The last parade he ever enjoys.
Today in the slums we were eating lunch when we heard some commotion outside. I thought it was a wedding party with all the music and cheering. But instead of a groom there was a dressed up little boy. So I asked my coworkers what was going on. ‘Oh he’s getting circumcised today.’
Worst ending to a party ever.
Dhokla with love
I work with some lovely people. The field staff is always bringing me home cooked food. Today I asked one of them why she makes the effort… “because you’re so far from home”
These girls often spend their days hanging around our office with their little siblings. Coming from families of at least 7 or 8 children, they play mother to the toddlers. Soon after this photo was taken both babies fell asleep in their laps.
Friendly goats I’ve known
Taking photos in slum communities is always tricky. Even if you have a presence in the area, people are cautious to have their photos taken. If you are a foreigner there is curiosity to why you’d want to take photos and if they are going to be exploitative. I think these concerns are all very justified and as someone who works in the development community I think taking photographs in slums is something that should be done with extreme sensitivity and caution. This is why when I went to the area where I had been working in Mumbai with a camera on the last day of my trip I couldn’t get comfortable taking photos of people or houses. Still, I wanted something to remember the area till my next research visit in April so I just roamed with the fieldteam till I found the right subjects to photograph.
There are a lot of goats living in Shivaji Nagar. You may not know this but goats are the natural models of the animal kingdom. You know when you watch America’s Next Top Model and Tyra is giving posing advice? These goats are the ones who nail it on the first shot. They know how to smize*, and even though there are loads of satellite dishes in the area I doubt they’ve even seen her show before.
So here are some of my favourite shots.
And finally, I found this little guy just hanging out on water carriers wearing this nice top. Look at that face. He knows he looks good.
* smize: Tyra’s term for smiling with your eyes.
Good days, bad days
When I set out to go to my slum visits I usually ring ahead and let the field team know I’ll be joining them, but the day itself isn’t particularly well planned out. I have a list of houses I’m going to go to, hoping to find someone at home and willing to talk. Beyond this I never really know if the interviews are going to go well, what I’m going to hear or going to see. Now I know that is like any day, anywhere. However, when you’re working somewhere that is very far out of your usual experience the slightest variations in your daily scheduled programming seem much more dramatic. The highs and lows of living and working here are heightened compared to some of the places I’ve previously lived.
That last sad post about watching a woman beat her child was one of those out of ordinary occurrences. I’m also happy to report that the autos I have been riding in haven’t hit any dogs in the last week either. There are two sides to this experience, and those incredibly sad days are not representative of every day.
Yesterday when I went to a house for an interview, I was welcomed in. The woman I met with is older than the women I usually meet who are mostly in their twenties. She and her husband share their room with three of their grandchildren who live with them. Two of these children were there while I was visiting, a teenage girl and a younger brother who has a speech and hearing impediment.
I was really impressed with the effort this woman was putting into the care of her grandchildren. Two of her grandkids have disabilities and she had spent the time and money to show them to the best doctors she could afford. She made sure the children went to school, and enrolled the boy in tuitions, something which is common in India but less so for slum residents. Recognizing that he is intellectually at the same level as his classmates she insists that he attend a regular school. Noting his interest in arts she encourages him to draw, proudly pulling out his notebooks and showing me his work.
He soon came and sat with me and began showing me the drawings himself, pointing out the details he liked best. In addition to enjoying my time chatting with this family the interview was also extremely useful – possibly the best I’ve had yet.
Yesterday was one of those highs, a little more rare than the lows. Still if I get one of those days a week it helps keep me going and makes me recognize how lucky I am to have the opportunity to do what I do.
The cost of research
I haven’t been blogging as much as I thought I would be here. I realize that’s because a lot of what I have to write about is pretty depressing and I feel like I owe it to my friends who may be reading this to not make it too heavy. I also feel very defensive about what I write about India, and about my work.
I went to a highschool that didn’t have a large number of Indian kids. One day in class we were discussing something relevant to India and one of the only other Indian kids got really upset with me for saying something negative about India. I thought it was delusional to not talk openly about something which is an issue in our country, a reality. I realize now that he was defensive because he didn’t want outsiders to get the wrong idea about India.
My view on this hasn’t really changed, I think if we are going to address the vast inequalities and daily injustices that exist in a city like Mumbai, we need to see it as what it is. Still, I get uncomfortable with outsiders judging the individuals who live here and call the slums their home. I don’t like to share details like my experiences because I feel as though I should be protecting those people who I have a loyalty to, though that in itself is rather paternalistic.
The blog isn’t entirely dishonest, I have had some really great times here and enjoy my life in this city, but most days something or other happens which breaks my heart. Many times I can put a spin on it and make it into something funny, but some days like today I just have to sit in bed and cry and let it out.
I went to do my slum interviews today, and it went well. I was lucky to find the women I was to talk to and had a great candid chat with them. I sat and watched as one of the women spanked her two year old child in front of me. Another woman held the child by her throat till she cried. I discussed the upcoming marriage plans for a seventeen year old who hasn’t met her husband to be and dropped out of school as a child. I walked through street waste and garbage, and watched a chicken be slaughtered. I tried to plug my ears from the whimpering of a dog after it stepped into traffic in front of an auto.
I don’t believe in physically disciplining children, or having girls drop out of school to marry young. If I show my dissapproval however it will cost me the privledge of being able to work in the community, and it’s rather unlikely my judgement will change anything. All I can do is pretend this is all fine, and try not to flinch.
Still, somedays I find myself questioning why I chose the field of work that I’m in, and if I’m ever going to be able to end my workdays without feeling the way I do now.
(reblogged: September 22nd)
I doubt anyone other than a couple close friends read this blog, but for anyone who doesn’t know why I’m here – my research is on urban slum communities in Mumbai. Yesterday I went to an area on the Eastern side of the city called Govandi which has a large growing slum population, it also happens to be the region I lived in on my first trip to the city in 2009.
(Chembur slum, photo taken from Govandi train station)
Part of why I enjoy the work I do is because the people I get to meet are often so very open and accommodating when it comes to NGO workers and academics knocking on their doors and asking them endless questions. I was offered tea and biscuits wherever I went despite the fact that I in return offered these people nothing more than a vague explanation of my research. I’m not going to be patronizing and paint everyone who lives in these areas as wonderful, I got jeered at too, but in general I find people more than willing to give me the benefit of the doubt in a way that I never have for any number of people who have come knocking on my door. Though maybe they wouldn’t be as friendly if they kept getting visits from Jehovah’s Witnesses like I do.
Maybe it’s a product of turning 27 last month that has me thinking a lot about what I want out of life. Not what other people want for me, or what I could have but what will really make me happy. It’s something I am far from answering. Yesterday however I really appreciated something that a woman I met said. She lives in one room with her husband, son and daughter-in-law. Their home was clean and comfortable and very far from some of the basest levels of poverty I know are out there. I had asked her about if she was happy in their home – my intent was understanding if they liked the region they resided in- however she took the question to mean something else entirely. She told me about money and happiness, on how a Rs. 5000 sari* isn’t going to make her life better or worse, and how some people like herself are happy wherever they are because they make their own happiness.
This is one of those questions I’ve often thought about, how much do I need to be happy? Our culture has us driving towards a goal which relates material gain to happiness – when do we know we’ve reached a point where it’s enough?
*Rs. 5000 = approx. $100 CAD or 65 quid.
Music to blog to: Keep the Car Running (Arcade Fire)