Slum communities contain a tsunami of human beings. It’s hard to stand out, to be special, or to be noticed for anything but a bad deed. No one notices the noise, or the chaos, or the dirt, or their neighbour’s despair, unless it happens in or near their own small home, so, unless your business spills over into someone else’s life, everyone just keeps moving in this intense dance of survival. The exception might be Ritesh, a 13 year-old-boy, who does stand out, if only because he makes sure of it.
He has an insatiable desire to invent, to nurture the tiny seeds planted in his brain while he sleeps, or when he eats his dal and rice, or when he finds something useful on the road. He’s most often found hunched over, combing the ground for anything that he can use to invent something else. Usually that something is an object that he’s dug out of the huge pile of garbage scattered among the parked auto rickshaws. He always has a plan for what he finds, no matter what that thing might be. He’s an inventor; his brain is wired to use disparate objects to create something that whirs, hisses, bounces, or flies. Though his inventions have been only somewhat successful (he has perfected paper rifles that shoot paper bullets much to the delight of the other kids) he believes himself to be a genius, an inventor and a finder of solutions to problems we don’t know we have. Most of his conversations with us start with him saying, “Cindy Mam, Todd Sir, I have an idea.”
He’s scrawny and tightly wound; not a child who laughs easily, but he’s adept at harnessing his nervous energy into creating working wings for plastic bottles and lately, a “machine” that he says can give your weight. For this particular invention he glued a metre long plastic tube to a hole cut into the flimsy discarded inner tube from an auto rickshaw. Then, with a pen, he marked the hose with one inch increments. As he explained, “I will fill the hose with water. The person steps on the inflated tire causing the water to flow up the marked tube giving the weight of the person.” He draws what he thinks are meticulous plans, to illustrate for us when we often seem confused about how his theories will work. We make what we think are reasonable queries, and he swiftly rejects them in favour of a long-winded conversation, labouring over the details of why he’s right. His imagination and his confidence race past his intellect and sometimes his capabilities, but he is undaunted in his quest to give the world, not just his community, a better, next great thing.
When we were planning a trip to the beach with about 30 children, he said to us, “I have an idea”. He wanted and needed to make scuba masks for everyone. Our job was to help him procure some glass, rubber tubing and some hard plastic. Hmmm…we discussed the logistics of this plan, citing that he wouldn’t have time to make every child a scuba mask. He was perplexed and a bit frustrated with us, but he hadn’t given up on some kind of beach device even as the bus pulled away en route to Juhu Beach. When we arrived at the beach he quickly rounded up discarded plastic bottles and stuffed them under his shirt. The other kids watched and scoffed at Ritesh’s idea, and took to the water, leaving Ritesh to deal with his pile of bottles. He confidently strolled out into the murky water and laid on his back in the first rolling wave. The other children stopped their splashing about to watch him. He was able to float for a few minutes (until the bottles popped out). The rest of the kids bolted out of the water to run up and down the beach searching for bottles, suddenly realizing Ritesh might be on to something. The trash on the beach became treasure as the children filled their t-shirts and their pants with inflatable bottles.
We celebrated Ritesh’s 13th birthday a few weeks ago by purchasing him a small electric motor that runs on batteries, the batteries, electricians tape, glue, magnifying glass and battery harnesses. He attached the tiny engine to two plastic bottles he glued together, cut a third bottle to make a propeller creating a “boat” with a working propeller. He frequently has show and tell sessions at the tuition centre where he bravely faces much ridicule from the other boys, until he connects two wires and the magic happens. They leap up and surround him, make suggestions about what he could have done better, and quietly mope about how they can’t really figure out how he did it.
Innovation is Ritesh’s reason for getting up in the morning in the small room he shares with his mother, father, three siblings and his grandmother. There is a word for inventive solutions in India - jugaad (a Hindi word) which means to find a low-cost, somewhat primitive solution to a problem by intelligent thinking, creativity and problem solving where otherwise there doesn’t seem to be a solution. India is full of everyday examples of jugaad; out-of-the box thinking to tackle a short-term problem. (My personal favourite is the bicycle knife wallahs. A full knife shop on a bicycle with a sharpening wheel that works when they peddle while the bicycle remains stationary. Genius!) The solutions often appear more comical than realistic, but they always work. Recently, while hopping out of a rickshaw in a nearby neighbourhood, we noticed a bicycle, really more a piece of art, a working sculpture. We looked around for the owner and realized it belonged to the fruit wallah nearby. He rides this moving art piece to work daily. He has attached numerous lights, a working electric radio, decorations and the wheels light up with music reverberations. We knew Ritesh needed to meet his creative counterpart. A few days later, with Ritesh sitting between us in a rickshaw we made our way to the fruit stand. The man was a delight with Ritesh, even when Ritesh, with his hands on his hips, made suggestions about how he could improve his invention. The two of them chatted while the man explained to him how his colourful, blinking, noise-making, whirring bicycle functioned. Ritesh was in awe of the him and the invention. The only thing better than the trip to see the man and his bike was a trip to a hardware shop afterward where Ritesh picked out some parts for his next invention, already brewing in his non-stop idea factory of a brain.
Is he harebrained or brilliant? I hope he’s a bit of both. He believes in himself, and his inventions are the only thing he gets excited about. We pay Ritesh’s school fees and hope one day his mad genius will pay off for him and his family. In the meantime we’ll continue to buy him batteries, tape, and wire that he can’t find in the piles of garbage or on the road. Though he rarely giggles, or is frivolous with words or actions, he’s very confident. The day we bought a glue gun his head exploded with possibilities and he managed a slow smile. Genuine happiness.
Ritesh’s school fees: 4,700 rupees (CAD $97)
Birthday gift items: 280 rupees (CAD $5.53)
Birthday party (cake, candy for 30 children): 570 rupees (CAD $11.27)