“Are you sleeping?”
“Well, yes, we were sleeping.” We check the time as our phone lights up the room with a video call. Mumbai is about twelve hours ahead of Pacific Time, so the calls coming from the community during their afternoon or early evening, jangle us awake from midnight to just before we hear the birds singing — way before dawn filters through our drawn curtains.
Before the pandemic gripped us all, when we would leave Mumbai for Canada, we looked forward to having plenty of contact with Indu, via text, video calls, and photos. Her video calls always included numerous children sitting cross legged around the perimeter of the room for their daily tuition. Occasionally, a few of the parents would peek into the room and add their voices to the rising noise as children abandoned their studies while the video call continued. This used to be the only way we could visit with the children and their parents once we left Mumbai.
Now, with the need for each family to have at least one low cost smart phone to share so that their children can access online school lessons during the pandemic, the children have expertly latched on to all that smart phone technology offers. They have Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and WhatsApp accounts, allowing for the first time the ability to video call us when boredom sets in, or they have something exciting to tell us, or show us. They don’t check the time, they just call.
Arpan and Ganesh with my phone on a visit to a doctor. (2019)
Sixteen year olds, Arpan and Ganesh, woke us the other night to take us on a tour of the Ganpati pandal (a temporary structure built to house idols) in their laneway. They stopped along the lane, so familiar to us, pushing the phone through curtained doorways so that we could say hello to families caught in various states of eating, sleeping, washing dishes, and trying to take a rest. They were excited to include us in the all important, auspicious Ganpati festival, a 10 day Hindu festival in which devotees hope that Ganpati, the elephant god, will bless them with wealth and remove obstacles. As we moved along the lane with them, the phone changed hands from one animated teen to another, keeping us in a constant state of dizziness. We could hear voices, but while the phone hung by their side we only see feet, hands, the sky, and blurred, noisy visions of the community. It’s a roller coaster video with us the only ones on the ride. They just as abruptly cut the call with a chorus of sing song good-byes, leaving us exhausted, yet somewhat happy that they wanted to include us in their celebration at 1 a.m.
Ashwini, who is twenty years old, texts us every day with news of her ever changing job situation, her fight to keep her rent paid, often forwarding texts from the owner of the shanty she lives in at the back of a gritty, narrow lane where daylight can’t find a way in. Her factory jobs pay her very little. Her sickly mother, who lives with her, has sporadic employment cleaning homes. Her aunt lives with them occasionally, and contributes to the rent from time to time. The texts go on for an hour or so when we add Indu to the mix to help us make sense of the needs of this family of abused women who are subjected to harassment from employers and weary landlords, while enduring caste based prejudice, poverty, illiteracy, and in Ashwini’s case, the bare minimum of education. We listen to their long list of issues and remind ourselves that we have to balance those needs with the need for them strive to support themselves. This is a family that needs to be weaned of constant help from us. We want them to be able to take some initiative, and that’s where Indu shines. She’s unwavering in her empathy, but also understands how greed out of necessity works in a poor community. This is always a difficult lesson for us to learn, and why we are forever thankful to have Indu, who lives in the community, as a partner.
A selfie of Noorsaba wearing her new school uniform, taken in her village home.
Noorsaba, who’s twelve, was recently moved from Mumbai to her family’s village in Bihar, near the Nepal border. In the village, she’s become solely responsible for the daily care of her widowed, diabetic, paternal grandmother. Relatives who usually reside in the village and care for the grandmother, have recently moved to New Delhi and Mumbai to find work. This leaves Noorsaba and her grandmother alone in a family compound of about four or five cement rooms joined together around a small gravel courtyard where Noorsaba pumps water for their daily needs from an ancient, but working iron pump, always keeping an eye out for poisonous snakes. Her video calls can come at any hour, but she seems to favour the daily 4 a.m. time slot. Responsible for all the cooking and cleaning, washing clothes by hand, and going to the market, our favourite moments with her are when she shows us what she’s made for dinner which includes biryani, chapati, chicken or fish curries, and tea. Sometimes, we get a cooking lesson, and a tour of the wild jasmine and the gnarled rose bush clinging to the wall that has her excited about the one or two buds about to burst into bloom.
I wrote an Instagram post a few months ago about Noorsaba’s heartbreaking removal from school in Mumbai and her subsequent placement in the village. The post, written after a group video call including us, Indu, and her parents, resulted in her father asking us to pay for her two brothers’ school fees in lieu of Noorsaba’s fees. We pleaded with them to bring her back from the village along with her grandmother, so as to keep Noorsaba in school. (The grandmother has previously lived with them in Mumbai many times.) The father ignored our suggestion, and became frustrated when we refused to pay for his sons’ education unless Noorsaba also continued her education. A few days later, he removed her and her brother’s names from Nandchhaya English Medium school in Sakinaka where they have been enrolled for years, and enrolled the two boys in a free government school nearby. We were despondent about the loss of Noorsaba’s education, as well as the inferior education the boys would receive in a government school. It was a gut punch for all of us with seemingly no way to change things. An intelligent, hardworking student, Noorsaba was upset about being removed from school, lonely for her friends and family in Mumbai, but also stoic, about being stuck in this small village. Girls understand from a young age that their duty to family comes at a personal cost.
I’m now happy to report that her story has changed. Her father recently travelled back to the village to attend a favourite Muslim festival. To our surprise, during his time there he enrolled her in an English Medium school, (not a government school which was a possibility), and provided her with a phone. This is an outcome we couldn’t have predicted. She’s so happy to be back in school, and excited and nervous about her upcoming exams. Much of her conversation with us now is excitable chatter about her new school (it’s big!) her classmates that have turned into friends (she smiles large as she recites a list of names), her five o’clock in the morning Urdu class, followed by tuition class before school, her teacher, and the beautiful rose buds about to bloom, all of it tempered with her long list of household chores — and a sad story about a small boy who recently died of a snake bite. Her day is full, and long, and she’s happy to be exhausted from too much studying. To date, her father hasn’t asked Indu for fees help, which we would happily provide.
Ranjana on the rooftop of her apartment building in Mahul, Mumbai.
Ranjana, a mother of three children, who we’ve known since 2009, recently had a serious health scare while visiting her family in the neighbouring state of Gujarat. Faced with a massive hospital bill to remove a growth in her uterus, her family appealed to us for financial help. Megha, her teenage daughter, video calls us regularly with updates regarding her mom’s health. Shortly after her operation, while resting at her mother’s home in Ahmedabad surrounded by family, Ranjana, a joyful optimist, convinced us that her operation went well. She’ll convalesce in Ahmedabad until the doctor says she can board a train or a bus to return to Mumbai. Her husband, a delivery truck driver who stayed behind in Mumbai to work when he can, has suffered the loss of his daily wages because of lengthy work interruptions caused by lockdowns. This gentle, hardworking husband and father is eager for his family to return to Mumbai.
Samiksha with her mom, Jyoti, and brother, Sumedh on their way home from school. (2019)
Samiksha, Sneha, and Karan have been texting us with news of their college admissions. Karan is taking business classes at a low cost college and has also found part-time work at (a Walmart like megastore), a job he needs to help his family. Samiksha was accepted to the college of her choice because of her high marks and the reservation quota system that allows Scheduled Castes a reserved spot in colleges, keeping their fees low. Sneha is currently searching for a government college with low fees.
Indu is always in touch, but at a reasonable hour. She’s busy paying school fees, running her tuition class, caring for her two daughters, and listening to the constant pleas for financial help from families with every kind of need. She, and her husband Akhilesh, received their first vaccine at a cost of 780 rupees each (about $15) from a private hospital. The line ups to receive free vaccines, now available again, are long. We wanted Indu to be protected by the vaccine as soon as possible because she carries on the work of paying school fees and tending to the needs of the community on our behalf.
As for the children checking in with us via video call and texts, we’re thrilled that we get to visit with them as if we were there. We don’t have to bother Indu as much with random questions about families we support, and those who might need support. It’s almost like being there, and except for the loss of sleep most nights, their low cost smart phones purchased with loans, coupled with the low cost of data, has allowed the families for the first time to maintain a sincere, genuine, real time connection with us when can’t be there. When the calls wake us up in the predawn hours, we forget about losing sleep in exchange for the personal video connection to those we’ve known for so long, but can’t see in person yet.
Since March 2021 this is what generous donations have provided for this community:
School Fees 2021
School fees paid from March 2021 to September 2021 for 14 students: rupees 98,540/CAN $1,699.42
(School fees are ongoing)
Arpan, Priyanka, Ankit, Shobha, Aagya, Rehan/6 cakes/gifts: rupees 3,380/CAN $58.31
Doctor’s Fees/Medicine etc:
Aarya - pneumonia (x-ray, blood work): rupees 1050/CAN $18.11
Ashwini - antibiotics/covid test: rupees 537/CAN $9.26
Ranjana - hysterectomy operation/medical tests/medicine: rupees 20,000/CAN $344.90
(Note: Ranjana’s medical fees were rupees 80,000. We offered help up to rupees 20,000. Her extended family borrowed, and or loaned, the rest of the money for the fees)
Indu/Akhilesh covid vaccine/first dose: rupees 1560/CAN $26.90
Rations (food/personal care items) for 13 families: rupees 33,651/CAN $580.45
WiFi connection for tuition centre:
Modem: 3000 rupees/CAN $51.75
Wifi for 6 months (June 29, 2021 - December 26, 2021): rupees 2832/CAN $48.85
Thank you!! from all of us.
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