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The Foreigners Live in our Building

Our friendly neighbourhood where we have rented a one-room flat.

It doesn’t take us long to settle in to the thrum of this city. It helps that the relatively new Mumbai airport is beautiful and still feels new. Filing off a long flight, passengers are met with well curated exhibits, ancient and modern art, photographs, and street scenes that give a filtered hint of the sprawling city beyond the manicured airport facility. However, once we pass through customs and walk out of the air-conditioned airport it doesn’t take long for the city to simultaneously appal and appease us. That’s when we know we’re really back; when we take it in all at once without the filter.

Hotel rooms in Mumbai are expensive relative to the quality offered. The budget for accommodation we set for ourselves have us spending our first few nights sleeping in a windowless hotel room with stained pillows, but somewhat clean sheets, and a free breakfast of chai with a side of fried egg served in a puddle of oil. Looking for a flat to live in begins on day two.

The building courtyard where the children play non-stop games.

It’s a process that starts a whole other level of frustration and a small serving of comic relief. It helps to have connections. Reeta (from the community) works as a maid in a swanky building. Another maid there heard about our search for a flat. She knew a realtor who could help. The meeting was set up. Indu and her husband and children accompanied us to look at a few places in a low rent neighbourhood. The price we’re willing to pay dictates the neighbourhood, the size of the flat, and the condition of the building. We looked at two flats and chose the second once. It consists of one unfurnished, clean room on the second floor of a grimy forty year old building, and is equipped with a western toilet. We’re accustomed to overlooking a shabby building exterior, but we hope there isn’t large cracks in the stairwell, crumbling cement walls, or loose electrical wires. Hot running water is a bonus, as is a refrigerator, both a no-show in this apartment. We have large window overlooking a busy street and a field where numerous dazzling, noisy events frequently take place. Surprisingly, none of this deterred us because it was clean, inexpensive, and within walking distance to the community. Everything we need is right outside our door or can be delivered on a bicycle or a motorcycle. Local shops have already felt the benefit us moving in. (Mattress, water, stove top, stools, a fold-up table)

A sneak peak of our tiny, but adequate living space in Building #31.

The neighbours are friendly. We see them often because everyone keeps their door open to the hallway. We overhear conversations, listen to televisions playing Hindi soap operas, and share aromas of cooking and other things. The shared hallways are narrow, lined with shoes, and stained with sweaty hand marks, the accumulated grime of years, and at knee height, the curious scribbles of children entrusted with pens. After a long day, we look forward to the loud greeting by the gregarious neighbourhood children every time we walk through the gate to the building. Most evenings we stop to cheer them on while they play games in the dimly lit courtyard. The elderly lady who lives on the ground floor never fails to wave to us from behind her barred window decorated with freshly washed laundry and a few plants struggling to find sunlight. We buy our produce from the vendors on the street outside our door who load their carts with artful displays of fruit and vegetables. The samosa shop at the end of the street has the most delicious snacks, but it’s also filthiest. We eat, we pray. There’s plenty of auto rickshaw drivers waiting nearby, some of whom are willing to take us where we need to go. At dusk, when the local green space is open, we join the neighbours and walk briskly in circles on an uneven pathway around the periphery of the space, past couples lazing on the grass, children playing on the playground equipment, and people walking well-kept dogs. Everyone likes to chat as they walk, especially to introduce themselves to the foreigners in their midst. Within a few minutes, we hear about their families, where they work and what salary they earn, what they paid for their flat, how many children they have and what degrees they will earn in the future. They ask us where we live, but they already know. They tell us they’ve seen us shopping at night and getting in a rickshaw in the morning. We’re the only foreigners in the area and the novelty might never wear off.

The bountiful night market near our flat.

Now that we’re settled in to our tiny flat, we head out each day to spend most of our time in the slum community. We’re paying school fees in the dusty streets of Saki Naka, and taking people to doctors and dentists. When word is out that we are back in the community, Indu fields phone calls from families who need school fees paid or have medical issues they need help with. These are hard days. Some people have waited too long for help and some are unaware of how sick they are. They’re happy to get help whatever their diagnosis is, from mostly compassionate doctors.

Waiting at a clinic for a patient to get blood test results.

The community is never the same way as when we last left it. It becomes bigger or smaller. The demolition sight has newly erected corrugated tin and blue tarp homes built on top of the rubble and accumulated piles of garbage. The families living in them know the BMC (municipal government) will eventually approach them with bulldozers and eviction notices, but for now they have place to live. The part of the community with brick homes has morphed into dank, dark spaces heaped on top of each other, completely blocking out the sun, as slum lords add to their empires. Politicians have recently paid to have a few of the lanes paved with square cement tiles, securing a vote bank for future elections.

Two-story homes in the community. These homes don't see much daylight.

Some families have moved on and new families take their place. We notice changes in the children who grow taller and sometimes thinner while we’re away. Their parents share weary smiles, exhausted from living in difficult, cramped situations with few resources or relief. The smell of the gutter mixed with sandalwood incense permeates every dark corner of every lane. Our noses twitch with the smell of mold and mildew, cumin and garlic, coconut hair oil, and smoke from cooking fires or burning garbage. Settling in to the community means we are guests at birthday celebrations, school functions and late dinners eaten with families in one room shanties. We stop often for chai when called by the busy mothers who see us when they look up from pounding wet laundry on a piece of cement. They tell us about their lives and ask us about ours since we’ve been away. We share photos and stories, hear all the gossip and the fears, and for some, good news as well. They show us their child’s report card and bring the trophies down from the shelf, wiping them clean before they hand them to us to inspect and give praise.

Ganesh and his grandmother require our help with school fees this year. He's a new fees case.

Paying Divya and Priyanka's school fees at Shivner Vidya Mandir School.

It’s exam time in the schools so Indu’s tuition classes are full of children needing help with their studies. It also means we have to get school fees paid so the students are allowed to take their exams. We are happy to be on duty to take some of the smaller children to school when their parents can’t, and pick them up again, fighting our way though the crowds on Pipeline Road and often stopping for a quick cane juice to wait until the crowd thins a bit, but it never does.

At play in the cleared area with the newly erected tarp and tin homes in the background.

Culture clashes are inevitable, but we’ve learned to respect decisions that shake us and have us holding our head in our hands. We’re unable to comprehend how parents seeks to arrange a marriage for their fifteen year old daughter, a girl we’ve known for years. Or how a mother will leave her children unattended in the community while she has no choice but to work; how nutrition is barely an issue as moms hand their babies biscuits made of sugar and palm oil because it satisfies the child and because biscuits are cheap and plentiful. These are sometimes the only choices for the poor who have no resources and no safety net and are bound by traditions and caste.

Celebrating a birthday in Geeta's 8 x 9 ft home.

We are lucky to host visitors, such as Rachel from Victoria who changed her ticket from Goa to make sure she had time to come to see what we’re up to. She tagged along with us to pay school fees and then we lingered over a chai with Jyoti and her family until it was time play with the kids. Every two years, we are humbled to be able to entertain a bunch of boys and their teachers from Saint Ignatius’ Riverview School in Sydney, Australia. The children here look forward to their jovial, gregarious visits and miss them when they’re gone. It’s important to us that guests enter the community with respect and the best intentions to immerse themselves as much as they can while they are here. Rachel, and the Australians are welcome back any time. There are also some generous and compassionate Mumbaikars (Ajoy, and Prasad from PMAM), who make sure to connect with us and Indu, offering books, or their time, hold celebrations for the children, and have deep concern for the millions of families who live below the margins in this gigantic, sprawling, intense city, where life is intense and difficult for everyone, whether rich or poor.

Top photo: the students from Saint Ignatius' College, Riverview (Sydney, Australia) visited us for two days recently.

Bottom photo: Rachel from Victoria, BC, visited us on for a day. Everyone has declared Jyoti's chai and poha the best in India.

We’re about to have some incredible experiences of every kind in the next few months. We cry, we laugh, we scream a bit, we cajole, we’re still surprised daily, and most of all we are showered with kindness by the families we call family in the community, and by our new friends in the apartment building where we live, even though we’re the foreigners in the building. As difficult as it can be sometimes for all of us to understand each other, we’re always happy and grateful to be a part of their lives for better and for worse.

With Indu and her two daughters along, we visited Ranjana (right) at her home in Mahul. Ranjana also serves the best chai in India.

*For your interest - our cost of living/flying to and from India/personal expenses are paid for us by us. No DWP funds are used to sustain our living, travel or food expenses.

Here's what it costs to live in our one-room flat, if you're curious!

rent: $380 per month includes the rent plus all necessary fees to the landlord, property manager, move-in fee, realtor fee and anyone with their hand out during the process.

refundable deposit to landlord: $200

electric bill: $12 per month

cooking gas: $7 per month

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