I have been a bit discombobulated of late because I’m reading Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and there’s no getting away from it - life really is that bad for many people in Mumbai’s slums. It’s like we’re living in a parallel universe. We live in the same city and share the same roads but we inhabit entirely different worlds. This morning I saw a man grab a dog by the throat and punch it in the face as bare-bottomed kids looked on. It was a desperate scene. Maybe the dog had eaten a bit of food he was saving? I was just on my way home from yoga, thinking about popping over to the Thai spa for a foot massage and now this? (‘This’ is always there but most of the time I’m not looking, I can’t look)
When I got home, the new lift boy jumped to attention as I entered the lift. He had been sitting on the lift stool with his head in his hands staring at the blank metallic wall. He’s a lanky lad of about 15 and the trousers of his uniform were flapping above his ankles. I guess they used to belong to the old lift guy who left. I thought about my own grumpy 15-year-old who’d had a go at me the day before for paying for a rugby skills camp in Normandy organised by the school, because it fell in the summer holidays and it would eat into his precious Xbox time. I bet that lift kid wouldn’t mind if somebody paid for him to go on a rugby skills camp in Normandy but let’s face it, that’s not going to happen.
I’m not saying anything new here, I’ve written about these contrasts loads of times but reading this book has opened my eyes to the absolute desperation of it all. We hear and read about all these ‘initiatives’ and ‘co-operatives’ aimed at improving the lives of the slum-dwellers but it seems there is always someone in authority, some corporator or other creaming off a bit for themselves, exploiting the poor and telling benefactors one thing and doing another. It’s bloody hopeless really. Corruption is integral to India in every which way - there's always someone who needs their palm greasing.
To be honest, I switch off from it most of the time because that’s the only way I can deal with it. How else do I reconcile the fact that my (white??)teenybopper daughter gets paid Rs 4,000 for an hour’s work modelling pajamas when a grown woman working on a construction site in the blistering sun is paid Rs 200 (less than $4) for a whole day’s work. If she’s working a 10 hour day, she’s earning 200 times less than a child who doesn’t even need the money. I did suggest she might like to donate it to an NGO but she’s saving for some shoes from Top Shop and who can blame her, she’s 13.
And while I’m on about such discrepancies, I might just add that the last time I went to Byculla Zoo, it cost me five rupees to get in (and I saw a bear fight! - it’s a tragic place though, I thoroughly don’t recommend it) compared to a tin of tomatoes I bought on the way home for Rs 125. That’s 25 times more! I could have got 25 people into the zoo for the same price as a tin of toms! If I took 25 people to the zoo in London today it would cost me GBP 625.00, that’s Rs 52, 331 as opposed to Rs 125. If my maths is right, I could get 10,466 people in to Byculla Zoo for the same price as I could get 25 people into London Zoo. But after all those crazy stats, I guess a woman earning Rs 200 a day might pay five rupees to visit the zoo on her day off but would certainly NOT buy a tin of imported tomatoes for more than 60 per cent of her daily wage. ENOUGH!
I think foreigners are more shocked than Indians by living conditions in the slums because it’s something totally alien to us. Unless you were brought up in the favelas of Brazil, you won’t have seen anything like it. I guess that’s why we feel we need to respond in some way. Many Indian folk have grown up looking at slums all their lives and in many instances are quite disdainful. When the shoeless beggars come a-tapping at the car window, our driver Samir will complain that they should be out trying to find a proper job. I’d have thought job opportunities were pretty thin on the ground if you’d never been to school and you only owned one pair of raggedy trousers but Samir , who grew up in a slum himself after his father died, is not so sympathetic. To look at him now you’d think he was some high flying exec in his neatly pressed shirt and trousers. His mother worked hard to ensure that he and his brothers went to school and were well turned out. He pumps iron five nights a week and owns his own modest home. He’s a big softie though and gives sweets and money to the street kids, telling them they should go to school and stay off the lighter-fuel.
I wonder what goes on in the heads of Mumbai’s super-rich when they look at the slums from the tinted windows of their Bentleys. I expect they look away like I do, hoping the hand cart puller standing there in the rain won’t scratch the paintwork when the lights change. There but for the grace of God...
One of my kids told me that a super wealthy classmate (the sort who has Russian bodyguards waiting in the playground) once asked for a maid to be sacked because she didn’t like lizards and the maid’s name was Liz which made her think of them. Seems to me the parents should spend less on bodyguards and more on lessons in compassion (I am sure, for the right price, you could find such lessons in Mumbai!)
Once I witnessed a well-heeled Indian lady nearly choke to death on her cupcake because I mentioned in passing at a coffee morning that our maid Lucy used the house loo and not the communal ‘servant’ loo on the stairs. I thought I was going to have to perform the Heimlich maneuver on her, she was that shocked. It’s certainly a topsy turvy world. I expect some people look at my life and have a view on it. The same billionaire kid is apparently fascinated with Polly’s lunchbox everyday. Most days I do not have the patience to spread rock hard Amul butter onto paper-thin Wibs bread so I end up desperately rifling through the cupboards.
“Mum, can you make me butter chicken today?”
“No love, but I can do you Marmite on crackers or why don’t you take a tin of soup. It’s a ring-pull?!”
That billionaire kid must say to her mother, “ooh, that poor firingi girl brought in last night’s Chinese takeaway for her lunch today” (don’t judge me!)
Nobody knows what really goes on in other people’s lives but we all have opinions nonetheless.
As I leave Mumbai on June 1st (I'm coming back in Jan) and drive to the International Airport, instead of worrying about the weight of my suitcase and whether they'll be time for a quick V and T before I get on the plane, I am going to look out for the fence erected to hide the slums of Annawadi from airport users like me. I wonder if the sunshine yellow ads for Italian floor tiles are still there, as it says in the book. The ads that read FOREVER BEAUTIFUL, FOREVER BEAUTIFUL, FOREVER BEAUTIFUL. The people who live behind the forever beautiful fence won't know or care that I lived here for four years or that now I am leaving but I will be thinking about them, perhaps forever.