It is pouring outside, has been for at least a week; non ceasing rain, at times so heavy, it alarms me. I have not seen the sun in this time; the skies are sullen, dark heavy clouds pregnant with moister that open up every few minutes. Aliakberbhai Ratansi calls to say he will pick me up at 11AM tomorrow; we have to go to Malaad slums to inspect CAI sponsored construction of 41 homes for the poor and destitute, 23 of them now ready, it’s important. The thought of making that trip sullies my mood even further, depresses me. Malaad slums, teeming with discards and unfits of Mumbai’s economic growth, is not for the faint hearted and weak stomachs, even in good days. I imagine the filthy flooded alleys, stench of open sewers, flies that will torment me and drenched hovels of the poor; their absolute misery trying to ward of overflowing sewer nallas and hopelessly leaking roofs of tin or tarpaulin.
Well, the Almighty is kind today, for I wake up without the sound of rain pounding on my bedroom windows and I get an immediate lift in my disposition when I see the sun peaking through clouds. I cannot believe it, I have actually seen the sun, in July, in Mumbai; alhamd’Allah. Aliakberbhai is bang on time, another rarity of Mumbai appointments where even 30 minute delay is a pleasant surprise. When we reach Malaad, it is swarming with people and cars and busses and motorbikes and bicycles and dogs and flies and hundreds of potholes and a few goats and few buffaloes; we crawl to a standstill negotiating all these. I swear I would kill someone in an instant if I was driving; Aliakberbhai however, has infinite patience and not at a bit bothered by the racket outside his air conditioned surroundings.
If the entry to Malaad was chaotic, the slums are major manic; lanes so narrow, I can clearly see the sizzling protest wart on a pakoora being tormented in a huge wok inside a tiny, filthy restaurant with a line of eager, hungry customers waiting to add more torment on it by devouring it. The rains of past 6 weeks have made a mockery of repairs by (corrupt!) local municipality with potholes big enough to hide a corpse. Indeed, foul odor of decay makes its way inside our tightly shut windows just as Aliakberbhai avoids running over pulpy remains of a dog; snarled teeth of agony the only identifying feature that tells me it was once a dog.
When we reach the general area where our homes are being built, there is no decent parking in sight; most areas are covered by rain water and few places outside ramshackle shops shoo us away. After a few futile attempts, Aliakberbhai parks next to a shed with people recycling garbage inside, ignoring agitated protests from the apparent owner. I am aptly dressed; sweatpants with elastic at the ankles, a tee-shirt and flip-flops with an umbrella and my camera. I have however, forgotten to spray my handkerchief with a liberal dose of perfume, a must for Mumbai slums if your nose is as sensitive as mine; I despair. Sure enough, sewer stench and flies welcome me gleefully as soon as I open the vehicle door.
A very short walk and a filthy pond overflowing with sewer goo block our way; Aliakberbhai prepares his trousers to cross it; I balk. There is no chance we can cross it without sinking into the ankle deep water. I have read horror tales of people wading through rain water bare feet then contracting deadly viral diseases due to almost certain dog, rat and human urine presence; this substance looks worse than just plain rain water. Kaleembai, our contractor, clad in inevitable stark white (I wonder how he manages keep is so white working in these slums) kurta pajamas impatiently tells me there is no other way to reach the homes we have to inspect and I could always wash my feet with fresh rain water after we cross. He attempts to lay few stepping stones at the edge of the pond but these are quickly submerged and seem so wobbly, I am sure I would be totally covered with goo if I attempt to use them. I grind my teeth, look up to the heavens for a quick prayer, am rewarded by a smiling sun, than quickly plod through. Once through, I hurry my 2 companions to a nearby shop shed where there is a drum of accumulated rain water; Kaleembhai is granted permission and I scrub my feet, using more water than perhaps needed.
Kaleem has done a decent job in the construction of 23 homes so far; I get satisfaction of watching families in durable homes live in relative comfort and safety. The homes are fairly well constructed, keeps the family dry, with bathroom facilities inside, a luxury only new to these wrenched people; these homes should comfortably last without major repairs at least next 20 or so years. Having satisfied ourselves the project is in course but more importantly, on budget, we bid farewell to a small gathering of people curious to see what we are up to, clicking photos of their homes. Aliakberbhai has his business to attend and there is important breaking economic news from the US that will make the forex markets move; opportunities for my bread and butter.
As we leave, we are frantically beckoned to a nearby tin shanty by a wailing woman, beseeching us to look at the state of her home. I don’t want to go, as this would have serious consequences; there is a long waiting list of homeless families that need housing and I don’t want to pay favorites. But the plea is frantic and relentless; call me a bleeding heart liberal, perhaps; however, this anguish from her heart I cannot ignore. Firdaust Asif Hussein lives in a tin shed measuring 10 x 15 with her husband and 3 children. This is the whole home, including kitchen, bedroom, living room and a corner crude shower; toilets are a 15 minute walk to a public facility that charges Rs. 5 per session.
Firdaust and her husband sew tiny beads into sarees all day that earn her about Rs.100 (approx. USD2); to supplement this minuscule, non-survivable income, Firdaust has set up shop in her tiny home; candy and knickknacks for area children who find it a chore going to buy these all the way to the main alleyways. She clears about Rs. 25 (50 US cents) per day; Firdaust is an enterprising woman, a hard worker. We don’t promise her anything, we can’t; all 41 homes budgeted and sponsored by CAI donors have been allotted. But I’ll try and raise USD2,300 it’ll take to build her a permanent home, only because Firdaust is the kind of person who deserves help. She is not waiting for handouts; rather, she is hustling to make a buck and that is always a start to success.
We plod back through muck and grime; I dread wading through the sewage again and actually feel creepy crawly as we approach the offending pond. There, on one side, with her panties on her knees, squats a child girl, about the same age as my Maaha Zainab, 9, urinating. Finishing her job, she casually cleans up with the same filthy water and as casually, goes her merry way. As I write this piece, my feet are still raw red, smarting from the scrubbing I gave them after my return home.
Click here to view pictures of Malaad slums.