strange things I have seen

Today I saw a slum and a Bollywood film set all in the same 60 second period.  And my brain sort-of broke a bit. 

This morning we had the meeting that was the main reason for me coming out to Mumbai, and then I was taken by one of the of the pastors at the meeting to see one of his church’s projects. It was in a slum that runs into the forest at the edge of the national park that is a part of city (you get there down a road that’s closed at night because leopards come out of the forest and munch things).  And after a weekend of meetings and visiting places, I really wanted to see somewhere that some of the work that’s going on in Mumbai dealing with urban poverty – it’s all well and good coming out and making progress on organising an event, and that’s my job and all, but it has a tendency to get a bit disconnected from what really matters – and what the event is actually trying to engage with and share – as you get into venues and costs and who is and isn’t being realistic about what’s possible. So it was good to get the chance to go outside that bubble. 

The project in question is a ‘bridge’ project – bringing kids into a pre-school environment and then connecting them into the education system. They also have support classes that keep up with the kids as they go into school, encouraging them to stay in education and encouraging their families to keep them there and not take them out to work. We went to see the place where the the pre-school meets (and is a church where about 20 families worship on Sundays), and then I was taken through the slum to visit a few people who work with the project and see some of the kids who are and have been helped by it. There will be photos to go with this once I get home – which will probably do more, descriptively, than I can manage with any words. 

The pre-school is the size of a container (you know, those shipping containers, always seem to say ‘Maersk’ on them?). In fact it might actually be one – it’s certainly toasty enough inside. It’s smaller than any bedroom I’ve ever had, including the box-room I had when I first moved to London. And it fits 20 families in it for church on a Sunday. It has a small fan, which I guess might make it feel less like an oven, but not a whole lot.  In some parts of the  slum I was taller than the edge of the roofs (you know, where the guttering would be if there were guttering) – and I’m pretty short. Throughout most of it more than one room (thus allowing you to not have to sleep in your kitchen) was a luxury – and yet the use of space was more imaginative than any hipster modernist has ever dreamed (the day hipsters start going for corrugated iron roofs that they can use as umbrella racks is the day I despair of the western hemisphere…). And on the edge of the slum, out by the gently smoking rubbish dumps, a set was being built for a Bollywood movie. Of a slum. ‘Cos the slum it was next too was just too darn slummy, I can only think, because it was a whole lot cleaner and tidier than the actual slum, with a clear dirt path running neatly through the middle.  I don’t know – perhaps that’s where the singing and dancing will happen. It was just – on my right hand side, actual slum with actual people living in it; on my left, fake,sanitised slum, plus air-conditioned coach for the crew to hang out in during the heat of the day.  Sometimes I am just *baffled* by the world. 

I’m still baffled and bemused and how-do-you-fix-it-y in my head. Clearly wiping out Bollywood isn’t a plan. And clearly the huge success of Slumdog Millionaire hasn’t led to the rapid change of the kind of lives it was about. There are projects like the one I saw today – they reckon their bridge projects across the city are helping around 3500 kids, and you think, you know what, that’s fabulous – until you realise that there are 20 million people in this crazy city and half of them live in the slums. And that’s just 3500. You can probably do the maths on the percentages. But then, you carry on thinking like that and you probably do just retreat to your air-conditioned bus equivalent and hide out away from the reality, because that’s just easier, right? Only then nothing ever changes, and that 3500 doesn’t become a bigger number – and the only thing I do remember from mathematics is that when you’re counting, you have to go through all the little numbers until you get to the really big ones. 

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