Returning to Mumbai

Said ‘goodbye’ to Prakash, our driver for the last week or so. He had become a friend and it was quite emotional saying good. It had been a great holiday and we had all really enjoyed our time in Kerala.

The Slum
The Slum

Back on the plane and back to Mumbai, and every time you return to such a city, the culture never fails to hit you. We flew in and I looked out of the window to see the largest slum in Mumbai, located right next to the airport.  This is the slum where Slum Dog Millionaire was filmed; the most famous of all slums in Mumbai.  From the plane, you could see it was a slum by the mass of people and the blue plastic tarpaulin sheets used for roofs and corrugated iron sheets used for walls. I had not visited this slum and after all the publicity this slum had gained, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to visit it. It was different from the slum I taught in: its lay out in particular, but it made me think about all the children I had been teaching and would continue to teach. I guess a slum is a slum and I was keen to get back to work.

It had all been a bit of a rush and I would only be in Mumbai for two days before I had to return to the UK to run my business (consulting on primary school playgrounds). Therefore my work in the slum would have to wait a few weeks more.

Returning back from UK a few weeks later, the same culture shock hit me again as I flew in. This was the place where I was living, but it was never my home. In saying that and looking at all the crowds of people and smelling all the different smells, so nice some not so nice. It was a place that never failed to surprise me, to uplift me, to excite me. I managed to leave the airport and grab a taxi. The family, after four months of living in a hotel had now, at last, moved into an apartment. I had to get a taxi to my new home.  I was excited by this, but more excited to my family again.

I had to pre-pay for a taxi, at the airport.  I gave the man at the desk my new address.  I was expecting just to get in the taxi, sit back and wait to arrive. But as I approached my selected taxi driver, I realised he was asleep in the front seat of the cab with his feet up on the dashboard. So even before I had left the airport, I had to wake the driver up and try to tell him my new destination. Only in Khush India. Soon we were on the road where the sounds of the continuous horns blasting welcomed me home. I looked out of the taxi window and saw in the streets, in the shop doorways, poverty everywhere. I was keen to get back to my slum, where I could help teach the children. I had missed them; I had missed my job.

After a month away from the slum, the time had come for me return and start teaching where I had left off. I wanted to get there early but I couldn’t really remember how long it had taken me to get there. I didn’t want to be late. After saying goodbye and dropping the boys off at their modern, hi-tech, clean international school, I caught a rickshaw (not a train) to the slum. I had totally misjudged the time and I arrived over an hour earlier than I needed to.

With time to kill before the children arrived and lessons began, I decided to take a walk down to the river that I had seen when coming every day from the station by rickshaw. Each time in the past, I looked out of the rickshaw window, shocked by the condition of this river.  With time on my hands, I thought I would explore and see this river close up.

This really is a river

I knew that seeing this river would shock me, but I wasn’t prepared for the smell. I had to breathe through my mouth to try to stop the urge of being sick and even standing there, looking at this river, was a challenge. The water was grey, almost black, but the shocking factor was the lack of water. The whole river was completely filled with human waste. Plastic was the main ingredient, and there was so much of it, it had completely stopped the flow of the murky water.

I ventured closer and risked putting my feet on the side of the river bank so I could look further down the river. I had never had seen a river like this before and I never wanted to see another like this ever again. I thought how could such a natural feature of our planet be completely destroyed by humans? The river’s job was to collect water from whatever sources it could and then release the water back to the sea. As a result of us humans and the way we had carelessly disregarded our rubbish, the river was not allowed to do its job. I stood with my feet sinking into the black mud, sucking the stale air through my mouth, and wondered if this river ever had flowed, and if it had, what had it looked like? Did this river ever flow freely without human waste and plastic? Was this river ever a natural feature, before humans had ruined it? I feel that however poor people are, there should be no excuse for such careless behaviour; it just simply should not be allowed. I eventually took myself out of the mud and walked away from the river, feeling nothing more than sheer disappointment.

I walked back along a dusty track and soon found myself back on the slum, I walked to the classroom and I was still early. The children started to turn up, and the classroom was opened by Sheeta,l the lovely cleaner lady that lived next door to the classroom. The children all greeted me and sat on the floor, waiting for Marie, the class teacher to turn up. I sat in the corner of the class, not wanting to take over and I sat, waiting for Marie to turn up, just like the children. Thirty minutes passed and still Marie had not shown up.  A message was passed to me by another teacher – Marie would be late – there was a problem on the trains.

I sat in the corner, thinking I should just start the lesson, and when Marie turned up, we could continue with the lesson, or she could start another lesson with whatever she wanted to teach. But something stopped me from doing that.  I just sat in the corner and watched with amazement at the children and their behaviour. I was overwhelmed yet again by just being here in this slum. Each child entered the classroom, said hello to me and sat on the floor. I gave them no instruction whatsoever. I just said hello back.

Most children sat down and, without a word being passed between them, they opened their bags and produced some school work and went about their work in complete silence. Some read, some wrote, some in Hindi, some in English. They knew their teacher was late, but that didn’t affect them they didn’t want to waste time and so they started to work. These children ranged from 5 to 12 years of age and I just watched with total admiration. I couldn’t helping thinking back to how children would act back in the UK, and if the teachers was even 5 minutes late to class, all sorts of behaviour from fighting to shouting would be happening and could be described as normal behaviour. Eventually, Marie turned up 45 minutes late and the lesson began.

After a whole day’s teaching and, yet again, watching and learning from these wonderful children, it was time for me to leave and jump a rickshaw to the train station and get back home. I walked out of the slum as the children shouted their goodbyes over the balconies and I waved back. As I walked through the slum, I always walked slowly looking at every step I took. There was so much rubbish and dirt that every footstep had to be accounted for. I saw some more playing cards: the queen of diamonds, and right next to it, a three and four of diamonds.  This made me smile, a queen flush, I said to myself. Soon I was on the road outside the slum, looking to hail a rickshaw, but I wasn’t ready to go home just yet. I wanted to explore. I felt so pleased to be back here after my holiday and trip back to the UK that I wanted to see more of this place that I came to work in most days, and after a while, didn’t really notice that it was so different to what I was used to. But the break away from this place had made it more special, if that what you could call it.

Instead of waiting for a rickshaw to come, I started to walk out of the slum and along the road I usually rode along. I saw a bobcat moving piles and piles of rubbish – plastic cardboard, anything you could think of – was being moved and push and cleared. I smiled at the man that was driving the bob cat, and just wondered what and where all this collected rubbish would end up. I hoped it wouldn’t be dumped into the river I had seen earlier. I walked past the bobcat and found myself on another small dusty track with houses, well, shacks really, lining both sides. These were people houses, and none were any bigger than my bathroom in my new apartment. The same blue plastic tarpaulin sheets used for roofs and corrugated iron sheets used for walls that I had seen from the plane coming into Mumbai.

I continued walking, not really sure where this road would lead me, but felt it was going in the same direction as the river. I stopped in my tracks because right in front of me, I saw another sight that was completely new to me.  Chickens, yes chickens, hundreds of them. I had seen many chickens before but not so many live ones altogether. They were all tied in bunches of 6 or more by their legs and were hung upside down, alive and dangling, waiting to be bought for food. I wanted to take a photo, but something stopped me.

I walked past the chickens and I had been correct; I was right next to the same river I had seen earlier. I didn’t want to see it again, so I took a right turn onto another dust track road. I thought I had seen enough for the day, I had to get back home and I had been told I needed to buy a few things before I returned home. As I walked along, I saw two boys, I would guess about 9 and 10 years of age. These boys were both holding birds.  One boy had a pigeon and the other boy was holding a smaller bird, but I could quite see what sort of bird it was. I followed them.  They looked back over their shoulders in surprise to see me there, but neither of them smiled. Then they turned into a shack, their home, and I guess the birds they held in their hands were their dinners.

A shack for a home

At last, I had left the track, the river and the slum. Before I returned home, I had to by some flowers for one of the teachers at Michelle school and I needed a plastic washing up bowl. I had found the bowl – a lovely green one and then the flowers. I waited on the side of the road, trying to catch a rickshaw back to my apartment, I wasn’t too surprised that no rickshaw drivers would stop. Flowers in one hand and green plastic bowl under my other arm, how could I possibly look out of place?

Finally a driver stopped, picked me up and drove me back.  As I entered my new apartment, I sighed.

Welcome back to Mumbai John.  Only the unusual is usual here in India.

2 thoughts on “Returning to Mumbai

  1. Josie

    I can exactly picture those scenes from my day at the school and will never forget actually seeing that river. I couldn’t see that it was water and would have walked into it if you hadn’t stopped me. Thankfully I didn’t see chickens hung up. The teachers, Sheeta and the children were all absolutely amazing and seriously the loveliest and kindest people you could meet.

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