I can see into the windows of the neighbouring apartment building, most of them lit up like hospital operating rooms, all bright white and unforgiving, allowing every detail to be noticed. An elderly man in a white singlet waters the plant on his caged balcony while I watch him. The outside of his building has large round windows and spider veins of patchwork masonry repairs reminding me of painful, red eyeballs. This is our view, unless we look to the right where the skyscrapers of Mumbai loom in the distance, behind a thick, choking quilt of pollution. The setting sun is barely visible in the shifting gray haze.
Among the jumble of shops lining the main road in front of our apartment, we can buy everything we need from screws to beds to vegetables and large jugs of water. Behind the busy, heavily trafficked road is a calm, village like atmosphere comprised of narrow laneways and small, rustic, ancient, wooden bungalows. This is the neighbourhood Ashley grew up in, a Catholic enclave with a Muslim mosque smack in the middle. Ashley and his father kept a few rifles to scare away the tigers that used to roam the area before the encroachment of the city. There is a market area and a mutton shop where fresh mutton hangs, infusing the hot air with the musky, pungent odour of wet socks. At the fish market, women arrange silvery, slimy fish on wooden tables, the eyes of the dead fish caught in a sad stare. Burlap or heavy plastic laid out on the laneways are laden with fresh fruit and vegetables. Marigolds are piled into dainty mounds until threaded into garlands. There are small bakeries and spice merchants, watch repairers and sellers of hardware and sundries. Todd has made friends in the shops as he has been there often looking for hardware, someone to fix a zipper, a drill bit and something for dinner.
Nesting in Mumbai requires patience and humour and a bit of nose-plugging. The twenty minutes it takes us to walk to Saki Naka is fraught with little dangers and annoyances and sweet, visual surprises. Live electrical wires lay tangled on broken sidewalks, large holes in the middle of the road or pathway reveal brackish, foul smelling streams of city waste. This is where the nose plugging comes in. But amongst the civic mess underfoot and overhead are the bright, beautiful smiles of the masses who make our neighbourhood a joy to live in.
We have a western toilet (a sweet surprise), and a large bucket to fill for our bucket baths at the end of the day, and a two burner cooktop finally installed after hunting all over the city for a regulator that no one would sell us, until we found ‘the guy’ who would, who we found right outside our apartment. Our building is unfinished and underwhelming, the folly of sad architecture and a sloppy builder. The elevator shaft still requires an elevator and the outside envelope of the building is made of porous brick that seems to crumble at the touch. Our feet tread on a marble staircase and cool tile floors while the walls in the apartment retain every bit of moisture the monsoon has delivered over weeks of punishing rain. Scraped and scoured, cleaned and painted this apartment is the pinnacle of before and after renovations. When Kane and Ashley first looked at this apartment a year or so ago, it was filled with the excrement of a thousand pigeons plus a few dead feathered comrades. They had been nesting here, entering through wide open windows, long before Ashley, his arms open wide, standing in the mess, excitedly proclaimed, “This is it. This your apartment!!” It’s the one, Kane!.” Purchased years ago by the landlord, Janet, who never used the apartment, she graciously allows Kane to stay here at a very agreeable rate.
Because of the disorder outside our door, we feel privileged to be able to disappear from the madness, even if we have to tramp up six floors, our stride slowing noticeably by the 3rd floor, the heat of a Mumbai day wrapping its sticky fingers of humidity around us, sealing in the dirt and grime of a day in the city. All I can think of is the cool bucket of water I will dump over my head, just behind our locked door. It is at this moment that humour and patience escape us as we search our pockets for the key.
When our door closes, the problems and issues of the slum community come knocking at every hour. The happy ring tone of Kane’s cell phone is often the only good part of a phone call from Ashley in the evening. The days outside our apartment contain the myriad problems of the slum. Our emotions and obligations are tied in a tight, bundled knot to the slum community night and day. In the ten days or so since we first arrived in Mumbai, Kane and Ashley have carried a very sick young girl out of the slum, up to the road and into a rickshaw, mediated for her care and bargained with the hospital for reduced rates. Two young mothers, sick babies in tow were taken to a doctor. They have met with corporations hoping for some kind of sponsorship and attended to the questions and concerns of generous volunteers. School fees were paidat two different schools….. We shadow them, as they somehow manage to walk briskly through the chaos from one problem to the next, slipstreaming through the streets, often disappearing into a crowd of barefeet, fluttering saris and exhaust fumes. A rousing game of soccer with the kids in the middle of the afternoon, when the day is the hottest, is a respite from pressing issues.
We also have a bright, fluorescent light in our apartment, but we prefer to use the soft, hazy light from one incandescent bulb, so we can’t see all the details at night.
(The clean up, painting and rent of the apartment is paid for by us, independent of DWP funds. Renovations costs totaled around $700 for paint, toilet, shower, watertank etc..and about $100 a month for rent which is very low by Mumbai standards. We are greatful to have it!)
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