Another day teaching on the compound. Today I arrive early, so take the chance of walking around the whole area, and discover places within the compound that I have not yet visited. I am amazed by the amount of litter and filth.
I never ever wanted to show how poor and dirty people live, that was never my intention. Putting on a hat of superiority, saying ‘look at that”. How lucky are we? How can people live this way? etc. However somehow I felt a strong desire to take photos of my surroundings, knowing that I would never ever see anything like this again. I took a walk down a dirt track that left the slum, and was a short cut to the railway track. One teenager stopped me and asked if I needed any help or I was lost. I told him I was ok and just carried on following the track. There were houses, or shacks, all along the path, people homes, some had made an effort. One house had cleared an area outside its front, where children were happily playing in their front garden. But most shacks hadn’t taken the same care.
I came to the end of track from where I could see a bridge, where the railway crossed a river. However hard I looked, I obviously could see the bridge but I couldn’t see the river. Then as I looked to my right I could see the river, well I could see the river’s bank, but I couldn’t see the river. The reason was simple: there was no water, the river was stationary, and the water couldn’t be seen because it had been replaced by human waste, mostly plastic, but everything related to human consumption was present. The river was so full of waste, it could no longer move. It was the worst thing I have seen since arriving here in India; it made me cry.
I pulled myself together, turned around and headed back to the slum. I was still early and continued to take more photos. I was approached by a middle age guy, who asked what I was doing. When I said I work for VSO, he smiled and shook my hand. I then decided I should not take any more photos.
When I arrived at class, Marie was late, the trains coming from a long way away are unpredictable and she can often being running late. One of the boys in the class had arrived and was keen to practise his English.
‘Good Morning Sir, how are you?’
‘Good Morning Norman’ I reply.
Norman which is pronounced Noor Man is an intelligent child. Later I find out his dad has a lot of influence within the slum community. He is wearing a T shirt saying ‘Fries before guys’. It makes me smile. He has no idea what it really means, and the fact he is a bit on the chubby side, just adds to the irony.
I enter the classroom, and I am always blown away by the smell. It’s stale, and I can guess what it is. I have looked at the few books the classroom owns and every time, there are pages missing and torn. Further inspection shows that the pages have been eaten by something. Then further evidence is seen by large deposits of poo. The classroom is obviously inhabited by rats, and by the size of the teeth marks and the dropping, shows these creatures are not small.
The cleaner enters the classroom; she lives in the unit next door. Neva is her name, a lovely lady that surprisingly speaks great English. We have since become good friends and she will make tea and cook me rice. Every morning before class starts, she comes into the classroom and sweeps away all the rat droppings, then places a series of mats on the floor, for the children to sit on. I later find out she gets paid 300 Rupees a month for this job, just short of 4 pounds a month. She also gets an extra 1 pound 20 pence to supply water in a bucket, as the classroom has no running water for the toilet.
I talk about the rat problem with her; ‘chooha’ is Hindi for rat. She says they live in the corner of the classroom. In this corner, there are all sorts of things stored that are not part of the school, but are storage for the community. The school rents the room from the community, so in the corner of the classroom there is everything you could imagine being used in an Indian community. Things such as banners, masks, raffle boxes, tables, everything used in the many festivals that take place every year.
The children start to arrive and Marie still has not shown up, maybe I will be taking the lesson with the cleaner as my translator.
Neva is still talking about the rats. The children are now sitting on the floor. I am thinking I can’t believe the rats live in the classroom, why have they not been poisoned.
‘Sir, do you want to see the rats?’ Neva walks over to the corner of the room, and is just about ready to move the community stuff, so I can see them in their homes.
‘Are they big?’ I ask
‘Yes sir.’ She holds her hands apart indicating they are almost a foot long.
‘Come”, she says and walks me to the corner of the classroom.
I say ‘no, please, I can imagine what they look like’. Later I tell Marie that Neva wanted to show me the rats in the classroom, I say I can’t believe she was going to show me while the children were sitting there. Marie looks surprised,
‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘The children sitting there waiting to learn and if the rats are disturbed, they’ll run all around the classroom’.
‘John, do you think these children haven’t seen a few rats before?’
I just look at her and smile; once again, I am the one out of touch.
Marie says the rats are getting worse and are eating the books. I told her I could see that.
‘Can’t you just poison them?’ I ask again.
‘No, the school would never do that’
She then explains the problem is that the rats are coming in through the window next to the toilet. She explains that today a man is coming to seal the window. They have been waiting over 7 months for the window to be sealed.
So during the day’s teaching, a man comes and seals the window, while the lessons continue. Marie seems happy at last. The school day is finished and Neva comes into the classroom, they both look at the window and smile. At last the rats won’t be able to get into the classroom.
‘Does that not make the problem worse?’ I ask.
‘Why, no more rats,’ they both say at once.
‘But what about the rats that live here already, if they can’t get out of the classroom to eat and poo. Does that not mean they will have to eat more school books to survive and in doing so poo even more than they are already doing?’
There is a silence and we look at each other. Who is right or wrong, it doesn’t matter. The rats live on.