I felt a light tap on my shoulder. My eyes blinked open slowly, my mouth was dry and I stared up at the woman. She told me to put away my tray table and prepare for landing. Rubbing sleep from my eyes I opened my window shade and looked outside. Harsh sunlight filled the cabin and when my eyes adjusted I saw beautiful Vancouver materialize in stunning greens and blues just outside the little square window. I’m home.
The last couple of weeks in Mumbai went by in a blur. The end of every working trip in India is difficult, but this one seemed even harder. As families learned of my departure, more problems became apparent, and individuals and families came forth looking for help, knowing this may be their last chance for months. In the remaining two weeks of this trip, DWP focused heavily on finishing off the last of our school sponsor cases while meeting the individual medical needs of several families, including Usha, our kindergarten teacher, and our dear friend Maya and her children.
DWP paid for Usha to receive physiotherapy on a daily basis for two weeks at Seven Hills hospital, hoping to alleviate her back pain and get to the root of her back problem. Sonograms, an MRI, and meetings with several doctors and surgeons all pointed to the same thing; rest. This is not an option for a poor single mother living in Mumbai who desperately needs to keep working to feed and house her two teenage children. While these daily treatments started to ease her pain, I bundled up my mattress from my apartment, along with pillows and a chettai, (Indian sleeping mat) stuffed it into a rickshaw and surprised Usha at her home one evening. We unrolled the thick mattress and laid it out on her cracked cement floor. Usha, who is in her early 40′s, quickly exclaimed that tonight would be the first night in her life that she would get to sleep on a mattress. We chatted over chai and discussed her family. DWP paid the final amount owing on her medical bills, the tuition fees for her very bright daughter and her son’s school tuition for the year, in full. Her back is better but will never fully heal unless she takes rest for months on end. While DWP could not solve her back problem we have been able to make her life a little easier and she can be assured that her children will get the education they deserve.
While I focused on Usha and DWP sponsor cases, my mom spent her days with Maya (Cindy will be writing a full post about her work with Maya) monitoring her and her children’s health daily, all the while becoming a surrogate mother to every wandering child in the community. My mother and I would often be separated for hours throughout the day. When I arrived back to the community I would simply ask the first child I saw where she was? A grubby little hand would point me in a direction down the pipeline and soon I would see a huddle of laughing children hanging off my mother, sweat rolling down her brow and a smile from ear to ear.
With less than a week left in Mumbai I started to really think about the next year and what that means for both DWP and me. The past year in Saki Naka has been incredibly difficult and emotional for many reasons. This thought consumed my mind daily as I watched children run along the pipeline; children I have watched grow and change over the last three and a bit years. I know I need to move on eventually, but this place feels like home. Reflecting on the legacy that DWP supporters have left for this community is a way to cope. Besides paying for medical care, tuitions, teacher’s salaries, and individual school sponsorships, DWP has funded the addition of the second floor of the school which is used every day for kindergarten classes, art classes and dance classes as well as community drop in space.DWP paid local community members to clear tangles of weeds, bags of their own garbage, thick tree roots and broken glass from an area used as a dumping ground. The final result of their efforts is a large, clean space to play, run, hold events, and a place to sit outside of their cramped homes. It is called the ‘new’ garden, a scruffier version of the garden space that Janvi Trust created at the other end of the slum. A year ago, funds from DWP were used to renovate a small room beside the school that, until recently, we used as the Girls Can Be centre. We are hoping that this beautiful, light, clean space will continue to be used as a women’s centre, or a much needed health clinic targeting nutrition and basic hygiene, stemming the tide of malnutrition and illness. These large projects will endure and continue to enhance the quality of life in this slum community.
Two days before we left, we visited Ashwini once more at the girls’ home where she now lives. We met with Sister Annie to let her know I will be leaving and they asked how long until I return. It took me a second to answer and then I told them that I’m not sure yet but it will be awhile this time. Priyanka, who DWP hires to tutor Ashwini, as well as other students at the home, needs to be paid monthly. I organized her entire years salary in cash and gave it to Sister Annie so she will be able to pay Priyanka. One more thing done. We hugged Ashwini and said our goodbyes. Ashwini is a major success story and every time I visit the home I smile to myself at what a wonderful life she has now because of these caring, compassionate Sisters. DWP has set aside 100,000 Rupees ($2000 CDN) in a separate DWP account that I will hold until Ashwini turns 18 in four years and is eligible to leave the home. Our hope is that this money will help Ashwini get on her feet and start her adult life. I can’t wait for the day…
My eyes blinked open, weary from a terrible, sleepless night. It was well before 7 a.m., but I felt anxious. The night before, my mom and I cleaned and organized the apartment that has been DWP’s home base for the past 2 years. I entered the bathroom and looked down at the little blue bucket that has been my shower and watched as the tap slowly filled it. My reflection in the mirror looked weary. I have lost too much weight over the last year, dark circles and bags show prominently around my eyes. I let the the last bucket of water wash over my face and wondered what my last day in the community will bring. Somber, but ready to face the day, we marched down the six flights of stairs and into the chaotic morning rush of Marol and headed to the community. My mother and I hate goodbyes and over the last week we had said too many. Today would be worse.
We had ordered 6 massive pots of vegetable biryani (veg rice) and raita (yogurt/curd) to be delivered to the school by 10 a.m. The rice arrived just after 11a.m. and with the help of a few strong boys we moved the heavy pots into the GCB centre. Covered in sweat, I picked up the first pot and moved it upstairs to the kindergarten class. Usha, Priyanka and my mother organized the children and began to serve the meal. Soon 80 kids sat cross legged, covered in rice. We had four more huge pots of rice to deliver yet and with my mom’s help I was able to get the massive and heavy pot onto my shoulder. I walked down the lane way over broken railway ties, garbage, mud and open sewers, towards the Nepali section of the community and set up in the new garden on a makeshift platform. Behind me, 6 year old Dinesh carried a ten pound pot full of raita on his head, while my mother balanced his 4 year old sister Noorsaba in her arms and Suman and Prem chased after her. When I peeled back the tinfoil on the pot, the spicy aromatic smell curled in the morning air and children climbed the platform to get a better look. Slowly people emerged from their tin huts sending their childen to see what Kane Sir was up to. I motioned for them to bring bowls. After the first few bowls were heaped with rice and raita, people started to come in droves. Dinesh, and my mother and I filled whatever container they brought us, small or big. In thirty minutes the pot was empty and we returned for another load walking to a different part of the community. We repeated this 4 more times until we had served well over 3oo meals to 4 different sections of the community. My shoulder was sore, Dinesh’s head was hurting, my mom’s hips hurt from carrying Noorsaba, and our arms were tired. We retreated back to Ranjana’s home where she treated the rag tag team to chai and a home cooked meal. We have known Ranjana’s family for the past 3 years and they have never needed our help in any significant way. Her tiny home has always been a refuge for me and for my mother and we consider her a good friend.
Leaning against the pale yellow wall, staring into our empty cups we wanted to linger in Ranjana’s home, but we knew that we still had so much to do at the apartment. We called Maya to the GCB room and I gave her a mobile phone and explained to her that Jaita and Aarti (wonderful volunteers/friends from Mumbai) would be in charge of helping her during her pregnancy. She looked confused and I slowly began to tell her that we have to leave and we might not be back for awhile. Her eyes welled up with tears and Suman hid her face in her mom’s sari. Ranjana joined us in the room and we all hugged . We cling to the thought of seeing them all again in the future.
We kept lingering but knew that it had to end and we grabbed our stuff and walked single file out of the room. We gathered outside in the light rain. Other families noticed the tears and goodbyes and wished us well. Saying good bye to families in the slum sometimes means we will never see them again. It is heart wrenching for us.
With heavy hearts, we reached home and climbed the six flights of stairs to our apartment. The GCB ladies were inside waiting for us and had been given strict instructions to take anything and everything they needed or wanted from my apartment. We opened the door and the girls giggled; they needed encouraging to take stuff. In the next six hours, the 5 women had completely stripped the apartment, leaving little left except the fixtures and the landlord’s furniture. The hotplate, bed, mattresses, plates, cutlery, shelving, bedding and anything else they could unscrew or carry was piled into the living room awaiting help from their brothers. The women were paid up to date, plus a bonus. After more tearful goodbyes, my mom and I were left sitting in a nearly empty apartment.
I began to pack my own belongings, filling my 12 year old backpack with 3 years worth of memories. Dirty socks, ripped jeans, shorts with splashes of every colour of paint I have ever used while working in the community, worn out shirts, and crumpled children’s drawings filled my bag. Our dear friend, Jaita, arrived just after 9 p.m. to hang out and say goodbye. Shashi brought her brother back and they dismantled the bed, anxious to take it home. Shashi exclaimed that the whole family would use the double bed. Just before 11 p.m. my bag was packed and my passport was tucked into my front pocket. My mom was flying out the next morning and stayed behind with Shashi while Jaita accompanied me to the airport.
The short rickshaw ride to the airport seemed even quicker than normal. After a quick goodbye to Jaita, I watched her rickshaw pull away from the curb. All around me the airport hummed with activity. People milled in crowds, bags were shifted and security guards yelled in Hinglish. I stood silently for a moment in the humid air and thought about my arrival to Mumbai three years before. I was naive and scared, but excited and eager to start helping someone, somewhere. Three years later, with generous funding from DWP supporters, we have helped thousands of people in little ways and some big ways, in India and especially Mumbai. DWP has accomplished more than I ever imagined and I’m not finished yet.
Thirty-one hours of travel over, I disembarked in Vancouver and was met by my smiling father. We caught the Skytrain, my dirty backpack sat wedged between us, and I had the same feeling I felt three years ago when I landed in Mumbai. Everything is about to change and I’m scared and more than a little naive as to how I’m going to manage. For the first time in 12 years of travel, I’m touching down on Canadian soil without a return ticket to anywhere. I’m ready for a change.
DWP is undergoing some changes, I have some new ideas and some interesting projects in the works so stay tuned…