joined a cricket game in progress. They wrestled until their pants were full of sand and we combed the beach for washed up Ganesh idols. We kept the wandering snack wallahs busy with orders for peanuts, drinks and chai before we dragged them to a place in the shade for a lunch of pav bhaji and falooda. They emptied their pockets of sand, shook out their shirts and we piled into rickshaws to take them back home to bucket baths, all of us still wondering when the soccer ball would reach some distant shore.

Sohil, Mukesh, Mubeen, Dinesh, Sakhid, Krishna and Sorabh

Mubeen, Danesh, Sakhid, Sorabh and Sohil enjoying falooda

Sorabh, Sohil, Mubeen, Sakhid, Danesh

Noorsaba, Roshni, Shobha and Saeda go to Elephanta

These girls know how to dress for a day out. They had been awake for hours before we arrived employing neighbours or sisters to style their hair and expertly apply kohl on their eyes and swipe their lips with lurid pink and coral lipstick. They were a froth of technicolour frills and excited grins by the time we arrived to pick them up. Sashaying up to the air-conditioned Uber car, they were giddy with excitement at our mode of transportation. I had plenty of plastic bags with me this time, water, tissues and a dash of anxiety about the long ride ahead of us. They plastered their powdered noses up to the window of the car, pointing out buildings and the distant skyline with the tall buildings etched into the smog. They took turns taking photographs of bridges, signs and traffic going the other way. The driver dropped us off and we wandered into the tourist zone of Colaba on our way to the Gateway of India to catch the boat to Elephanta. We walked through the market stalls on the Colaba causeway, stopping every ten seconds to ogle at all the costume jewellery, the kitschy souvenirs and stopped in front of the dessert case open to the street at Leopold’s Cafe. They pointed to the treats and we obliged by asking for a table in the always crowded restaurant and ordered three small cakes to share. Wiping their mouths clean of cake crumbs and their remaining lipstick, we made our way down the street, stopping to bargain for ankle bracelets from an old woman jangling her arm loaded with costume jewellery. When we reached the island later than we planned and they scrambled into the ruins to play hide and seek, posed for photos and kept a distance from the monkeys chasing other people brave enough to eat within a few feet of the primates. The long walk back to the boat dock in the late afternoon heat gave us reason to linger in the shade of the shopkeepers awnings to buy trinkets and bottles of bubbles for the boat. We barely made the final sunset sailing back to the Gateway. The girls kept entertained releasing bubbles into the wind off the side of the boat and watching them float away just out of reach of curious seagulls. After disembarking they walked slowly hand in hand through the crowds of people as we prodded them, promising dinner in a restaurant before we faced the long ride home in the darkness where sleep came quickly to each of them in the midst of maddening traffic.

Noorsaba, Shobha and Roshni

Roshni, Shobha, Noorsaba, Todd and Saeda on Elephanta Island

Shobha, Noorsaba and Roshni on the boat back from Elephanta

Vaishanavi, Priyanka, Divya, Saniya, Fiza, Afifa and Siba go to a Church Mela in Marol

This was the most disparate group of kids we took on a picnic, formed in haste as the weeks wore on and the other kids returned from their outings and talked about their trips. A Catholic church mela (fair) was coming up only a fifteen minute rickshaw ride away so we persuaded them to make a decision that we hoped they wouldn’t regret. Reports of the other kids’s adventures had this last group of girls in a dither about where to go and what to do. They didn’t relish the idea of the long car ride to Elephanta, they thought Juhu Beach wasn’t exciting enough and we were pressuring them to make a decision. This group has some difficult members - kids who don’t get along well and others who are hard to hardy and careless and like to run free. We divided the girls between two rickshaws and made a race out of getting to the fair ground - each group of girls hanging out the sides of the rickshaws, screaming for the driver to go faster. Once at the mela, the bright lights of the ferris wheel, the carnival games, and blow-up slides had them screaming with delight and desperate to go on every ride, play every game and buy balloons and bubbles. They each received one hundred rupees to buy a small gift from the many tables heaped with toys, treats and candies manned by the ever-smiling church ladies from St John the Evangelist Catholic Church. We snagged a large round table in the middle of the grounds and sent each girl off with Todd to buy a meal - a process that took a long time because these kids aren’t used to choices. They all picked the same thing in the end and we dined under the night sky surrounded by middle-class Catholic families out to support their church. To say we drew attention would be an understatement. People gathered around us and watched us eat, some asked questions and we were the object of many photos from curious onlookers. None of us were like the others. The girls were unfazed by the attention and taking my camera, did a fine job of posing for each other in the midst of all the attention.

Fiza, Vaishnavi, Afifa, Divya and Siba's - first time on a ferris wheel

The girls at the church mela

The girls at the church mela

Sneha, Nikita and Yogita go to a movie etc...

Of all the children in the community we spend many hours a day with Sneha and Nikita. Their father disappeared for days and to keep them busy and out of their small home where their mother was surrounded by concerned neighbours, they came with us on errands, after which we would take them for ice-cream, go to Juhu Beach for a day of play away from the gossip and they and their mother slept at our apartment after a trip to the hospital with Sneha. When their father was found relatively unharmed at a police station, their lives went back to normal. Their mother works fourteen hour days, seven days a week and Sneha and Nikita are lonely. They spend hours at the tuition centre before and after school and come to our apartment for food and help with school projects. As a special outing, along with their neighbour Yogita, whose personality is large and naughty, we managed an impromptu afternoon at an air-conditioned mall with Indu and her daughter Aagya. We bought movie tickets and large bags of popcorn and settled easily into the plush seats in the air-conditioned theatre to enjoy a new Bollywood release. When the lights in the theatre came back on and the credits rolled on the big screen, we followed the small crowd out of the theatre to the food court to gorge on ice-cream sundaes and plates of biryani. Before we caught an Uber back to the community, Indu, Todd and I parked ourselves on the edge of the mall’s large grassy courtyard filled with resting shoppers and watched the kids chase each other, make up games, kick off their shoes and feel the grass underfoot. It was a great day in the big city.

Sneha and Nikita at Juhu Beach

Yogita, Sneha, Indu, Aagya and Nikita at the movie

The cost of fun for 36 kids plus Indu, her daughter Aagya, and her husband Akhilesh (transportation, food, rides, admission fees, small souvenirs)

Rupees: 572 rupees per person (CAD -11.44 each)

Total: 22,879 rupees (CAD $457)

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