Sitting on the Canada LIne train to the Vancouver airport, a tiny, elderly Asian woman sitting beside us got up to leave the train at her stop and noticing our baggage, looked over her shoulder and chirped, “Good-bye and have a happy landing”. An auspicious comment when faced with a 24 hour journey to the other side of the world.
Leaving the lengthy time travel bubble that kept us locked inside airplanes and airports, we finally exited into the very warm, humid air into the dark of a Mumbai night. Tired and bedraggled, we searched the faces on the other side of the barrier for Kane and Ashley. My eyes welled up as I saw many very familiar faces, beaming, yelling our names. Sujata, Haseena, Ranjana, children and men had waited patiently for our flight to land. We hugged across the barrier that keeps arriving passengers from the waiting crowds and Sujata and Haseena draped marigold garlands around our necks. The sweet smell of the flowers filled our noses as we wheeled our luggage cart through the crowds to the other side of the barrier where we were greeted by Kane and Ashley and lots of questions about how long we would stay.
Ranjana’s chai is still sweet with a hint of cardamom and Rajashree’s eggplant curry nurtured us on our first morning in the community. Walking the familiar pipeline, hands were thrust into ours with bright smiles and cheery greetings, welcoming me back and greeting Todd for the first time. As Kane showed Todd the school and areas of the slum that Kane and Ashley have beautified, I walked the lane ways, poking my head into curtained doorways, picking children up, and chatting with the women and men of this community who so warmly welcome us. I noticed the large spaces left unfilled by those who have died since I was last here in March. The women tell me some of the spirits still linger. With tears in her eyes, Ranjana told me Shalu’s spirit is near the door of her home. “There is a hot spot there”, she says, pointing to the ground just outside Shalu’s door. The women living in the area where Ganesh wandered have installed a light because Ganesh’s spirit bothers them at night when he wanders the area near the garden.
Whether it is the energy of lingering spirits or the hordes of children who run and play in the laneways, the community is a hive of activity. The donated set of swings never sit empty. The creak and groan of metal on metal can be heard down the pipelne. The women sit on the swings, gliding slowly, savouring the rush of air while the older children perform acts of daring and bravado for anyone who will stop to watch. The monsoon has unleashed torrents of water into the slum over the past few months and there is still a dampness in the air. The foliage and trees are a brilliant green while the dust is held in check by the dampness of the ground. The flimsy corrugated tin fencing put in place by the BMC in the area where two hundred slum homes were bulldozed in March is now home to some new dwellings made from the tin fencing. Kajal and her friends took me by the hand to the beautiful plaster ‘cave’ that has been erected on the broken ground for the nine day Hindu festival of Navratii celebrating the Goddess of Durga. Twinkling lights glow in the night and drums are heard throughout the community.
The new Girls Can Be centre next door to the school is beautiful, clean, and feels spacious thanks to Ashley’s idea of mirrors on the walls. There is abundant light and fresh air from two windows high up on the wall, and lots of storage. Perhaps the best part of this centre is a small room with a shiny, porcelain, western style toilet and a small hand sink!! The small girls love using this room. With a bobble of the head and a finger in the air, they say, “Ek minute”, as they excuse themselves to go to the toilet. Having a clean, private place to use a toilet is a luxury in the slum and I will relish the opportunity to use it!
Nothing is easy in Mumbai. The air is thick with dust, the windows in our apartment are caked with a film of dirt and the water supply is precious. Salty sweat stains our clothing and trickles down our foreheads, enough to fill a small bucket hourly. Trying to stay alive dodging busses, rickshaws, bicycles, cars and motorcycles while picking our way through traffic on foot becomes easier every day. Kane mentions that bicycles hurt less than busses. When at home in the apartment, the noise and chaos invades our open windows six stories above street level and the call to prayer from a nearby mosque wakes us early.The energy of Mumbai never ceases.
The lush marigold garlands presented to us at the airport hang on the walls of the apartment as a reminder of our happy landing. It’s great to be back.
Cindy & Todd Ryan