Avoiding the brown door with the small cut out window rimmed in black challenges all of us. We walk by it a hundred times a day but never purposely linger in front of it, moving to the left or the right, ignoring the pain for another day. Ranjana, gripping the rustic, hand made broom with the handle so short that she has to stoop to use it, sweeps in front of her doorway and makes a pass in front of the brown door. Children running in and out of the Balwadi, run their hands along the brown metal and lean against the door while waiting for their mothers to come to take them home. The door remained closed, the secret of what went on inside the last time it was open, still a mystery, still a painful reminder of the death of Shalu and subsequently the death of her husband. Her boys walk by this door everyday, as does everyone who comes and goes from this community. They play within spitting distance of their former home but never linger or peek inside through the tiny window. Harsh words, physical abuse, and the grim reality of poverty turned this small room where Shalu and Suresh were attempting to build a life with their three boys, into an inferno a year ago. The last time Shalu walked out of her home, pushing open the brown door, she was fleeing, in shock, and engulfed in flames. Suresh, still in the home, with one of his sons who bore witness to this scene, finally appeared in the doorway where neighbours berated him with angry words and shaking fists and refused to help him. Shalu was attended to by neighbours who smothered the flames that were searing her tiny body by wrapping her in hand-made quilts that they hastily pulled off bamboo poles where they were drying in the sun. Shalu’s brother, who lives just a few doors away, picked Shalu up in his arms, carried her the few hundred metres to the steps which lead up and out of the community to the roadway. With burns covering her entire body, her polyester sari melted to her skin, Shalu still had to endure a bone-shaking ride in a rickshaw to a hospital where she would live in unbearable pain for the next week, until her death. Suresh, seriously injured, walked out of the slum, accompanied by his 10 year old son, and flagged a rickshaw to the same hospital. The couple never spoke to each other again. Suresh who was still able to communicate never asked about Shalu. Suresh died almost a week after Shalu’s death, after being moved to another hospital far from the community they both loved.
The Saki Naka slum community is crowded, intense and unforgiving and no one yields to domestic abuse, unless it affects them. Shalu’s house is in the centre of the community, sharing a space with the Balwadi, with a ‘view’ of the community garden and play space. Suresh was sick with AIDS and TB and was barely a stick figure of a man. His handsome features morphed into sharp prominence on his face, his head with his full, curly black hair seemed too large for his body. The family of five lived in the small room in a space shared by the Balwadi. When DWP and Janvi built the Balwadi, Shalu and Suresh’s home was partly destroyed by the renovation. Living with her brother and his family until the building of the school was complete, Shalu was kept busy picking out new tiles for her new ‘home’, and choosing a pale blue colour for her four walls. I helped Suresh paint the walls over a year ago, when he was a happier man, excited about his family’s new and improved home. When the renovation was complete, Shalu and her family moved back into their home, excited about their fresh new space. A new door was hung with the cut out window to allow some light into the space and Shalu was presented with a bold, blue shower curtain to give her some privacy from her boys when she bathed in the corner. Hired by Janvi to help out at the Balwadi, Shalu was the main wage earner for her family, although they were supported by DWP and Janvi with medication for Suresh and school sponsorships for the boys. Not long before their deaths, Suresh, feeling much better due to new medication, managed to get a job driving a delivery truck back and forth to Pune, a two hour journey from Mumbai. When he arrived home from work, he fueled his body with cheap, toxic, home-made alcohol which is easy to purchase behind unmarked doors anywhere in Mumbai. Drunken rages followed, angry outbursts belched from the tiny room and threats to Shalu followed. Accused of cheating on Suresh while he was away, Shalu, innocent of those accusations, protested loudly and told some of the other women about her troubles. Although they may have listened intently to Shalu’s problems, there would be no solution, no easy way out. A woman without a husband is doomed to live on the lowest rungs of traditional Indian society.
It has been just over a year since I spoke on the phone to Shalu. Shalu, covered in bandages in a Mumbai hospital and clinging to life, had the phone held to her ear by Ashley while I paced my backyard in Victoria, Canada thousands of miles away. Using the very few words I knew in Hindi I told her I loved and missed her, she told me that she would wait for me to arrive back to India, both of us knowing there wasn’t enough time. There has barely been a day since, that Shalu hasn’t passed through my thoughts. The guilt I feel for not realizing how terrible she was being treated by Suresh and how close she was to the edge, will be something I carry with me forever.
But, Shalu has not faded away from our community and over the past few months she has come back in the presence of a spirit. Our community in Saki Naka believes heavily in spirits and although I was quick to disregard this aspect of the community during my first couple of years working there, I have heard too many stories and witnessed far too many happenings to discount their presence. Ranjana, who was Shalu’s neighbour, often speaks of an intense heat that radiates around Shalu’s door. This was the beginning of Shalu’s re-emergence into the community. Soon eery sightings of Shalu were seen late at night. One such story was from a young pregnant woman who was headed to the communal toilets near Shalu’s home. A few feet from the toilets she looked up to see Shalu, dressed in a red sari speaking to her dead husband, Suresh. As she squinted and moved closer, Shalu turned and moved towards her and pushed the young woman. Backpedalling she ran back to her home. The next day, the young woman, feeling sick went to the doctor and found that she had suffered a miscarriage which she believes was caused by Shalu’s spirit. Within a few days there were several more sightings of Shalu walking through the community. Our recently built women’s centre shares a common wall with Shalu’s home and a few weeks ago as the women sat in a circle sewing and chatting, Shashi felt a presence in her body. Shashi, who is a quiet and reserved young woman, started to feel ill. Moments later she started to groan. Indu (GCB manager) noticing Shashi’s discomfort, sat beside her. Shashi began to speak in a voice different from her own and then started to yell obscenities in Hindi, shocking all of the women. Indu, sensed there was a spirit and asked who was there. Through Shashi, Shalu answered, and began telling the women that she didn’t wish to die and asked why we couldn’t save her. She told the women that she took her injured husband to the spirit world because he shouldn’t be allowed to live, and that she was now back in the community to bring more people with her. She told the women that Ashley and I should have saved her. She spoke of her love for Shashi, that Shashi is beautiful and always happy, and she wanted her to come to the afterlife with her. She said she had been hiding in Shashi’s body for eight days and wasn’t planning on leaving. Shashi then collapsed. Shashi’s mother was called and she was taken to a Hindu exorcist. Shashi spent the next week in bed, suffering from fevers, exhausted from the experience. But Shalu wasn’t finished harassing the community and showed up next door at Rajashree’s home. Rajashree, feeling sick one morning, began to light her gas stove when all of a sudden huge flames blew from the sides of the small kerosene burner. She believes that this was Shalu’s presence. A few mornings later as Hema opened the door to our school she looked up to see Shalu standing on the stairs, holding a broom. Hema, shocked and scared moved quickly away from the door. Shalu’s spirit has accosted one young family so much that they have packed their belongings and moved to a different community. The presence of Shalu’s spirit in the women’s centre keeps the women who work there on edge and nervous. No one wants to be alone and they huddle together while they work.
This is tremendously sad for both our community and Shalu. The presence of her spirit is proof that her death was sudden, violent, full of anger and that she was pushed to leave this world, leaving many unanswered questions surrounding the day of her death. Shalu’s spirit claimed that she was very hungry and thirsty and the community had organized a feast in her honour on April 14th (the anniversary of her death) to convince Shalu’s spirit to make the transition into the next world. But, the night before the event, a young boy named Sanjay from our community died suddenly and out of respect to his family, the community has postponed Shalu’s feast.
Shalu’s spirit is still wandering, helpless, in this lively community that was once her home. In death her spirit is angry and vengeful, in life Shalu was quiet, reserved and very meek. The brown metal door was opened recently when Suresh’s mother decided to move into the community to protect the ownership of the house. A quick peek through the door revealed the pale blue walls, a colour that Shalu loved, and a darkened room without light. The community will continue to nudge Shalu’s spirit into the next world, out of respect for her and her young sons, hoping to bring her spirit and the community some relief from her ghostly, unsettled wandering.
Note: Shalu’s two sons are living with Shalu’s brother and his wife a few doors away from their former home. The boys are happy and involved in community activities. DWP pays 1000 rupees a month to this family to help alleviate the expense of adding two more mouths to feed. Shalu’s oldest son Sumeet lives with Suresh’s sister and mother across the city. Shalu is not forgotten here. In the tiny, narrow home, among the clothing hung on nails and piled household goods on thin shelves, sits a photo of a smiling Shalu once given to her by DWP.
Kane & Cindy Ryan