Indian Reflections

4 06 2008

In 2002-2003 I spent about 6 months working for a housing NGO in Mumbai, India. I was reading through some observations and descriptions from my time there I wrote in emails home. It’s good for me to do, now and again, as it reminds me of what some people live with and what luck that I won the birth lottery and was born in North America. A couple of interesting urban observations:

On urban poverty

A slum on the banks of Bandra Creek, with highrises in the distance.

A slum on the banks of Mahim Creek, with highrises in the distance - photo by Dominic Kaeslin

There is such a huge chasm between rich and poor in this country. I’ve been invited by Meher, an Indian woman who also worked the booth, to the racetrack this coming Sunday. She is wealthy through her parents, lives alone in a bungalow in a tony part of town, has a car, spends most of her time working for the humane society, and takes jobs with the consulate just to keep herself busy. Today, I was back in Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, seeing all the slum women bring their kids in for a free medical check-up. Then I followed Shamim, one of my co-workers, on a ‘short-cut’ to a meeting. The slum is like a maze. I never would have found my way out if I had lost her. The conditions these people live in are so incredibly difficult. No running water, no open spaces. Filthy, shared, insufficient toilet facilities. Pollution and no way to escape from it. Whole families living in one room about 15 metres square. I mean, they make do, they get by, and they do an admirable job of keeping their living spaces clean and tidy and generally livable. But when you compare their lives to that of Meher, who goes to the club and works when she feels like it, and has actually travelled for pleasure rather than just out of desperation in search of work, it really makes quite an impression. And it makes me feel incredibly lucky. I complain about only making Rs. 3000 a month. And granted, it is a small amount for pretty much anyone. But there are whole families in this city who make do on that. I’m really lucky that I have such a rich and prosperous place to go home to.

On urban transportation

I had a hell of a day yesterday. I got up really early in the morning to go down to the centre of town and register myself at the Canadian consulate. This involved taking the train during rush hour, which is quite an experience in Bombay. These trains are of a design which in Canada would probably accommodate 500 people, owing to our funny ideas about how much personal space everyone should be allowed to have on public transport.

Cows navigating the streets of Bombay

Cows navigating the streets of Mumbai - photo by Dominic Kaeslin

These trains carry about 4000 people. I’m really not exaggerating. And people can be nasty. There are no rules of polite conduct on these trains, at least none that are obvious to me. The train comes. It is already bursting at the seams with people. There are no doors, they would only get in the way. There is a quick burst of people getting off the train as it comes to a halt, and then the rush is on to cram as many sardines as possible into this rolling can. And if you manage to get on and can still breathe and no one is grabbing your bag through the crowd, it is a challenge right away to find a place that is safe to stay. Because you have to consider where you need to be for when you want to get off, and yet not be in the way of the surging masses who get on and off at each stop in between. It’s quite a balancing act.

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