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Inch by Inch

The long road to understanding Indian culture is, for us, a chaotic and most interesting journey to heaven and hell. Sometimes we get to step away and find the stillness that is rare here to find a beautiful moment on the street. Today, we bumped into a woman who once lived in the community years ago. We hugged and laughed and were excited to meet again. As a wave of pedestrians whorled around us, I found out from reading her body language, along with my limited ability to understand and speak a bit of Hindi, that she has grandchildren now, her family is doing well, and she lives nearby. A promise was made to have lunch at her home, and then we all went on our way; she was on her way back to her home, and we were on our way to pay hospital fees for a man who was just diagnosed with TB. It’s India’s way of reminding us that we are but two people in a vast, vast sea of extraordinary lives entrenched in a culture that's always throwing new experiences our way to confound us. We’re here for it.

Upon our return to Mumbai in the afternoon late in December, after dropping our bags at a nearby hotel, we met with Indu, her husband Akhilesh, and their daughters, Aagya, Aarya, and the newest family member, six- week-old Anaya, at a restaurant across the street from the community.  It was our chance to catch up with them first, to hear their news, to share a meal, and to cuddle Anaya without having to share her with Indu’s neighbours. Once we cross the threshold into the community our lives are intertwined with hundreds of people, some with many problems, while others manage brilliantly with few resources. The first few days of our return are like being put into a pot and left to simmer until the ingredients start to mix into a stew of understanding about how to react to a culture so different from ours despite years of immersion here. We indulge in the rare beauty of it all, and have learned to be fully present during the saddest moments so that we don’t forget the impact. We also remember how to just sit still when all around us there is so much noise, so much life, and so much to react to. Their lives move inch by inch. There are few great leaps here, but there is possibility. We’ve learned how to be here; to understand that progress is sometimes second to the culture, the festivals, the community pride, and how they are the first to help one another.

As we traverse Mumbai doing errands, along with some sightseeing on Sundays, we notice the brash race to modernity in many parts of the city. The whole city is choking on the dust from the construction of mega projects. There’s much to offer here for millions of middle class and top tier people, but only a few crumbs are scattered to the millions of low caste families who dwell at the foot of modern buildings. It’s this glaring disparity that we dwell upon when we return to this city on steroids.

So, what has changed for the bottom rungs of the population ladder? The ability of most families to own a simple, inexpensive mobile smart phone has allowed them to pay bills online provided they have a bank account. Everything from paying school fees to buying vegetables from a street cart and a samosa from a roadside stall can be paid for by mobile phone using various online payment methods. Slum populations struggle with the paperwork (and literacy in many cases) required to access the stringent government identification process that opens doors to access rations, bank accounts, bill payments and enrolment in schools. For those who manage the transition to technology, their lives have been made somewhat easier. Gone are the days of spending a whole day walking or bussing to offices to pay bills, or lining up in the heat of the day to pay school fees. A bit of time has been returned to them. Sometimes they get to indulge in some stillness.

Imran (the key maker) and his wife Shabana.

The digital world here isn’t without casualties, especially in a slum community where there’s less awareness of online security and internet scams and there’s a rush to be relevant in the world. Among teens, the use of Instagram and WhatsApp to communicate is prolific. As ubiquitous as anywhere else in the world, they post dance videos, modelling poses and their inner thoughts, allowing anyone to see their posts. Their oversharing of information can be catastrophic, as it was for one young man in the community. He was the victim of a devious bribery threat from an internet savvy girl, resulting in him taking his own life a few months ago to protect his family, leaving a dark hole of immeasurable grief to his close knit family and his shocked friends. 

Imran, the community key maker and part-time singing philosopher, crafts keys by hand. He’s proud of his craft, hand buffing the finished key before giving it to his customer. For years, he's cycled around the nearby area to service customers with the ability to make a key anywhere for anyone. He’s struggled to make a living, yet he and his wife, Shabana, also manage to raise three children and make payments on their room in the community. Now, with so many digital locks and machines that instantly produce keys proliferating around the area, his business is suffering. Just like many other people in slum communities without education or basic literacy, he had to find a way to make a living outside the norms of employment. His micro world is now at the mercy of the digital age. 

Irshaad, Aayra and Aagya manning his mom's shop in the lane.

The flip-side of families having social media accounts is that I can offer them a link to the hundreds of photos I’ve taken of them and their children dating as far back as 2013, which also saves us the cost of printing a few photos each year for families. The obvious photos of them at special events, birthdays, and celebrations are nice memories for them to have, but it’s the hundreds (in some cases a few thousand photos) of everyday photos that I take of them, inadvertently documenting their lives while they play, do chores, drive their rickshaws, have babies, visit with friends, wear a new sari, hold their children's hands, that that reminds them of the small things. One young woman, now in her twenties whom I’ve photographed since 2009, said, “Oh, I had a nice childhood!” 

Of all of the issues we come face-to-face with in the community, it’s the culture and traditions surrounding the birth of a baby girl that is the most disheartening. There was no fanfare, or even a quiet celebration, upon the arrival of Indu’s third daughter, Anaya. Indu has met with criticism and concern (“oh, no, it’s another girl”) from other mothers, disappointment from her in-laws, and plenty of advice on how to have a boy the next time (rubbing her pregnant belly with Johnsons’ Baby Oil is one of the suggestions). Her in-laws are insisting that she keep trying for a boy, despite what the obvious reasons are not to have another child. Culturally, they believe that the husband bares no biological responsibility for the gender of the child.  The birth of a son is required to escort the parents into their old age, keep whatever savings and property they have in the family, and bring a daughter-in-law to the home to take over the chores, along with a hefty dowry upon marriage. Their three daughters will cost them three dowries — an unimaginable amount of money for each daughter, depending on the wishes and demands of their future husband’s family. Many of the mothers can’t resist coming to Indu’s home to cuddle tiny Anaya, but their concern about the need for Indu to produce a male child always enters the conversation, and it’s loud.

Indu and Anaya

Our favourite good news story is about Karan. He’s committed to his education in commerce and a career in the film industry. Kane introduced Karan to his friend Abhishek, a producer in Mumbai, who along with a colleague, is mentoring Karan. They’ve offered him opportunities to learn various aspects of the industry while working for short stints on film and music video sets. One of the ways Karan can advance his skills is to have a passport which would allow him to travel with film crews. It took almost two years, a stack of paperwork, encumbered bureaucracy, including his father having to travel back to his village to arrange his identification and secure his own passport, and some cash, for Karan to finally receive his passport this year, perhaps one of the most important documents he will ever own. 

There are other young adults from the community in college or intern positions, earning their right to better employment than their parents. Nineteen-year-old Sneha, (the first child DWP paid school fees for in 2009) is taking courses to become a lab technician. Sachin is finishing his culinary college course and is working at the airport for a catering company making food for international flights. He’s applied for his passport hoping to find culinary work on a cruise ship. His mother, sitting nearby, smiles as broad as an open umbrella when he modestly informed us of his accomplishment. Itaba, Samiksha, Mounie, Suman, Arya, and Mohan are all in college or have finished their courses. The internet has provided them with a view of the world and its glittering possibilities in a way that their parent’s can’t imagine. Their eager and earnest ambitions will be tempered by the culture in which they must live, requiring them to have more determination, more ambition, and a tireless work ethic to succeed. We’re on the sideline, cheering them on, helping them with text books, school fees, or whatever else they need. We’re so encouraged and inspired by their difficult achievements and the guts it takes to keep going, to push the door open enough for them to squeeze themselves through it toward a future that gives them respect and a living wage. 

Karan with his coveted passport.

As for us, we fully immerse ourselves in the city by renting a place to live.  We quickly settled into a small flat in the same building we lived in last year. The area is full of look-alike-buildings, some in rapid decay, and some freshly painted, as ours was last year. Our flat has one large room divided into two spaces. The kitchen is but one counter with a cold water sink and enough space for a two burner stove top. Our newly purchased mattress has just enough stuffing to keep us an inch from the hardness of the floor. The bathroom space with the flaking Pepto Bismal coloured plaster (with an Asian toilet) is just enough to turn around in. We bathe with a cold water bucket system that’s surprisingly refreshing at the end of a dusty day.  Our third floor a view is of the street below, which keeps us amused most evenings watching the parade of people going about their business in a street crammed with shops and street vendors. Having lived in this neighbourhood for the third time now we’ve become less of a novelty. We have a long established rapport with our favourite fruit and vegetable vendors who give us their best price, and a gaggle of children who invite us to events at their building nearby. A large dirt field across the street provides us with hours of ear-splitting entertainment to watch from our window, such as parades, weddings, fireworks and religious gatherings, filling our tiny flat with fine dust that floats through our window.  Around midnight, after the street stalls have been covered with wet burlap and secured with rope and the vendors go home, a large pack of street dogs take over the street. Their barking and mournful howling lasts until the morning sun fills in the shadows when we give up the thought of restful sleep, make the first cup of coffee, and listen to the horns start beeping.

Our flat is in this freshly painted building.

We’re very happy to be back for a while. India requires faith that we can manage the noise and the culture and the inevitable comedy, sadness, and chaos as we go about our days here. It provides us ample reasons, not always obvious, to believe in why we’re here. It requires us to walk out into the traffic. It will slow for us or we’ll find a path through it. Most days we manage to get safely to the other side. 

Here’s how your donations were used from September 1, 2023 to end of January 2024.

School Fees:

Nandichhaya Vidya Niketan School

- Muskhan Khan: 10,000 rupees/CAD 181

-Ganesh Kamble: 9150 rupees/CAD 166

-Sumeet Shiva Choudhari: 16,250 rupees/CAD 295

- Mubashira Shaikh: 10,000 rupees/CAD 181

-Ankita Anaand Mane: 12,590 rupees/CAD 229

-Alia Tawfique: 10,000 rupees/CAD 181

-Shivani Kumar: 4,200 rupees/CAD 76

Adarsh Vidya Mandir School

- Tanisha Thaker: 16,100 rupees/CAD 293

Parag Junior College of Science and Commerce:

- Arya Mane: 11,900 rupees/CAD 216

Anjuman Shan E Islam School:

- Alina Imran Hashmi: 2700 rupees/CAD 49

- Farhan Imran Hashmi: 7350 rupees/CAD 134


St Jude’s High School

- Chavda Ahana Amin: 10,400 rupees/CAD189

LMC School (Sakri East, Bihar)

Noorsaba Shaikh: 5000 rupees/CAD 91

Medical Fees:

 1 wheelchair (Rajendra Fakiriya): 7000 rupees/CAD 127

Donation for heart surgery for boy: 20,000 rupees/CAD 364

Doctor Eye Institute (cataract surgery for both eyes) for Motikala Singh: 16,300 rupees/CAD 296

Seven Hills Healthcare/Rajendra Fakiriya donation for leg operation:  20,000 rupees/CAD 364

Wellness Forever: nasal spray (Karan) 212.96/CAD 3.87

Central Hospital and Child Care Centre (Irshaad Shaikh): hospital/doctor fees/ICU fee: 20,600 rupees/CAD 374

Pulse Hitech Health Service (Ghatkopar) (Irshaad Shaikh)/CT scan/MRI: 4,900 rupees/CAD 89

Medicine (Irshaad Shaikh): 4075 rupees/CAD 75

Lenscart/ Jyoti and Vijay Wankade/eye test/prescription glasses/1 pair each: 5200 rupees/CAD 95

Nirmal Hospital TB patient (Mishrilal Gupta)/CBC test/hospital fees: 6750 rupees/CAD 122

Donation for Satish (owner of our rented flat) for father’s surgery: 10,000 rupees/CAD 181


Rations for 2 families: 6000 rupees/CAD 109

Rolled mattress/pillows for family: 1746 rupees/CAD 32

Rations for Karan’s uncle’s family: 3054 rupees/CAD 56

Tuition supplies (art supplies/games/paper/nuts/dried fruit): 10,239 rupees/CAD186

Karan (text books): 1240 rupees (no receipt)/CAD 23

Birthdays (gifts, cakes, treats): 5680 rupees/CAD 103

Ashwini rent help (2 months): 10,000 rupees/CAD 181

Total: CAD 5,061.87


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