Glimpses of Govandi

Shivaji Nagar is not a place one navigates by map. Instead, it is memorized and consciously revised each time one enters it. It is a place that shiftss quickly as I can walk its narrow gullies: a house rising on the left, a shop crumbling on the right; there, a cow planted firmly in a muddy heap of garbage; here, a beautiful array of vegetables laid out on a sturdy cart. I walk with my eyes down not because I feel shy, but because the ground beneath me is constantly changing. I chart my course based on how many children have defecated on the sidewalk this morning, how many tents have been erected for weddings or religious celebrations, how many goats are lying in the sun, how many boys are playing cricket, how many men are sipping chai, how many women are washing laundry, how many day laborers are digging ditches for gas lines and snaking water pipes.

The part I play in this microcosm of the city is still something I am trying to determine; what I am certain of is that I am immensely grateful to play any role at all. I am indebted to Apnalaya and the incredible community they foster for drawing me into a world that is steeped in the intensity of everyday life. It is made only more vibrant, more painful, more confusing, more bold because there are so many lives that are lived here. It is dense in bodies, in smell, in dust, in sweat, in energy, in despondency, in aspirations, in collaboration, in kinship.

In Shivaji Nagar I am often lost but more often found. Staff, students, and strangers on the street spin me like a broken compass, pointing towards the hazy cloud of the dumping ground, the flies buzzing around the butcher shop, or the manic honking of the Sion-Panvel Expressway. I hold hands with Masi, a member of Apnalaya’s Citizenship Team, as she guides me through small neighborhoods, pointing out things I should photograph. She is a charming, amateur art director with a stern face that belies the sweet heart and mischievous smile she eventually chose to share with me after I performed a ridiculous impression of the cawing of the crows that wake me up in the morning. In exchange for momentarily sacrificing my dignity, she rewarded me with peals of laughter.

Masi and the rest of the staff’s ability to easily navigate the maze of Shivaji Nagar is integral to Apnalaya’s work, as it is the foundation from and upon which the teams construct the rest of their knowledge: where each house sits, how many people there are per household, where the family came from, whether or not they’ll stay here, where their children go to school, and so on into infinity. The amount of information each field officer juggles is mind boggling; and as impossible as it was for me to imagine a map of the area ever being completed, Apnalaya has been working diligently on their own accord, drawing up beautiful maps with precise house listings and clear grids. They use digital scales to accurately track the weight and nutrition status of hundreds of children, and they keep detailed, hand-written records of the medical examinations of expecting mothers.

Rather than being pulled under by the sea of information that is Govandi, Apnalaya dives in head first, sorting and gathering and culling from the overwhelming mass, not unlike the ragpickers whom they work with. Each day I am amazed by the skill with which the teams proceed, and I do my best to closely observe their methods. One of my own methods for making sense of this space is capturing images and studying them at a later time. Returning to a fleeting glimpse, I let myself move around in the photograph, examining the face in the upper right corner, the shop in the foreground, the abatoir in the background. Govandi is not a place where many have the luxury of moving so freely through space, and so it is with great appreciation that I seize the opportunity.

For your own visual inquiries, I have compiled 28 of the photos I’ve shot in Govandi (all on 35mm film). There is much more to show of Apnalaya’s centers and their work with the community, but I’ve decided to present some more context before I move in that direction. Above is a slideshow for easy viewing, and below are the same images with some additional captions.


Govandi train station.





Rafique Nagar. The Deonar dumping ground is visible in the background, and a portion of the wall enclosing the dumping ground can be seen in the middle of the frame.


Children in Rafique Nagar, on their way home from school.


A hand-cranked ferris wheel parked near Apnalaya’s Lotus Colony center. These man-powered amusement park miniatures are popular during festivals all over the city.


Members of the education team meet in Apnalaya’s Lotus Colony center.


Children complete a puzzle in Apnalaya’s Lotus Colony classroom for students with physical and mental disabilities.


Outside the classroom for children with disabilities.


Members of the Women’s Empowerment team leave Buddha Nagar after holding a SHG (self-help group) meeting with women from the community.


The construction site and eventual home for the water treatment facility that will be run by a women’s SHG that Apnalaya initiated, but which now is gaining its footing as an independent organization.



View of Adarsha Nagar, a neighboring community that does not fall under the purview of Apnalaya’s programs.


A building being constructed in Shanti Nagar, near Apnalaya’s Women’s Empowerment office, a CLC (Community Learning Center), and crèche for the babies.


Again, a view of Adarsha Nagar


Buying after-school snacks from the chaat wallah.




Decorations for Eid-e-Milad-un-Nab.





A jaloos—a religious mourning procession—moves through Lotus Colony.


Apnalaya is currently working on a pilot project with bhaji walas to encourage both the increased sale and consumption of more nutritious foods. Malnutrition, especially amongst children, is a severe issue in many areas of the community.





Ilana is a second-year Fellow with a passion for multimedia storytelling, a love of Indian literature, a longstanding interest in public health awareness, and a dedication to promoting the rights of women and girls. As an undergraduate, Ilana produced UPenn's 2010 production of The Vagina Monologues and co-founded The Penn Monologues, an annual show written and performed by students, staff, and faculty. Ilana's interest in public health is informed by her experience as a UPenn-Botswana Partnership Early Education Intern in Gaborone, Botswana, where she worked with children affected by HIV/AIDS. Additionally, her passion for education is rooted in her work as a 2010-2011 Fellow with The Modern Story in Hyderabad India, where she taught digital storytelling to 8th and 9th grade students in government schools. Prior to joining AIF, Ilana worked in Switzerland as a writer and editor for Urban-Think Tank and the Chair of Architecture and Urban Design at ETH ZÌ_rich.

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5 thoughts on “Glimpses of Govandi

  1. Well, only about half of these will load (silly internet) but the ones I can see are lovely! Good work as always.

  2. Ilana
    Your pictures and accompanying text are terrific. Thanks for sharing. I am always amazed how the schoolchildren and others come out of these surroundings in crisp uniforms and fresh faces with all the water and sanitation challenges they face. There is a learning here for the rest of us.

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