Servants in the Slums
Part seven in a series of posts by Bob Massey, a Los Angeles screenwriter who is currently traveling to India with a team from Ecclesia Hollywood hosted by a faith-based human rights organization whose work in Mumbai concentrates on rescuing girls from sexual slavery. + Click here to read previous posts
You haven't lived until you've scudded through Dehradun traffic in an autorickshaw. You haven't died either - but you probably haven't come so close before. The autorickshaw is a tiny three-wheeled gumdrop taxi powered by a hair dryer, feels like. No doors or seatbelts. I joined Dr. Reeta, the co-founder of the SNEHA school, for an autorickshaw ride to her facility. The ensuing dozen mini-brushes with mortality set just the right tone for meeting schoolkids recruited from Dehradun's grim slums.
SNEHA schools unschooled kids, offers cheap health care to slum dwellers, and trains impoverished women in fancy sewing and such - dazzling embroidery being a better living than collecting plastic from the dump.
There are two kinds of kids who attend SNEHA, though both live in the slums nearby. The first kind are unwashed, underfed, and as one staffer quite seriously said, they have to be "civilized" for weeks or months before they can enter the school. So that's what happens. We brought sidewalk chalk, those twisty balloons that you make animals from, and colorful beads for bracelets. I drew big shapes - flowers, stars, airplanes, cars - on the courtyard pavement to be colored in by the kids. It never occurred to any of us that there were kids in the world who don't know how to color. I guess if you can't afford coloring books, that's the deal. Happily, they took to it with gusto once their teachers demonstrated the concept. But on the whole, these kids seemed kind of shellshocked in comparison to...
...the kids who've been in school for a while. These kids have been taught hygiene, they wear uniforms, they're super happy and polite. Basically they're kids who've benefitted from a lot of extra love. Dr. Reeta and her husband Hari have built this gorgeous facility up from swampland over about nine years (I think). Basically, they felt called to it. And what might happen is that about 800 kids per year might graduate from living conditions that do dishonor to the word "slum."
We brought jump ropes and kind of massacred the notion of double-dutching in front of them. Hopscotch was the surprise hit of the day. And their version of Duck Duck Goose. There was a lot of English practice ("Hello, my name is Shiva. How are you? I am fine.") Also about a hundred of them made us autograph their balloon animals. It was hilarious. Usually they leave at 2 p.m. The staff had to kick them out at 4 p.m., and us as well. We didn't want to leave.
We visited the neighborhood these kids live in. Over time you start to mentally filter out the ankle-deep trash everywhere, the pigs, mange-scarred dogs, mud, excretions of all flavors, even the smell. You focus on the positives: the families who manage to carve out a relatively clean corner for their family photos, sleeping mats, and shrines to Ganesh. Then you see a little girl with open sores on her head. And not to get too reductivist, but Ganesh, Vishnu, Shiva, and the whole lot are part of a system that tells these slum dwellers (along with like 700 million other Hindus) that some unknown past-life choice has caused them to deserve these living conditions. And there is no remedy within their grasp. Certainly no one bears any obligation to help them out. One can infer this is the semiofficial stance of the Hindu-flavored government as well.
(One might also observe that this is the semiofficial stance of the Christian-flavored government in the U.S., but then one might have to contend with Christian-flavored performance artists like Anne Coulter, etc., who conveniently gloss over the whole feeding the hungry / clothing the naked part of the not-so-New-anymore Testament, and, really, one doesn't want to contribute to the divisiveness industry any more than one can help. But it's SO TEMPTING.)
And then we visited a big fancy gold Buddhist temple hand painted in gorgeously rendered murals of mutilation and disembowelment because, um, life is suffering? Like we needed a reminder.
Insert some joke here about needing a drink...