It has been more than a month that I’ve now spent in Mumbai and what an experience it’s been so far! The next nine months will mark the longest period of time that I’ve ever stayed in India (and that I’ve ever spent away from my twin sister; miss you tons, Nikita!) but by no means is this my first run-in with the country that is my motherland.
Growing up, every few summers would be spent in Bangalore’s historic neighborhood of Malleshwaram. In recent years, globalization has slipped through the cracks and has planted the same seed that is developing the rest of Bangalore into India’s Silicon Valley. However, Malleshwaram has managed to preserve its rich heritage and traditional values (a few weeks ago, I went to visit with another fellow and as we walked through the markets of 8th cross, I asked if there was anything you couldn’t get in Malleshwaram these days; she half-jokingly replied, “Yeah, meat and alcohol!”).
Lately, my trips to India have served a very different purpose, thus adding another lens to view the same country from a different perspective. Three out of my four summers during my time at Northwestern University were spent in rural Tamil Nadu in the village of Baliganapalli, where I served as a teacher at Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project. Shanti Bhavan is a k-12 boarding school that provides a liberal arts education, completely free of cost, to India’s most socioeconomically disadvantaged children. These children quickly became my brothers and sisters but more importantly, they displayed the potential that lies within India.
Using my students as my primary motivation, I now find myself back again in India, this time amidst the chaos of Mumbai. I work for SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education, and Health Action), a public health NGO that creates different initiatives for women and children in the informal urban settlements of Mumbai. I work on the third floor of Chota Sion Hospital (a government hospital) right in the heart of Dharavi. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Dharavi, it’s the “slum” community portrayed in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. It pains me to write that though because the movie did not do justice to Dharavi!
Yes, Dharavi is one of Asia’s largest slums, however it is a community full of life and commerce. There is a certain sense of pride within the 200 square foot homes (which often contain flat screen TVs, refrigerators, and washing machines), that entire families occupy. People make things happen in Dharavi, yet the issues of overcrowding (a National Geographic study shows that as many as 18,000 people live per acre) domestic violence, and proper sanitation remain in the foreground, and rightly so. However this doesn’t negate all the positive change Dharavi has seen over the years.
So from Malleshwaram to Baliganapalli to Dharavi, here I am. Each of these cities and the experiences I’ve shared within them have fostered different ways of viewing India but collectively, they all provide a sense of the direction that India is rapidly moving in. Nine months will come and go and before I know it, my time will be up. But for now, I look forward to what this current experience will be.