August 10, 2011. It was one of those hot, shirt-sticking-to-your-body, sun-pounding-against-your-neck type days in Mumbai. Along with my fellow teacher Noella, I had been slowly descending a steep, twisting hill, dodging oncoming traffic (rampant cars and lethargic cows) while cautiously stepping around the knee deep potholes.
For weeks we’d been trying to make a trip to the impoverished neighborhood where many of our students lived, yet each week a new complication arose. First it was an awful case of food poisoning, which caused shooting pains in my stomach and numerous trips to the toilet. Next, there were torrential rains, flooding the streets of Mumbai and bringing the city to a standstill. Not even the bold taxiwallahs dared to venture out and challenge this year’s monsoon. Lastly, an unexpected union strike caused thousands of factory workers to protest, plugging the streets, making travel impossible.
It wasn’t until the final day of my three week tenure of teaching at The Abhyudaya Nagar Municipal School that I was able to pay a visit to my second standard students in their own community.
Three years ago, I would never have come. Three years ago I didn’t like India. I didn’t like the putrid smell. I didn’t like the sheer amount of people. I didn’t like the vacillating climate: one moment you were drenched by cool rains; then they stopped suddenly, leaving you to suffer in the pounding sun with large dark circles slowly forming from your armpits. Worst of all, I didn’t like India because it was boring. I spent days watching poorly dubbed Hinglish cartoons, quietly yearning for the company of my friends back home while cursing my parents for taking me on these trips. We would travel for hours, six people squished into a four-seat car with a suspension that seemed to amplify every tiny pebble the Indian roads had to offer, only to meet another previously unknown uncle or aunt. This time, though, my repugnance had begun to transform. I arrived in Mumbai this summer with an insatiable curiosity about the country, thanks to an Australian convict-turned-author named Gregory David Roberts.
Roberts lived in India during the early 80s and ended up becoming the de facto doctor in an Indian slum as a result of his knowledge of basic first aid. I’d read other novels, but I wasn’t reading Shantaram; I was watching him scrunched into a hundred square foot shack operating on a wounded child with tools he’d obtained by trading with the local leper community; I was inhaling the garbage stench that rose from the landfill upon which the slum was built; I was tasting the local delicacies, sugary ladoos and savory dosas, that were offered as thanks for medical care. He altered my perception of India by proving to me that the country had more to offer than meeting family or watching Bollywood movies. There was an entire culture, from the food, to the people, to the festivities, that I had yet to delve into and experience.
It was never my parents, my inability to speak Hindi fluently, or my age that prevented me from experiencing Shantaram’s India at an earlier age. Sure my parents were slightly overprotective, but any parent would be if their child was 8,000 miles from home and living in a third world country where drivers don’t drive, but rather aim their vehicles into oncoming traffic with no intention of stopping. Even with growing up in New York, I still feared crossing the street in India. No, what held me back was my level of appreciation for the country. I chose to stay at home to watch Indian Idol; I chose to allow myself to be pampered by our servants; and I ultimately chose to neglect my surroundings in belief that it would expedite our trips. Yet now, I deeply wanted to go the slums and experience what Shantaram had described as a cultural oasis.
As we approached the intersection of the hill and the highway, we took a sharp left, and stood at the opening of a narrow corridor nudged between two buildings. Immediately, the pressure in my legs dissipated and a surge of excitement trembled throughout my body. We had arrived.
I stopped for a second, registering the moment that I was finally physically entering the slums of Shantaram, a world that I had once thought to be depressing and disgusting, a world I would’ve never fathomed experiencing. Then Noella and I entered single file through the narrow crevasse of a corridor.
To my surprise, we emerged from the narrow corridor, and the street opened up like a funnel, widening on both sides. In front of us were hundreds of bodies and faces, hidden only a second ago behind short rusty buildings. The smells of pav bhaji, masala, and sweat mixed together into that classical Indian scent. Seeing the pav sizzle on the pan while the expert pavwallah meticulously tended to his creation caused me to instinctively salivate. To my left lay a lazy goat, casually basking and minding his own business. Naked children pranced up and down the alley searching garbage piles for malleable scraps of metal to turn into a profit or possession. Subziwallahs called out, “Meri Subzi, Taazi Subzi ,” while other angry shopkeepers responded by shouting “Nahi, Yahan Aao.” Their chants bounced off the walls of the surrounding buildings, battling for recognition, vying to make ends meet.
Here, word still traveled by mouth rather than wires; kids still played in the streets with garbage for balls and sticks for makeshift cricket bats; they played rather than staring at moving images on television screen; clothes were washed in open-air concrete pens by Dhobis rather than electronic washing machines. The sound of the slapping of clothes against flogging stone resonated within me, reminding me of Shantaram’s description of Dhobi Ghat, the largest open air, manual labor laundromat in Mumbai.
Noella and I had come to the community to visit Shahid, a notorious troublemaker in our class, and his parents to discuss some of his issues. We believed that the root of his trouble stemmed from home, yet we had absolutely no idea where he lived. Before we could panic, our students Gulaksha, Jay, and Saida appeared from the narrow crevasses of the alleyways, each running towards us gleefully. News had already circulated through the community that two foreigners had entered, and the children were keen on investigating. The moment they saw that the foreigners were actually their teachers, they burst into ear to ear smiles. The children became our GPS devices, pulling us along while easily maneuvering the labyrinth of alleyways and corridors of the slums. Throughout our walk, we were enclosed under what seemed like a roof, as if the slum was one giant building filled with many small apartments. Meager strands of light slipped through the ceilings’ cracks, dimly illuminating the baffling path, which was straight one second and then transformed into steep sets of stairs the next.
When we arrived at Shahid’s house, we were met by his mother, who was dressed in a lily-pad green saree and was tending to the boiling saabsi atop a portable propane stove. Shahid’s mother was at most in her early 30s, and she already had five children. Noella took a moment to speak with her about Shahid’s recent antics, which included: whipping kids with the required dress code belt in order to get what he wanted; stealing others kids works in order to show off to the teacher; speaking when the teacher was teaching; and worst of all, blatantly farting during class, causing everyone to pinch their nostrils shut in order to keep the wafting cloud of putrid gas out of their nose, and initiating a chorus of “chi, chi chis.”
As I stepped through the entrance, I entered into a space that was no bigger than my bathroom. I was standing in what was approximately a 50 square foot box of living space, where two adults and five kids shared the floor every night. The walls were a frayed green and the flooring was made of hard, patterned diamond shaped linoleum tiles. On the surface, though small, the room seemed tranquil.
Days before, I had questioned Noella about why Shahid acted in such a brash and vicious manner, she revealed to me that Shahid was being beaten at home. Corporal punishment is a common tactic used by Indian parents to command respect and maintain authority, yet what Noella described to me sounded like torture. When Shahid acted up, which was often–being the second oldest out of five siblings meant he did not get enough attention–his dad would punish him. Using a large piece of whitish grey cloth, Shahid’s dad would tightly wrap the cloth around Shahid’s legs and then proceeded to attach the cloth onto a narrow and rusty pipe that hung right beneath the ceiling, suspending Shahid’s three and a half foot frame upside down. His dad would take his belt off, wind up, and then unleash whip after whip onto Shahid’s back until he felt that Shahid had learned his lesson. The evidence of the beatings existed in the snakelike scares streaked across the eight year old’s back, and also in his behavior at school.
Emerging through the door, seeing the large piece of whitish-grey cloth dangling from a pipe jolted me. Shantaram, while clear in his descriptions, never prepared me for this. Shahid’s crime–wanting more love and attention–was repeatedly met with the dreadful crack of the belt against his back. My idea of India, shifted once by Shantaram, was again shifted, this time by the adversities of an eight year old boy.
Whenever I think about the moments in the slums, a distinctly cold shiver slivers down my spine, my body automatically reminding me of Shahid’s pain and suffering. Yet as we exited the slums, Shahid’s mother approached me. No taller than 5 feet, she lifted her head to peer up at me, looking directly into my eyes with her sunken brown eyes. In that momentary glance, our eyes locked. I could feel the pain and anguish that time had slowly inflicted upon her. Yet she stood there, quietly offering a hot cup of chai as gratitude for being her son’s guru. I felt like Shantaram. I saw that over time, just like Shantaram, I was slowly adapting into my own culture. Shahid’s beatings, a stark reality of the dark side of Indian culture, allowed me to see India in a way Shantaram never could explain, a way that was ultimately uniquely mine.
Age 17, Grade 12