June 3rd, 2010, Mumbai
Happy Birthday, Kane Sir (by Cindy Ryan)
Twenty two hours of travel involving three planes and a few time zones, with a hint of each destination revealed by the passengers in the departure lounges, and I am in India. The heat of Mumbai has attached itself to me and wrapped me in a blanket I can’t remove, But, there is no time to adjust to the heat or to the energy of 18 million people moving beside me, behind me, and in front of me. They move like liquid through a clogged drain. There is work to do and everyone here seems to have a purpose whether it is selling limes on a blanket on the street or rushing off to an air-conditioned office to work for a corporation. I have come to work with Kane for one month. As his mother, I have an insider’s knowledge about the Dirty Wall Project and the frustrations and the joys of doing charitable work in India and I was eager to see it for myself.
Kane and I are staying in a very small room in a hotel near Crawford Market. There is room to breath, if the fan is on high and we don’t both breath at once. The fan pushes hot air around and over us as we try to sleep. The shower delivers only hot water at the end of the day. We get clean but not refreshed. This is how most of India lives, cramped, hot and complacent about the conditions they live with. A blast of air-conditioned air from an open shop door as we walk by is cause for lingering.
After a day spent in Mumbai, I was eager to see Saki Naka, the slum community that Kane does most of his projects in. We leave the hotel at 6:45 a.m. to catch the 7:15 a.m. train from the CST train station, the busiest train station in Asia. Over 6 million people come and go from train stations in Mumbai everyday. Now it’s 6 million and two. Mumbai is just waking at this hour. We walk past whole families sleeping under overhangs, smudged tight against walls, laying stick straight in rows on plastic sheets or large pieces of cardboard. Old men drape themselves on the long wagons they will use during the day to push huge loads of goods. Walking around the perimeter of the station we navigate around men carrying huge loads of fish in baskets on their heads. They run, fish guts and sea water dripping down their backs, into the train station to deliver their fishy loads to a waiting train. They get paid per load and there is a frantic sense of duty in the air. The smell of urine, jasmine, car exhaust, and wafting smells from food being prepared in the streets wakes my senses for the day and sometimes I hold my breath.The train trip takes 40 minutes and passes north through Mumbai, offering a view of the daily lives of those who live along the tracks. Our stop is Ghatkopar Station. We funnel out of the train and join the masses of other travellers in a race to the stairs that will take us up and over the railway lines and deposit us out onto the street where we wait for a rickshaw to take us the rest of the way to the slum. This gives us an opportunity to grab a vada pav for breakfast. (a carbohydrate treat of deep-fried potato patty squished into a white bun that has been spread with coriander chutney, a sweet chutney, and dried chili powder accompanied by deep-fried green chilies covered in salt.) I make sure to grab a bottle of water as I am already perspiring and feeling dehydrated. My hair is stuck to my face and my clothing is clinging to me like plastic wrap. Kane seems unfazed by the heat or my disheveled condition!
The rickshaw ride to Saki Naka from the train station is 15 minutes of bone-jarring, dust-eating and fume gulping. I try to pour water into my mouth. I miss. Kane laughs. He has mastered this.
Arriving at Saki Naka we walk down some cement stairs and are instantly in the slum. The ‘road’ we walk down is the main path through the community and is lined with very small, cement homes with rocks and debris holding down the metal or asbestos roofs. Some are crumbling, some are well-kept and tidy, all are small, cramped and feel temporary. All of the shelters face an enormous metal water pipe. As we make our way deeper into the slum, kids start to run towards us, mothers look up from their chores, and everyone says, “Hello Kane Sir! It is your birthday! Happy Birthday Sir!!Hands are outstretched and Kane slaps each one as he goes by and kids start to follow us. The path is uneven; broken concrete makes walking without looking difficult, and garbage is imbedded in the dirt.
We arrived at the Balwadi (school) and Ashley, the local Indian man who Kane works with, greets us and directs us to go to the garden. Kids gather to play and inspect us. They are introduced to me and then immediately ask why Kane is not dressed up for his birthday. We notice the kids are neatly attired, the girls have fancy dresses on and their hair has been combed and gelled. The kids keep us busy with probing questions and athletic antics until we realize they have all disappeared.
Kane and I continue to chat about the community until we notice a little boy coming towards us with a pointy birthday hat on. He had escaped the Balwadi and let us in on the secret. Forty or fifty people were crammed into the Balwadi, waiting for the party to begin. On the whiteboard they had written “Happy Birthday Kane and Welcome Mrs. Cindy Ryan.The kids all wore birthday hats and their excitement couldn’t be contained. The birthday celebration started with a red dot placed on Kane’s forehead with grains of rice flicked into the wet dye. Incense was lit and moved in a circle in front of him and then the celebration began. There was a beautiful birthday cake with “Kane” written on the top, lit with trick candles that Kane tried hard to blow out with the help of four or five eager kids. There was music, loud, very loud music. We both received flowers. But, the kids were most excited for Kane to open the gift that they had picked out for him. He unwrapped a transparent globe. Inside the globe is a plastic rose that opens and closes at the flick of the button on the bottom. The kids jumped up and down and held their hands to their mouths waiting for Kane’s reaction. Then they eyed the cake. One of the mothers cut the cake into slices and I wondered how everyone would get a piece. Kane was force fed a piece of cake first, and then cake was smeared on his face with everyone in a fit of giggles. I didn’t escape the treatment for the honorary guests. Soon I was eating cake fed to me by a mother and wondering how long I had to keep the cake smeared on both sides of my face.
With the music getting louder and kids starting to dance, one of the mothers started to dish out cake to kids who were patiently waiting for the treat. Instead of serving slices, she mushed the frosting together with bits of cake between her fingers and flicked the blobs of cake into eager hands. There were no tantrums for those who missed out, just more dancing.
The party for Kane was a realization about how much this community means to Kane and how much he means to the community. I was welcomed into some of the homes after the party subsided, treated to chai and a cool mango drink. Although we couldn’t communicate with words, I could feel the pride that the people of Saki Naka have for their small community, the gratitude they express to Kane and Ashley, and the sincere welcome they prepared for me. The children are gracious, funny and exceedingly polite even though they have few comforts and share very little space with each other. I noticed the closeness of siblings, and the bonds to each other. I realize this is but one layer of a very complex community, that there are demons in some of the homes, sorrow and dread, unhappiness and anxiety, along with a will to live noble, productive lives regardless of their poverty. Kane and Ashley work long days to improve some of their lives, give some comfort, have medical conditions treated, and make sure some of the neediest children are able to go to school through sponsorships by Dirty Wall Project supporters.
After the festivities were over we spent the next few hours enrolling three children,(generously sponsored by Dirty Wall Project donors) in their new school, with grateful parents in tow.
I had two more important people to meet. We travelled in the mid-day heat by train and rickshaw to the offices of the Janvi Charitable Trust where Asha and Andrew were waiting to give Kane another birthday party. Asha and Andrew are trustees of Janvi and also work for Mayan International in an air-conditioned office in the depths of Mumbai’s madness. They work with Kane and Ashley in a joint effort on the problems of Saki Naka. Asha is a lovely, doting woman who fed us delicious curries and sweet tea, and with a click of her mouse, she had the office rocking to the tune of “Today is your birthday, you’re gonna have a good time…….” Loud is good in india. Asha and Andrew gave Kane two new t-shirts and a pair of pants. Kane’s clothing, which is slightly grungy and worn is cause for concern in India. Most Indian men wear nicely pressed shirts and pants with creases down the front. We talked about Mumbai and I got to peel back a thin layer that revealed how these three people who were born here feel about their seething city. They wouldn’t live anywhere else. Although the party was over, I was hesitant to leave the office, with it’s air-conditioned coolness and clean bathroom. Mumbai has very few public bathroom facilities and using one is not for the faint of heart.
A day in spent working with Kane and Ashley in Saki Naka is long, very productive, and full of emotion. I can’t wait to go back tomorrow, although with more water and immodium.
Cindy Ryanbirthday, donate, education, India, Mumbai, slum, travel, volunteer