As we walked into the slums of Mumbai, I couldn’t help but be consumed with wonder, questions, disbelief and, honestly, a little amazement. Our guides, two thirteen-year-old girls, Priyanka and Sapna, had invited us into their home to speak with them about their involvement with Salaam Bombay Foundation’s (SBF) Academies. The girls led us into their house, a space the size of a large closet that houses five people. They dutifully scurried around the kitchen to get us all glasses of water as we crowded into the small space and took our seats. Priyanka was learning Kathak, a classical Indian dance form, from Salaam Bombay Foundation’s Art Academy, while her older sister, who was also sitting with us, had recently graduated from the same program. SBF’s Art, Media, and Sports Academies, one of my favorite facets of the organization, works to provide children from underprivileged communities with opportunities to learn various skills in order to encourage them to stay in school.
Priyanka’s older sister was sitting at the back of the room; she rarely allowed her gaze to lift to meet our eyes, but I could see the corners of her mouth lift slightly at the sound of my American-accented Hindi when I told her that I too had learned Kathak when I was younger. We asked her and the other girls about school, friends, what they wanted to do when they grew up, and about Kathak classes.
I glanced at Priyanka’s older sister, with her Kathak certificate delicately folded in her hands, her eyes shyly sizing us up. As she talked about dance, I could see the slightest hint of pride in her voice. And then she smiled. And it was the same smile I smiled the first time I held a certificate that I earned when I was her age. This was her escape, just like it had been mine. We started to head out, the girls giggling to each other, stealing glances at us every once in a while, walking with their arms wrapped around each other.
As we jumped and hopped around to navigate our way out, we chatted with our new friends, who had finally warmed up to us. With the senseless sound of the auto rickshaw’s horn blaring in the background, I couldn’t help but be struck once again by the conditions of the community. Just as we were leaving the grounds, we saw two kittens peacefully and soundly napping together despite the loud, messy Mumbai commotion raging on around them. And all I thought as I saw them was that maybe this is what pulls us through: the feeling of pride you get when you master that first Kathak spin, or the familiarity of a friend with whom you can share a giggle and a whisper, or even the comfort of a soft, little napping buddy to quell the chaos of the world.