Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Expressions of loss

Art truly imitates life with it being the only medium through which life can be expressed.  Art gives us, mere mortals, the power to create. It could be a painting on a sheet that was previously lying blank. The colours and imagination of the painter bring that paper to life, infusing it with an energy of sorts and in the process giving that hitherto blank sheet an identity. Isn't that what we are all searching for? An identity, an idea that defines us. We try to create these identities at multiple levels- in our work and in various relationships. Ultimately we struggle to unite these different identities under a single band and make sense of ‘us’.

Art gives us the ability to bequeath an identity on a lifeless object. No wonder artists are confused souls, grappling with bliss and anguish all at once. In the course of creating and defining, they tend to tread a meandering road. The art and artist often merge taking on fragments of each other.

Poets for example are adept at creating music by stringing together a series of ordinary words and connecting them with an idea, a story at times or just a call to society. In the process they render these words powerful and intangible. They leave an abstract notion of themselves out there and allow the world to interpret their thoughts. This is bound to affect their psyche as a constant barrage of inputs is thrown at them. A reader’s appreciation often comes with value judgment and minute dissection of what the poet has tried to convey in his piece. It is naive to imagine that such critique would escape the man in question. The concept of self is slowly eroded by a collage of comments and enduring remarks, rendering the poet unable to sift through the extraneous and retain elements of his being.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bhajiwadi: A Mumbai Slum

Mumbai, the city of dreams, the glitz and glamour of which is enough to entice thousands of young men and women to leave behind their homes and their families and venture into this Maximum city to carve out their future. The financial capital of the world’s fourth largest economy, Mumbai is the favoured destination for most Indians wanting to make it big in life. And yes, dreams do come true for some people. However, for millions of others, Mumbai is just another city where they struggle desperately to make ends meet. Since Mumbai also holds to its credit being home to Asia’s largest slum, I decided to visit one of the lesser known slums in the city.
The slum that I visited is called Bhajiwadi and is located in Shastri Nagar, Mumbai. Amazingly, it runs parallel to the Chattrapati Shivaji International Airport and the two even share a common wall. The irony couldn’t be more painful. While the government continues to invest crores of rupees into ‘upgrading’ the airport, a symbol of India’s ‘growth and progress’, it shamefully turns a blind eye to thousands of people living in absolute squalor five minutes from there. The visit was a real jolt in the head for me, as it allowed me to visualize the cruelty of this juxtaposition, which has come to define India as we know it today.
One of the first things that struck me as I made my way through the narrow lanes that led to the entrance of the slum was the sheer compactness of the place. There were too many people and too little space. Even though lack of space is most often associated with slums, the perspective is of a whole another level when one actually visits such a place. Also, the pungent odour of stale urine filled my nostrils; the smell overpowered my senses and left me a little lightheaded. I remember thinking to myself that this slum was exactly like I had pictured it, except that it was worse. However, I was about to learn a lot in the next few hours that would challenge the way I thought about poverty and the people associated with it.
Bhajiwadi is about the size of your typical first class lounge at an airport and is home to almost 1200 people. The demography is an interesting reflection of the city itself, with an amazingly diverse population even in such small numbers. While the majority of the residents of the slum are Marathi Hindus, there is a sizable population of Muslims as well as a small percentage of Dalit Christians. The slum also houses about 30-40 migrant families from Orissa and Bihar. There seemed to be a healthy rapport between people from these different communities, although people did report of some misunderstandings that led to occasional spurts of violence.

Residents of Bhajiwadi reported that they had to make an annual deposit of anywhere between 15,000 and 18000 rupees, depending on the size of the room they wanted to lease out. In addition, most of them paid an average monthly rental of 1800 rupees. Most of the ‘houses’ in Bhajiwadi had been bought by various private Builders Associations, which were completely unregulated and were making a hefty profit by charging these people completely unreasonable prices for the most basic of places. While people generally agreed that the electricity supply was pretty consistent and the conditions had improved tremendously in the past few years, the electricity charges they quoted seemed unbelievable. For a one room house, with the most basic equipments such as a fan and maybe a television, these people pay almost 1000 rupees every month for electricity. The most obvious problem is the lack of a meter system in Bhajiwadi which gives the electricity department an opportunity to prepare such exaggerated bills and fill their own pockets.
Water charges amount to another 700 rupees even as the kind of water supplied to Bhajiwadi leaves a lot to be desired. Most of the families that I spoke to had an average monthly income of somewhere between 3000 and 5000 rupees. They also admitted that food and other basic expenditures amount to almost 5000 rupees per month. I was flabbergasted at the maths and was unable to fathom how then, these families were able to afford all the aforementioned expenditures with such limited income. People explained that they sustained these expenditures by continuously selling off whatever little assets they could accumulate over time, leaving them unable to claim anything in their name in the long run.

Lack of proper health care facilities was another area residents of Bhajiwadi complained about. Due to the complete disintegration of public health infrastructure in big cities like Mumbai, these people who live on such minimal incomes are forced to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. They can either wait endlessly for their turns to come up in a government hospital and even die in the meanwhile, or go to corporate run private institutions and end up more destitute than when they started. Take Shantaram Nukumbe for instance, a 45 year old man who has been living in Bhajiwadi for almost 30 years. Shantaram used to work as a security guard in the Pheonix Mill Mall till two years ago. He then started falling very sick and was diagnosed with Pulmonary Tuberculosis. Shantaram is too poor to afford private treatment and has been waiting for his turn at the Sivdi Hospital, a government establishment, to get his X-rays done and get his treatment started. He has been forced to quit his job and do little more than stay at home and wait for his condition to deteriorate. His wife, Bharti works as a domestic help in three houses is Ville Parle to make ends meet. The couple was forced to withdraw their youngest son Deepal from the Municipality school so that he could work at a tyre store and bring some extra money home. There was an odd mix of dignity and resignation in the voices of Shantaram and Bharti while they narrated their ordeal. While Shantaram’s story might not be unique in a country that deems it fit to leave its citizens out in the cold, it is a poignant tale of the many trials the residents of Bhajiwadi have to face.
The biggest issue that got 90% of the residents up in arms was the condition of sanitation in the area that these people lived in. Even though the toilets seemed fine the day I visited, a lot of residents told me that the toilets would fill up and start overflowing almost twice a month due to poor drainage facilities. They described how the BMC (Bombay Municipal Corporation) would take days to respond to their complaints about the toilets and when they would eventually get around to sending their workers, they would resort to extortion. The residents would be forced to choke up 20-40 rupees per family to get the BMC workers to fix the toilets, and that was only a temporary fix till the toilets overflowed again.
According to Mohd. Anis, the de facto leader of the slum, the BMC garbage trucks would often pass by their area without collecting the waste. This led to accumulation of garbage over days, which then became a ripe breeding ground for all sorts of diseases. People reported a high incidence of malaria in Bhajiwadi; three children had even died last monsoon from it. Residents said that workers from BMC would come once in three months and collect blood samples to conduct tests for malaria, but little was done to prevent the disease from spreading in the colony. Besides lack of garbage disposal, lack of clean water was another issue that raised quite a lot of concern, especially amongst the women. Deepali, a housewife, has studied till Class 10 in the Municipality school and is doing her Nursery Teachers Training course currently. She described the drinking water they got as having a yellowish tinge and a sour odour to it. Even though Deepali said that she made it a point to boil the water before drinking it, she admitted that most of the families in Bhajiwadi were not following such practices.
The topics that I have touched upon are like a mere drop in the ocean. There are a host of other issues that are as pertinent and important while reporting on a slum such as the education system, occupational patterns, gender relations and a whole lot more. However, due to space constraints I decided to write about the basic issues that struck me as most problematic. I realize that with limited perspective and little background knowledge, I may not have been able to do justice to the enormity of the situation that residents of Bhajiwadi find themselves in. However, the visit was of great learning value for me and I have come to appreciate the dignity and pride these people live with. Even as they continue to be deprived of their basic human rights, the residents of Bhajiwadi, as do millions of other Indians, continue to strive hard to better their future and give their next generation something bigger. 

Generation of cynics?

Anna Hazare and the Lokpal movement- everyone seems to have an opinion on the subject, however ill informed and shallow it might be. A lot of young guns have deemed it trendy to deride the man as a crazy-loon, hell bent on usurping the sobriquet of Gandhi. Tired of the 24*7 media coverage and endless debates on Hazare, many of us have spaced out and moved on to ‘hotter’ news. We are an apolitical generation, with a deep-rooted sense of cynicism embedded in our very core. The idea of a social revolution is antipathy to us, something of a joke that the naive and idealistic take solace in. For the street smart, 20-something, know-it-all of today change is a textbook concept that is impractical when applied to society.

At the very onset, I want to confess that I don’t have a clear position on Hazare and the storm he has kicked up. Undoubtedly, the issue he has decided to champion is extremely relevant to the nation state and immediate course correction is need of the hour. But many argue that his methods amount to blackmail and these regular fasts unto death will have a domino effect on copy cat organizations with less noble causes across the country. This is a genuine worry that can not be completely ignored. Should we allow such ambiguity on the means to overshadow a vital end and if not, then are we willing to accept hooliganism from certain quarters as collateral damage. These are questions that pose an ideological challenge to intellectuals from different spheres.

My point of contention is not that such ambiguity exists and we are confused. Rather, I am a tad bit disgusted with certain smugness that I see in a lot of my friends who are quick to dismiss the whole movement as a mere publicity gimmick. Have we forgotten that there is strength in numbers. A lone man is able to attract such huge crowds for a sustained period of time, and he is dismissed as a freak. There is something amiss in the maths there. I would have loved for these skeptics to engage in a systematic debate, arguing on the merits and de-merits of Anna’s strategy. It would have been a fruitful exercise, where a corruption free society was the final destination and the citizenry could discuss what the best path to get there is. Unfortunately, many of us dismiss the final destination itself, terming it a utopian construct that can not be realized.