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Collective Spirit and some Angst

Two girls visiting in front of their homes along the pipeline area of the community.

Her daily text and voice messages arrive either in the early morning hours or after midnight in my time zone. The two or three word texts arriving one after the other for an hour or so each time, inform me about her health, her job, or loss of a job, her indebtedness to her landlord, and her need for supplies which might be food rations or refills for her cooking gas cylinder. We also chat about her mother, their living situation, and her general state of mind, all short versions of what should be a longer conversation over masala chai, sitting cross legged in her one room home buried at the tail end of a dark lane.

Twenty year old Ashwini who I’ve written about many times before, lives with her ailing mother who struggles with an addiction to cheap alcohol and vague illnesses that often prevent her from holding on to a job. The longest job she had was as a street sweeper for the city of Mumbai. Jobs such as these are for the lowest caste, require no skills, and are back breaking. Working in the heat of the day wearing flip flops and a sari covered with an oversized uniform shirt, and no gloves to protect her hands from grime, germs and cuts, her only equipment is a broom. Her job was to sweep the hazardous, filthy areas around the overflowing city owned garbage bins. Hunched over for most of her long shifts, she pulled and pushed and piled every sort of waste; paper, plastic, splinters of wood, factory debris, animal carcasses and rotting food waste. Putting her broom aside and using what she could scavenge from the rearranged piles, a large flat piece of wood or strong plastic to use as a scraper, she covered her mouth with a rag or the tail end of her sari, scraped the piles together and forced the contents into the overstuffed bin. She has since lost her job as a sweeper and is searching for another job.


Ashwini has held a few factory jobs since the lockdown in Mumbai eased and restrictions were lifted. In December, she was hired as a live-in nanny for a middle-class couple with a baby girl. She lived in their flat, slept on the floor in their living room, her working hours stretching up to fifteen hours a day, seven days a week. Her job entailed caring for the baby, cleaning the apartment, and cooking. She was allotted ten hours per day as time off and used most of those precious hours for sleep. After two weeks at the job, her employers announced they would be leaving for a month long vacation. She had to vacate the flat with the promise of continued employment when they returned to the city. There was no offer of payment for the two weeks she worked for them. She wasn’t called back and she was never paid for the two weeks she worked for them.

She lost her next job working at a jewellery factory because of prolonged time off due to illness. She is currently employed at another factory where her job is to attach wires to components. Her salary is 5000 rupees a month ($85 CAD). (The rent on the slum home she shares with her mother is 5000 rupees a month)

Her daily texts to me continue to be laden with health concerns and worry. She’s suffered repeatedly from scabies, breathing problems, headaches and cough. She's seen doctors who maintain her problem is not Covid related, but her symptoms persist. She says she’s unable to work, and I have to assume, even though she claims otherwise, that there is someone else in line for her job and she’ll be searching for another factory job when she regains a modicum of health.

For every story like Ashwini and her mother, there are good news stories of families who are working again, whose children are enrolled in online classes through their schools, and their need for assistance with pandemic rations or medical help has dwindled to a normal level relative to their punishing living conditions.

Children engaged with each other at Indu's tuition class.

Indu has opened her home for tuition classes that we attend via video a few times a month. The children are busy studying for their year-end exams. With the exception of students in the 10th standard who recently started attending school in person for a few hours a day, all other standards continue with online learning. The tablets we purchased a few months ago are utilized by any child who doesn’t have access to a phone to stay connected to their teachers and online lessons.

The children’s birthdays are being celebrated once again with a fancy cake shared among friends and a small gift for the birthday child. A few families are looking forward to the end of the school year in mid-April when they will set out on a three to four day train journey to visit relatives living in their native villages of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Karan with a script he was practicing for an acting class.

Karan on the job as a production assistant for a song video.

Karan, a dynamic personality, who has his dreams set on an acting career has taken some acting classes in his pursuit of that goal. Recently he received an opportunity to be a production assistant for three days on a set filming a song video. Kane asked his friend, Abhishek Nambiar, a Bollywood producer/director, if he could assist Karan with his goal. Abhishek offered this thrilling opportunity and Karen didn’t let him down. Karan’s excitement about this opportunity, what he learned in three days working on a film set, how well he was treated by Abhishek and the rest of the crew, has sustained his quest to continue to find a way to work in film production, or as an actor. While he waits and hopes for his next opportunity in film, he’s continuing his studies at a nearby college.

Mohan and his mom proudly showing off his scholastic trophies.

An opportunity for a scholarship has appeared via a corporate sponsorship for students who attained 80 percent on their final 10th standard exams and meet the assorted criteria, including family wages of 20,000 rupees ($350 CAD) a month or less. We were made aware of the scholarship through Ajoy Kutty, who currently lives in London, England but was born and raised in Mumbai. He spends an enormous amount of time in the community when he comes to Mumbai to visit his family, mentoring the children and inspiring them to do their best. We’re thrilled and proud that Mohan Patil qualified for the scholarship which, if he is accepted, would see his college fees paid for the duration of his education. The paperwork required was daunting, but his family put their regular routing aside and hastily arranged the necessary documents. This is a family who understands the need for discipline, order, organization, and puts in hours of hard work required to take advantage of the few opportunities that come their way. We’re still waiting to hear if Mohan will be awarded the scholarship. There are many children who have benefited from having Ajoy in their lives. He’s a persistent but caring task master, his compassionate agenda is to encourage and enlighten the children, and enable them go beyond their current circumstances.

Kushnuma and Twinkle (holding her nephew) are heading to Indu's tuition class.

Ashwini will likely always need a hand up, but there are many families who ask for assistance only when their situation becomes unthinkable, unmanageable, and dire because of job loss, the death of a family member, or ongoing medical needs. Indu has employed a tough love approach for those individuals or families who rely heavily on donations for daily living as the urgent needs due to the pandemic starts to wane. Many of the adults in the community have thankfully regained the jobs they lost during the lockdown, or have found other employment, while others have moved from the city to join relatives in their villages. The families possess a work ethic and a strong sense of pride that they engage to manage their family’s basic needs, however their wages are rarely enough to maintain a very low standard of living provoked by caste disparity, lack of job skills, and illiteracy. To pay someone they owe money to, they borrow from someone else. Most families, after exhausting other avenues of borrowing such as family or friends, choose to visit unscrupulous money lenders for a high interest loan that is set up to keep them in the payment cycle. Striving just to survive is a daily struggle in every slum community in Mumbai.

The families who have been helped, especially with school fees, and lately, emergency rations, have immense gratitude for the gift of relief from their numerous daily burdens.

Sofian and his mom are thankful for the rations they've been receiving since the start of the pandemic.

Since November 2020, your donations have provided the following:

Ration Distribution:

Rations were distributed to three families on an as needed basis after consultation between Indu and the families. (Irshaad’s family, Ashwini and her mother, and Priya’s family — who live in a nearby slum community). Indu determined what each family needed and shopped nearby to fulfill their immediate needs such as rice, grains, salt, spices, tea, soap, toiletries, cooking oil and cooking gas.

10,775 rupees ($187 CAD)

Rent Assistance:

Ashwini and her mother continue to require help to pay their monthly rent which is still in arrears.

One month rent: 5000 rupees ($87 CAD)

Medical Help: (Doctor fees/medicine)

Ashwini has required numerous visits to the doctor plus medicine for various illnesses and issues, and Priya required eyeglasses.

Ashwini medical fees/medicine/tests: 2726 rupees ($47.43 CAD)

Priya required eyeglasses: 600 rupees ($10.42)

Tech Help:

Three additional months of WIFI for Indu’s tuition classes required for students to attend online classes: 1435 rupees ($24.91 CAD)

Indu’s Tuition Class:

We continue to provide birthday cake, food and gifts for the children taking part in Indu’s Tuition class as well as other noteworthy holidays where there’s a cause to celebrate. Approximately 30 to 40 children take part in the celebrations for each event: 6337 rupees ($110 CAD)

School Fees: (ongoing payments as parents require)

Indu continues to pay school fees as parents request help. We will start the payment of the remainder of fees for the children we initially paid half fees for a few months ago. The schools will be requesting the rest of the fees be paid as the school year is coming to a close in April. The fees below were paid from November to present. I will update the fees paid as I receive receipts from Indu.

Nandchhaya Vidya Niketan English Medium school: 6 fees/33,900 rupees ($587 CAD)

Shivner Vidya Mandir School: 4 fees/23,600rupees (472 CAD)

Shivam Vidya Mandir School: 1 fee/9800 rupees ($170 CAD)

Shan E Islam Urdu School: 2 fees/14,025 rupees ($242 CAD)

As always, I post lots of photos with mini posts regarding information and news about the community a few times a week on the DWP Facebook and Instagram accounts.


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