-Another instalment in the interview series with the women of GCB, written by Cindy Ryan.
“If you are rich people pay attention to you, but if you are poor no one asks you about anything.”
Pushpa’s hands were busy stuffing small balls of newspaper into the plastic carcass of a heart. Sitting in the women’s centre in the heavy heat of early afternoon she was huddled with the other women who were chatting and busy with the task of making heart shapes out of plastic bags. Regardless of the heat the women sat so close to each other they often touched; their sari’s pooled together on the cool tile floor. Guddiya stared open-mouthed at nothing, and her hands moved slowly, mindlessly tearing strips of newspaper and crunching each strip into a ball. Pushpa’s two children wandered into the room and yanked at their mother’s attention. Her son pulled at her sari while her daughter dangled her arms around her mother’s neck. Tended to warmly by their mother, the children finally dawdled out of the room happy to play outside in the lane way.
I wanted to interview Pushpa as was my plan with the other women. I took my small notebook out of my bag, searched through the boxes of sewing supplies for a pen, and finally settled, sitting cross-legged on the floor in the tangle of women amidst the litter of cut plastic, torn newspaper, skeins of embroidery thread and sequins that stuck to my pant legs. More children filed in to the room, twirling, expectant, curious always, eager to stay in this wonderland of women. Kane joined us and the kids used his body as a prop to swing on, sit on, lay on and sleep on. Pushpa shyly agreed to talk about her life but was suspicious about why I would want to know her story. Threading a needle, she stared straight ahead and said, “if you are rich people pay attention to you, but if you are poor no one asks you about anything.” A lump of emotion welling up in my throat I replied, “I am curious about your life, how you arrived in Mumbai, when you came here, what you think about and what you want for your children.” With some gentle prodding from Indu, Pushpa stretched her perfectly shaped lips into a shy grin and began to talk.
What I was beginning to find out about most of the women living in the community was also true about Pushpa. She has no formal education and she has endured the death of more than one child.
Pushpa and her husband are from the Gwal caste (traditionally milk and curd sellers). They started their married life in a large village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh when Pushpa was 13 years old. On the day of her marriage, devastated to leave her parent’s home, she moved to the home of her 15 year old husband’s parents, living in a separate room for two years. While she gave birth to her first child at age 16 her husband struggled to find employment in the village. He left his young family in the care of relatives and travelled to Mumbai by train; an arduous, tedious third class journey that takes almost 24 hours. Mumbai beckons impoverished yet optimistic villagers from all parts of India with no assurances of a better life, but with more options for making dismal money and the dim hope of better education for their children and better living standards which might include running water, electricity, and hope. The reality of Mumbai for Pushpa’s husband was a deal with an unscrupulous relative who provided him with a job but refused to pay him. In lieu of wages he was given food, clothing and crude shelter. For three years he toiled under these conditions and visited his growing family when he could. Pushpa remained in Uttar Pradesh caring for their two young daughters, enduring the death of a 10 month old son and the stillbirth of another child.
After a fight with the relative who enslaved him, Pushpa’s husband managed to find a job driving a truck that paid him 4000 rupees ($80 CAD) a month and he was able to rent a small room for himself. It took him 4 years to save enough money to bring Pushpa and his two daughters from Uttar Pradesh to Mumbai. In Mumbai, Pushpa gave birth to two more children and the two oldest children returned to Uttar Pradesh to live with their grandparents. The family has called the Saki Naka slum community home for four years, with Pushpa living one year with her husband and their two youngest children in Mumbai, and the next year she and her two youngest children gather some belongings, and board a third class train, returning to her two oldest daughters in Uttar Pradesh while her husband remains in Mumbai to work. Although Pushpa travels every second year to Uttar Pradesh, she otherwise rarely leaves the Saki Naka community. The family has no extra money for rickshaws and Pushpa is reluctant to venture out of the community. Instead, covering her mouth with a swath of her sari to avoid the choking, black fumes from large trucks that rumble over the bridge that dissects the slum below, she waits for her husband to deliver supplies to his family while driving his work truck, clutching her two young children to keep them from wandering into the jumble of erratic traffic.
Pushpa starts her day by preparing chapati and a pot of spicy dal, while her children, asleep on the floor, wake slowly. The children’s donated school uniforms are plucked from nails on the walls, their faces are scrubbed under a community tap and teeth are rubbed with a stick. Skipping down the lane way in front of their mother, the kids are excited to be dropped off at the Balwadi for their morning of kindergarten classes. Pushpa then quietly makes an entrance to the women’s centre, looking regal in her sari, her black hair glistening with coconut oil which keeps any stray hairs from escaping the neat braid that drops down the middle of her back. Her gold coloured earrings and her nose pin are a beautiful complement to her coffee coloured skin. She is always serene and much quieter than the other women. When asked if she liked her job at the centre, she replied, “Yes, I can send money back to Uttar Pradesh for the care of my oldest daughters”. She is proud that her two daughters, aged 15 and 16, are taking science classes because she hopes that will enable them to have a job with some prestige, where they will work in an office while waiting for marriage,instead of living in a hut in the shadows of the glass and steel towers. The future she imagines for her daughters comes with a thick coating of tradition as Pushpa is planning to return to Uttar Pradesh in a few months to begin the hopeful search for suitable husbands for her daughters. Managing three dowries for her three daughters will further drive her family into precarious financial strain. Each daughter will ‘cost’ Pushpa and her husband up to 3 lakh ($1800 CAD) in dowry payments to future in-laws. In turn, she will demand a generous dowry from her son’s future in-laws, continuing the tradition which financially hobbles poor families.. When asked what she thinks about the caste system (which keeps her life in a perpetual dead-end), she surprised us by saying she doesn’t agree with the caste system, but she will strive to choose husbands from higher castes for her daughters.
The rent on their room in Saki Naka costs the family 1500 rupees a month, with bills for water and electricity added to the monthly cost. Her father-in-law is ill and requires treatment costing 50,000 – 60,000 rupees ($1000 CAD) pushing the family into using a money lender who will tack on interest charges at 10% per month. The additional cost of three dowries will contain Pushpa’s family in an insufferable, dangerous relationship with an unsympathetic, unscrupulous money lender, who will use physical force when necessary to collect his loans.
Pushpa’s life seems grim with the realities of poverty based on the caste system, a system that ignores the grueling, punishing life that is lived in slum communities. However, she maintains that she is happy even though she would like for her children to live a better life. I suspect, she has no imagination about what life would be like if she weren’t poor. Her knowledge of the outside world is so limited that she doesn’t understand why I am light skinned and she is dark skinned. She understands that Canada is a country (whatever that means to her) and I have to fly in an airplane that she sees overhead to get to Mumbai. Watching her two youngest children wander in and out of the women’s centre, I hope their world is full of possibilities; that the ‘new India’ that is both burgeoning and groaning under the weight of government corruption, might reserve a place for them in the glass towers that pass shadows over the slum community.
For now, Pushpa is content sitting among the women in the centre, creating beautiful products, making a wage, and tending to the possibilities that she hopes lay ahead for her children. Although shy, she is calm, determined and confident in her ability to create something beautiful out of nothing, whether it is a plastic heart ornament or a future for her children.
- A week ago we helped Pushpa, her husband and two children into a rickshaw with all their worldly possessions. They have decided to move back to their village in the north of India and it’s very sad to see them go. On behalf of the ladies of GCB we wish Pushpa luck on her journey north. She is a part of DWP/GCB and is welcome back anytime. DWP donated 1000 INR – $20.83 CAD to help them on their journey.
bombay, charity, cindy ryan, Dirty Wall Project, documentary, donate, DWP, education, fundraise, fundraising, girls can be, health camp, India, janvi trust, Kane Ryan, mother, Mumbai, Photography, saki naka, school, slum, sponsorship