Written and photographed by Cindy Ryan
Flying low over Mumbai, the plane rushes over squares of torn blue plastic, pulled and pinched, secured with bricks and steel pipes. Squint your eyes and slum homes from the air resemble a river of water, its tributaries invading every space not occupied by high-rise towers. With my forehead pressed against the window of the plane, I try to sort out which blue plastic roofs belong to the Saki Naka community and I get excited about landing. Soon I will be in the thick of it and my heart sings at the thought.
I’m only here for a scant three weeks this time and already my guts are telling me to stay longer. There is always so much to do, so many people to see, and what will I find behind the curtained doorways of the slum community this time?
I leave the plane with an imaginary coat of thin armour to protect me from what I can’t do in such a short amount of time and step out into the humid air of Mumbai. Kane, one of the few white faces in the crowded arrivals area, steps out and welcomes me once again. Suddenly, I am mobbed by Indu, Shashi, Seema and Ruby, who have waited patiently to welcome me. Now I am giddy with excitement again. I have worked side by side in the GCB centre with these beautiful women for months, and I think of them as friends, albeit the conversation is limited to what Indu can translate for all of us.
This whirling, active, bleak and bare bones community, stuffed with too many people, is also the scene of a meeting that has ended in a wedding, another reason why I have returned to Saki Naka. Sarah Petrescu, a journalist from Victoria B.C., volunteered with DWP last October. She immediately attached herself to the women of the GCB and helped us create prototypes and products before leaving for a volunteer stint in Bangalore. Within days of Sarah’s arrival in Mumbai, she attended a Diwali celebration in the community. Also invited to this event was Ashley Fernandes, a friend from Mumbai who has contributed to DWP. A brief introduction in the midst of the overcrowded garden in the middle of the slum community during the Festival of Light, has led to their wedding 10 months later.
On July 26th, 2012, Sarah and Ashley were married in the Catholic church just down the road from Kane’s apartment. Wanting the community to be part of the celebration of the relationship which blossomed in their midst, Sarah and Ashley invited the GCB women and their small children and Ranjana and her family. Ashley Pereira (Janvi Charitable Trust), a devoted member of the church where they married, did a reading, and beautiful fabric garlands, made for Sarah by the GCB women, draped the elegant doorway to the church. A full circle of events inspired by the generosity of a slum community, friends and family, in the middle of the monsoon season where cement walls resemble, thick, wet, green sponges.
Between wedding festivities, I have been running after children in the slum, jumping over puddles thick with mud and gooey remnants of garbage, finding shelter from the rain in the school or in slum homes where I am invited for chai and dal, and nodding in faint comprehension in conversations conducted in Hindi or Marathi.
While the monsoon rains bring relief, and sometimes a cool breeze, slum dwellers, hiding from the rains, stay inside, breathing the foul air of their cramped huts. Infections, coughs, runny noses, plus lethargy, bring a host of complications to already fragile health. Sweet, young, frail Maya, who is four months pregnant with her fourth child, was hospitalized with the worry of TB. Almost excited for her to be confined to bed rest in the relative comfort of a soft bed in the confines of a hospital, I was incredulous when she was desperate to go back to her tiny home, where the family of five sleep in an 8 foot by 6 foot cement room, on plastic billboard vinyl laid over a bare cement floor. Putting aside my assumptions of comfort, I must understand this is what Maya knows and this small, damp hut is where her family heaps its joys and sorrows.
Opening my eyes in the morning, the first shaft of light from dull, cottony skies brightens the room where I sleep and I take it in. The rain water has been sucked through the coarse mix of sand and clay bricks that form the outside of the building, creating water stains on the side wall of the room, damp to the touch. Mould forms at the corners and the flaking paint on the ceiling above the whirling, clicking fan, threatens to fall in thin slices onto the bed. The honking that never abates invades the room with a crying, tinny sound. Mumbai is not comfortable, inside or out, it is never clean, never quiet and never dull. What is comfortable here is the people I have met, the slum community I feel at home in and the notion that why I’m here is because it’s where I should be. It will be hard to leave, again. It will be divine to be back in the fresh air of Vancouver, Canada. That is the push and pull of Mumbai, up close and personal.
* A full post about Sarah and Ashley’s wedding with photos from the beautiful day coming soon…
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