Saturday, January 24, 2009

Living alongside Slumbai

- by Janaki Krishnan
Mumbai's slums have been attracting so much attention these days that we should probably rename the city Slumbai.
We have been living in Sion for the last 35 years - in an area where there is a large slum population alongside middle class residential buildings.

Our side of the street

Slums on opposite side of same street

This is a large slum area, a part of which has extended to the street opposite our house. Unhygenic surroundings, early morning brawls for water, blaring speakers during festivals...these have become a part of our life.

But living near a slum also has a positive side to it. It is a symbiotic relationship, where we depend on each other for many things in daily life. We also learn many things from each other.
As a working woman for 35 years, and as a senior citizen now, I have come to depend on my maid and cook, both of whom live just outside our building. Both belong to the Maratha community (Bhosles) and have been instrumental in my learning colloquial Marathi. They have also helped me understand their way of life - festivals, rituals, crafts, etc - all of which take place just outside our house on the street. My cook has now become an expert in South Indian dishes.

My maid's house is one of those on this street. Her grandson is at the door.

The menfolk in the slum outside our building have different types of occupations - security guard, pujari, carpenter, plumber, bhajiwala, postman...they are all ready to help us if we need it. Even at midnight, I can walk through our lane without any fear. When I need drumstick leaves for my 'rice adai', they quickly climb the tree and get them for me. When we need something heavy moved, they lend a helping hand, without any payment. I remember the time when my 10-year old daughter was hit by a car. One of the men from the houses in the slum carried her to a cot on the pavement, and revived her with water.
In turn, I think they find us beneficial too. Living near us provides employment for all the women who want to find work, without any commuting. Some mothers send their children to me for help with schoolwork. We contribute towards community festivals. We help in filling forms and writing letters, and also in finding jobs for young men. In times of water crisis, my maids fill their water pots at my house. In emergencies, we provide first aid. These are not extraordinary acts of social service, but the day-to-day exchange and accomodation that comes from having slum dwellers for neighbours.

Over the course of the past 35 years, these daily interactions have allowed us to also become part of their extended community. Although the dividing line between have and have-not exists, it has definitely blurred over the years. Another phenomenon I have observed is that a spirit of equality has emerged, very different from the traditional attitude of servitude and humility that the poor still display in villages.

My maid's neighbour, a confident and assured lady.

Having slums nearby has also opened my eyes to the lives of people who have far less in life than I do. A lesson that all of us can learn from watching slum dwellers is that of sharing and co-operation. A cup of tea is shared by half a dozen people. When a mother goes to work, other women mind her children. On festivals and occassions, even the poorest houses celebrate. In fact, the best thing to learn from the slums is their vibrant, happy and carefree attitude. I often wonder how they have so much fun and laughter when they are not even certain of where the next meal is coming from.

My maid's daughter Kartika, always smiling

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

2009 starts well

I've been silent for nearly 3 weeks. A lot has happened. Mainly, my dad went into surgery for what we suspected was throat cancer, but fortunately it turned out to be benign. He is well now.

Daddy at our room at Jaslok Hospital. He is going to be 80 in April.

We are all immensely relieved and deeply thankful to Dr. Prabodh Karnik, our ENT surgeon. It was interesting to meet with Dr. Karnik - he was clear about the problem, the potential issues, and what he was going to do. I know some people prefer reassuring white lies, but I prefer knowing everything. That way I can be prepared and not feel like something cluelessly tossed on the waves.

I am also deeply thankful to Dr. Ravi Ramakantan, one of Dad's students, for his solid support throughout the three weeks. Ravi, you have been wonderful to us.

Sunrise outside dad's hospital window on the morning of his surgery. At the time, I didn't know how the day was going to turn out.

The hospital experience made me realise yet again how fortunate we are to have family around us in times of crisis. My sister, mother and I were all together, and our presence brought much confidence and strength to my dad.

Little bed where I slept at night, next to dad

My sister ran around doing all the paperwork - hospital bills, check-in, check-out. She made sure her policy covered treatment (tons of calls and faxes) and got us really good rooms at the hospital. I handled the doctor visits and kept track of the treatment. Together we were on top of things, and it kept mom from getting stressed out.

We all drew strength from each other. While the surgery was going on, my mom and I were in our hospital room, waiting for news. We could talk to each other, and keep ourselves from brooding or worrying.

Sitting area of the hospital room (it was a suite). My laptop in the corner. Mum slept on this couch at night.

Small table where we had our meals. My copy of 'The Last Mughals'.

All through the 2 days, we felt like we were all pulling together in a crisis. I cannot tell you how much strength that gave us. When finally the doctor gave us the good news, we had a mix of emotions. Relief, gratitude, joy...Mum said "Let's go down and celebrate!". We called my sister to give her the news, and then we went to the hospital cafetaria and celebrated, Mumbai-style, with hot batata wada!