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Just Add Water

The pursuit of happy days to offset the misery of demolitions.

When you need to buy ten kites, Arpan, a stick-thin nine-year-old boy with the swagger of a Bollywood star, is your go-to guy. He and four other children took us on a meandering wander through a grimy area of under-construction mega apartment complexes, make-shift roads, decayed buildings, slum areas, and ramshackle warehouses. Large trucks chugged past us bathing us in a haze of dust and exhaust fumes, while Arpan, and his friend Jigar, ran ahead jumping over oily puddles, kicking garbage aside, and finally stopping at a shop so small we would have walked past it. “How do you know they sell kites?” we chimed together. “It’s so simple,” said Arpan, his deadpan delivery followed by a flick of his hand, fingers splayed. “I followed two boys flying kites and asked them where to get one.” The woman behind the narrow counter nodded her head, and from behind the curtain of tiny packets filled with snacks, soap, and shampoo hanging from hooks and nails, she produced a bag full of hand-made kites fashioned from thin plastic sheets recycled from packaging factories, braced by strips of bamboo.

The kites were for our New Year’s Eve day picnic to Juhu beach with forty children. We’ve been keeping the children’s minds off the demolition and the community as they knew it, by taking them away from the disaster and the rubble. The lead-up to the outings are as much fun as the day of the picnic. The kids help us plan the events down to the last detail. The older ones call the guy with the bus to arrange our transportation, while some of the younger ones negotiate with food vendors because they believe we never get a fair price from the snack wallahs. They come with us to shop for badminton rackets and soccer balls and chocolate treats. Some of the girls make lists and take names and act as bus marshals, keeping everyone in some sort of control while the bus chugs through traffic. Our input is the very red t-shirts we purchased for a few dollars each (after digging through deep bins at D-Mart - India’s answer to Walmart) that we insist each child wears when we go to crowded places with more than ten children. I’ve taken to shrieking at the sight of a kid without a red t-shirt, so convinced I am of the effectiveness of this plan to get them all back home. To reduce the “what if someone gets lost” anxiety, I’ve written Indu’s phone number on the bottom hem of each t-shirt in indelible ink.

The day at Juhu was stellar, but the kids said it didn’t compare to the day at the waterpark where the water was clean and there were giant slides and twirling rain sprinklers. It was a long day of riding in a hot bus to the outskirts of Mumbai where there are numerous waterparks to choose from; some of them better maintained than others. For many of the children, their water experience was limited to monsoon puddles, so the sight of sparkling blue water in the pools was an experience they couldn’t imagine having. The dusty play area with swings, the slides, and cartoon fountains, plus the prospect of a full day of play in this water wonderland had them enthralled for hours, stopping only for a plate of veg biryani and a dish of ice-cream. The bus ride back was very quiet when exhaustion set in and heads bobbed back and forth in an attempt to sleep.

Some of the children love to draw and create and craft something out of nothing, which inspired the day trip for eleven budding artists to south Mumbai to see the art show at the Sassoon fishing docks. It was a day of new sights and inspiring art amidst the stench of the lively, slimy, hectic, fish market. The Start Urban Art Festival collaborated with forty artists, both foreign and local, to transform the 142 year old fishing docks with murals and installations, depicting the lives of the fishermen and women. The kids roamed the docks, with us close behind, darting from one eccentric exhibit to another, sometimes trying to make sense of what they were seeing, other times taking advantage of my phone to take selfies against colourful walls, and sometimes pinching their noses and holding their breath, such was the powerful smells of a working fish dock. We made our way to a rooftop where we caught sight of the fishing boats and the Arabian sea. Some of them, their imaginations soaring, wondered if there were sea monsters under the boats. On the way home, they stared out the train window, tired, but also noticing, perhaps for the first time, that art is everywhere. Nine-year-old Sandeep was inspired to point out billboards, graffiti, old posters, pan-stained walls and the modern posters in the metro station. The motto for the Start Urban Art Festival is “Art for All”. The kids from the slum community were as excited and as inspired by the art as any urban art lover from the fancy areas of Mumbai.

Most of our days are spent in rickshaws, with Indu, heading to areas nearby to pay school fees, or taking people to doctors. The children go to school, take tuition classes, and play in dark laneways bordering the rubble of their former neighbour’s homes. The level of anxiety is high, everyone is worried and rumours are rampant about everything that impacts their lives from the price of tomatoes, to the sight of a bulldozer parked nearby. We all need these days of fun, something to look forward to, a break from routine, and a new way of seeing things, even if just for a few hours.

”Where’s Shivani?” Indu gasped. These were words no one wanted to hear at the end of our day at Juhu beach. The panic rose in our throats and our hearts started thumping while we surveyed the vast crowds of people taking over the miles of sand. The beach had become insanely crowded as families settled in for New Year’s celebrations. Shivani, a six year old girl who looks like most other six year old girls from behind, was beside us one minute while we all gathered our things, and then she wasn’t. When one of the boys finally spotted her making sand piles behind a curtain of legs and saris, relief shuddered through the rest of us, the kids included, as if we’d just stopped a train from hitting us. How did he find her? She was wearing a red shirt…

The night before we take the children out of the community, sleep doesn’t come easy. They are excitable and unaware and unafraid of new surroundings with a level of energy unmatched by a winning sports team. When everyone is back on the bus, safe and exhausted from play, we remind ourselves that it was worth losing sleep over, and then we tell ourselves we shouldn’t take forty kids out, all at once, into crowded places, ever again. And then the children start asking us, “Where to next?”

What did it all cost?

The Red T-Shirts: 2914 rupees (CAD 58)

Water Park (37 children/3 adults)

- bus rental and highway tolls: 6450 rupees (CAD 129)

- entrance fee for 40: 12,000 rupees (CAD 240)

- breakfast/lunch/drinks/snacks for 40: 5934 rupees (CAD 118)

Juhu Beach (40 children including 2 parents)

- 10 kites and strings: 120 rupees (CAD 2.40)

- bus rental: 4000 rupees (CAD 80)

- lunch purchased at Juhu for 40: 3200 rupees (CAD 64)

- prizes/water/snacks: 1811 rupees (CAD 36.22)

Art Event (South Mumbai) (11 children/3 adults)

- train fare: 560 rupees (CAD 11.20)

- metro fare: 560 rupees (CAD 11.20)

- bus fare: 100 rupees (CAD 2.00)

- rickshaws: 138 rupees (CAD 2.76)

- water/snacks/lunch: 1681 rupees (CAD 33.62)

- admission: free

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