It is a hot and humid monsoon July Saturday some 16 years ago; dark, pregnant skies above threaten to open up any minute and drench me, but worse, make my travel to Govendhi miserable and perhaps impossible. Govendhi lies about 15 miles northeast of Mumbai that takes about two hours to reach on a good day. It is very densely populated, stench – puke smelly, dirty beyond descriptive word dirty and full of slum flies. And yes, it is populated predominantly by Muslims and by over 12,000 families of the Ahle Tashayyo persuasion, overwhelmingly Sadaats.
I get to Govendhi all hot and sweaty and harassed and almost swoon. The place is surreal; houses are made from rags with garbage bags for a roof, the lanes between homes squelch and slide wherever I delicately put my foot down, covering my once shiny shoes with a thick sludge of muck, the air is ripe with the stench of raw sewer and flies torment every open skin on my body. There are people everywhere, crowding lanes, in a hurry always, vendors shout their wares or vegetables or fruits amidst cows, goats, dogs and chicken. I sneeze once and two flies enter my mouth and I almost gag. I feel I cannot breathe, the world swims in my eyes and I stumble. My guide, who is increasingly alarmed at my distress, immediately props me up until we reach the steps of a crumbling mosque where he parks me on a dry veranda and hurries to get me a cold drink.
I take deep breaths and try to regain my composure, feeling silly and mad at myself for being so weak. I drop my head down, trying to get blood circulating to my brains and feel better. I look around and simply cannot fathom my surroundings; animals live better in the US. My attention is diverted to a pair of kids, a girl and a boy frolicking in a shallow pond of rainwater near the wudhoo area outside the mosque. They seem to be oblivious to their surrounding, filling empty water bottles and dousing each other with its filthy contents, and having a bloody merry time of it. They are both clothed in rags and have bodies so thin, I feel either one would fracture or break a bone, falling upon each other as they were. I get a sudden urge to run away from this misery, for the despair and sudden fear I feel makes me break in a cold sweat and I suddenly start shivering violently.
I return to my luxury hotel room at the Leela Kempinski, tear off my clothes and have a long hot shower, trying to rid my body of the grime and sweat and the smell that still cling to it. I resolve never to go back to that hellhole, to hell with what Mullah Asghar has to say about it, the benefits of experiencing what the poor in this world live through. I was not going back. Ever.
Allah (SWT) however, has different plans for me; and who is the best Planner? That very night, as I nestle and snuggle amongst the lavish linens of the five-star hotel I am put up, I dream of the two children frolicking in the filthy waters of Govendhi. I awake but strangely, cannot fall asleep again. I toss and turn amongst the bedcovers; I switch on the television, hoping it will lull me to sleep. Nothing works. Who are these children? Why are they not in school? Why are they so thin and in rags? Are they orphans? They look obviously happy…. On and on and on. Strangely, this dream reappears in my sleep the next day and I spend another night tossing and turning, restless and disturbed. And so it goes on for the whole week; my mind keeps me awake with the thoughts of these two children.
When it is Saturday next and my day off, it is as if the skies have decided to open up and it pours non-stop the whole day; I stay in the hotel, brooding about the kids and Govendhi. So I make a covenant with Allah, a selfish covenant, thinking I can outsmart Him. I promise Him if it stops raining tomorrow, if the sun is out, I will revisit Govendhi and try find the two kids and at least feed them. Now, the chance of a bright and sunny day in the middle of July in Maharashtra is equivalent of winning a lottery jackpot. Almost. When I walk outside the hotel after my workout and breakfast the next day, it is cloudy all right and I smile, smug I have won. But exactly at that moment, the sun reveals itself and keeps on smiling its hot rays on the humid air, making me sweat immediately
I cajole and promise my guide a hefty bonus if he would leave his family this Sunday and accompany me to Govendhi. He does not look too excited; I guess he is unimpressed with my behavior from last Saturday. Money wins however, and off we go to hunt for my tormentors. I am better equipped this time, with sneakers and a handkerchief doused in perfume. We spend a couple of hours looking for them and finally, when I am losing hope, we spot them very near the pond, engrossed in making a living. When we approach them, they scatter and run away, fearful. Much to the annoyance of my guide, I dangle a fifty-rupee bill from my fingers and they return, cautious, but very interested.
We take them to a local restaurant and both demolish a heap of greasy chicken biryani; I cannot believe such thin people had such appetites. When I offer them falooda after biryani is over, their eyes light up with undisguised delight. The falooda disappear in minutes; both wiping their glass bowl clean. Over orange Mirinda, we extract their life details. Sakina is seven (she thinks, not sure) and Alireza six (he thinks, not sure), both born in the slums of Govendhi and have never been to school. Both were put to work supporting their family of six by the time they could put razor to slice rubber. These two scavenge scrap electrical cables off construction sites and pull out its copper guts. The copper is then wound into a ball and if they have enough (cricket ball size), it earns them about ten Rupees. They give this to their paan guzzling father who in turn purchases a little rice and daal and the mother then feeds them dinner, their only meal for the day.
Sakina is so thin, I can see ribs jutting out from her skin through a rip on her dress and so is Alireza, who cannot sit still, constantly moving around in his chair, playing around with the salt and pepper shakers or dipping into the hot chutney container. I feel very sad for them, for I know this is temporary and they will be out on the streets as soon as we depart. On an impulse, I ask the duo to take me to their parents, to their home. They look at each other uneasily and balk. I reassure them, telling them that I may help them but want to talk to their parents first. After some more debate, they escort us inside the slum, with lanes getting narrower and the filth filthier. I see a girl child, totally naked, nose running, wailing at the top of her lungs with no apparent guardian around. I see two children sleeping out in the open, near a stream in which flow human feces…I make maximum use of my perfumed hankie.
We arrive at a small hut, similar to hundreds like it around and enter a dark room; it takes me several seconds to focus before I can see clearly. The hut has dirt floor, I notice immediately, three charpoy beds occupy three corners of rusting tin walls and the remaining corner has beaten up pots and pans hanging from it. Clothes hang from strings strung across all four corners and a charcoal stove glows amber, emits sharp acrid odor that begin to sting my eyes. On one of the bed lie an emaciated looking aged woman, probably a grandmother, who stares at me unblinkingly and follows me with her eyes as I am made to sit on an empty charpoy. By her side, fast asleep, is a tiny baby, looks newborn, with a black streak of evil eye across a frowning brow. On another bed, sitting cross-legged is Mr. Shahed Rizwi, lord of the hut. Rizwi look as me suspiciously, does not offer a handshake, but waves my guide and me to the empty charpoy. He looks very much like Sakina; I do not see Mrs. Rizwi around. Sakina serves us water from dented tin glasses but I decline and sip from my safer water bottle supply.
I ask Rizwi if he is well, but get the typical wag of the head from the neck and bare of paan stained teeth for an answer. I ask him why his kids are not in school.
‘School?’ He asks, surprised, as if the thought has never occurred to him. ‘If I send them to school, who will bring roti home?’ he asks, gesturing with pinched fingers towards his mouth.
I feel a sudden rash of irritation for this man so I promptly and recklessly reply ‘You?’ My guide finds this funny, for he giggles shrilly and as quickly, covers his mouth, stifling the laugh.
A flash of anger spreads across Mr. Rizwi’s face and he lets out a string of protests; that he is sick, that his mother, gesturing towards the old woman, is old and sick, that he cannot find decent work, that his wife has natal problems…
But I insist that education is important, that his children will not stand a chance in adult life doing what they currently do. Mr. Rizwi shrugs his shoulders and exposes paan stained teeth again ‘Allah’s will…’ he mummers.
So I bribe him, this Mr. Paan Rizwi. Through my guide, I promise him Rupees 300 a month to keep the kids in school at the nearby Jafri English School. I also arrange to feed Sakina and Alireza one hot meal a day. We arrange to get the kids to school the next day; I take the Monday off. I bring along a local social worker from Bandra mosque and we take the children for a bath and Alireza for a haircut. After the bath, Sakina’s hair has to go as well, for we cannot comb through her hair; they are a mess of impossible tangles from years of neglect. Now, she looks little different from Alireza.
Much has changed in Govendhi since this episode took place. The slum with its decay, hovels, filth, flies and smell still largely remains. There has been startling development on the edges of the slums, as if an attempt to cut off and hide the eyesores at the core. The roads are mostly asphalt now but hovels still have no running water and most power lines are stolen by gangs and crudely distributed for profit.
Sakina is a computer programing manager for a multinational company, earning a very generous package. She owns her own apartment, is married and a mother to a baby girl.
Alireza does well as well, not as well as Sakina, but reasonably well, working as a sales representative for a mobile phone company. He moves out of Govendhi as well.
Mr. Paan Rizwi still whiles away time, talking to cronies in Govendhi, guzzling paans supplemented by Sakina; Alireza has stopped giving him money but secretly gives to his mother every month.
CAI’s focus on education in India has paid off exceedingly well, thanks to Allah and CAI’s very many donors and well wishers. There are several success stories similar to Sakina‘s.