India. First impressions… February 2013
Initially, certainly relief at warmth after three months in cold climates. I landed at dawn, there were flocks of birds wheeling around a blue sky, packs of auto rickshaw and taxi drivers milling around the arrivals exit, and that unmistakeable smell of Asia as soon as you leave the air-conditioned airport. Smoky, fragrant, rotten, dusty, completely and wonderfully exotic – not steamy here at the moment though. That will come with the monsoon later in the year.
Lucky me, I was met by my friend Dave – hard to miss amongst the crowds as he’s a six foot three Californian Anglo dude with a ponytail – and a driver he had rustled up through the NGO I’m going to be working with. Bit of a rush to get back to the flat so I could shower while the water was running – about twenty minutes every morning of running water, so it’s a soon learnt routine of filling tanks and buckets and showering fast – which is invigorating to say the least as it’s cold water.
The air is arid and dusty, the ground underfoot is powdery, and everything is coated with a fine layer of dust. The river comes as a surprise, wide and much cleaner looking than one would anticipate, winding through the heart of the city. I still haven’t seen a boat, or any other sign of life on it, but have plenty of time to find out about that. There’s a warm wind blowing from the east, and the morning sun pours into the balcony of Dave’s flat where we sit drinking coffee from Tesco’s and he begins my India education.
The balcony faces the river although you can’t see it; only the new high rises across the river and a glimpse of cars driving across Subhash Bridge. In between is a patch of almost scorched earth about the size of a soccer field, it’s recently been cleared of all the long grass and weeds from last season’s monsoon, and has a cluster of small trees between us and a long low white dwelling with a tipsy turvy pale terracotta and grey tiled roof, broken up by stepped chimneys at one end and a ridge line in the middle, from which it appears to hang. There are three large and mysterious holes to the right… and the only thing I have yet seen happen in them is a bonfire. Sand coloured dogs pottering around nosing at the rubbish strewn everywhere, a cow with a bead necklace chewing its cud in a desultory way. To the right of that is a dusty area shaded by larger trees with a volleyball net strung up – this afternoon there are half a dozen teenagers playing volleyball down there. Then a belt of larger trees obscuring the river. They’re called Asapoli, and are holy trees I have since found out.
The apartment block is just north of the Gandhi Ashram grounds; it used to be middle class until the middle class began moving into the new buildings that are going up around the city, but retains a fairly peaceful family atmosphere. Families here live together – Mum, Dad, kids, grandparents, there is a litter of puppies at the bottom of the steps, a long wall separating it from the open ground upon which people put a handful of grain or rice to feed the birds and chipmunks that scamper along it and up and down the trees. It’s not too noisy although there’s a background hum of traffic, horns beeping – this is Asia – but most of the sounds are domestic clanging and banging, and birds.
Lots of birds – flocks of Mynahs that sweep across the sky in a vast crescent in the evenings, black kites circling over the patch of waste ground, green parakeets, tiny sparrows. There are monkeys too although I have not encountered one here at the flat yet, they are bound to make an appearance at some stage, five foot tall languurs. Hmm. Not fond of monkeys.
A short note on the domestic clanging and banging. The day begins with washing in the courtyard, clothing being beaten severely with a wooden bat like a mini cricket bat, then strung from balconies or from the barbed wire topping the bird feeding wall… what the barbed wire, or the bat for that matter, do for the clothes I don’t know! There is also cooking going on constantly, the majority of crockery is metal hence the clanging. There are hundreds of pigeons roosting on ledges and balconies so they are constantly cooing and thrumming, and then there are normal sounds of children laughing and playing and women chattering as they do their chores… just in Gujerati.
Directly across the road from Manav Sadhna is the Ramapir No Tekra, a slum community that has been living on Government land there for about fifty years. About twenty years ago, a couple of locals began to play with some of the slum children under the shade of a tree in the Ashram grounds. This evolved into feeding them a nutritious meal, and bathing, washing, cutting their nails and so on. All inspired by Gandhiji.
Virunbhai talked this morning about how Gandhi didn’t put freedom first; he put ending poverty first, and starting by fixing the small things. One of his priorities was sanitation – most villages had only what they call a ‘dry’ toilet, where an ‘untouchable’, the lowest caste of Indian, came along and scraped away the excrement etc. by hand into a basket, popped that on his or her head, and went and dumped it. Nice job. Gandhi wanted a proper toilet and clean water in every village, and Jayeshbhai’s father went on a mission inspired by this and built something like 55,000 loo’s across the length and breadth of the country. Jayesh was one of the guys who started up in a small way under the tree in the compound, and MS has now evolved into a pretty large organization, with a very healthy budget, and many volunteers especially Gujerati Indians from the States who come to do what they call ‘seva’ – service.
Walking into the Tekra on my first day. Flimsy shacks built of bamboo and plastic, yet tiled inside. Higgledy-piggledy brick one room huts, the roof held down by a couple of dozen large terracotta pots. Dusty laneways with a thin damp dark dividing line running down the centre… it’s the dry season at the moment so the smells are restrained. A literal hole in the wall corner shop – the hut is no bigger than any other, with a gap knocked in one wall, selling paan and sweets. Goats, cats, dogs, small children everywhere, and the children are for the most part beautiful, with cheerful smiles and huge dark eyes, some outlined with kohl. There’s a group of small boys playing marbles in the dust with complete concentration, a small girl in sequined rags scampering up to shake my hand, a naked toddler straining away to poo in the dust. Women squat in their doorways, preparing food or cooking on small charcoal stoves, or sit cross legged on charpoys under the thin shade of a sheet of something strung between two tree’s. Without exception, we are greeted with smiles and Namaste’s, children, especially the boys, run up to shake hands and ask your name if they have enough English. The girls are a little shyer, and giggle and smile.
Out of the first section and across a meadow for want of a better word, because it’s not a meadow of green grass and flowers, but another dust bowl, with litter blowing, cattle wandering around, and an evilly gurgling black stream across the middle. This area belongs to a local dairy farmer and he grows corn there in the wet season – MS have tried to get him to allow them to create a football pitch there but he won’t have it. Looks to me as though the evil black stream would flood the area anyway during the wet. Back into more narrow winding lanes, some of them paved now but you are conscious of every step as it’s uneven and there is debris scattered along with sleeping goats and skinny cats. But now there are toilets built on most corners, and a potters work yard, stacked with terracotta water jars, and rounding a corner we reach an Anganwadi that was started by MS.
An Anganwadi is a pre-school. They are operated and staffed by MS, and mean that the poorest of the poor no longer have to cart their kids round with them while they go rag-picking or labouring, and the children get a meal, clean water, and early education activities – although please don’t make the mistake of thinking this is anything like an Australian pre-school, the children are happy and smiling and delighted to see visitors, as is the young teacher and her elderly helpers.
For the babies, MS has started a crèche system where the old ladies look after the babies of the poor. A winner both ways – the elderly ladies have a purpose, the babies are cared for, again allowing the parents to go to work without dragging them along in the dust. A lovely touch – the ceiling in there is painted with colourful patterns and designs, inset with bits of mirrors that sparkle.
And the heart of the community as we round another bend is a community centre with shady trees in a paved circular area surrounded by new buildings, classrooms, computer labs, a music centre… all built by MS, and somewhere the community obviously take great pride in.
There’s a lot to be said for going somewhere like this with someone who knows the area. Over my first weekend, Dave took me to the Sunday markets, the oldest running market here, on the banks of the river. A bit like Eumundi on the Saturday before Christmas but on steroids and in India… chaos, and you could buy pretty much anything from a live goat to a padlock in the form of a fish, acres of second hand clothing, kitchenware from shiny new steel to recycled paint can charcoal burners, charpoys and carts. Wonderful and chaotic! A charpoy by the way is a very basic bed, or day bed, four wooden posts, side planks, and strung with sturdy string on the basic model… although there’s an upmarket version made of lightweight tubular metal and webbing straps available also. Throngs of people out for the day, Sunday is the day off for most.
Lunch afterwards at the MG Hotel, echoes of the Raj under a wide shady courtyard, and a few Western tourists! Not many here, it’s not a tourist hotspot at all. Perfect!