Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Down to Earth in Mumbai

I am on a rare short trip to India (and Thailand--more about the Thailand bit in a later post) and thought that, unlike other trips which were basically selfish in nature - about shopping, touristing, and spending time with family - I would like to do something a bit different for this trip, something service-related, something that would take me out of my little self and pour me into something bigger and moving, something about others.

Well, I cannot lie and say that I have completely fulfilled this goal, because I have indeed indulged in shopping and relaxing -- old habits die hard.

But I did, on Monday, have the honor of beginning to experience another side of India, one I would like to get further into.

Before I left, I contacted Nipun Mehta to ask him for suggestions/contact info for educational nonprofits with whom I could make contact in the Mumbai area. He immediately (less than half an hour) wrote me back with the email for the folks at Down to Earth (no website yet), an organization which works with kids living in the Cuffe Parade area of Mumbai.

Upon receiving my tentative email asking if they would mind a visit from me, I was welcomed immediately by Team DTE (Down to Earth) to come and observe - or even teach - one of their educational sessions, and that I should contact Niki and Mansi, two of their teachers, to figure out logistics.

And so, with some trepidation and after a few phone calls, I went down to the Backbay Bus Depot in Cuffe Parade, Mumbai to meet up with Niki. The class she teaches is in a Bombay slum called Ambedkar Nagar, which sits right up against one of the more moneyed areas of South Bombay, within a stone's throw from the 27-story, $2 billion dollar home of the fabulously wealthy Ambani family (still being built). She had me meet her at the bus depot rather than at the actual place where the classes were held-- as it is so inside a labyrinth of huts and small buildings that it would have been impossible to give me directions -- or for me to follow them.

Niki turned out to be a serious young woman who, in contrast to me, had taken local transportation to the locality. I was embarassed that I had taken a taxi. This was indication number one that I have a lot to learn and a long way to go in the arena of service and humility. In our conversation on the tangled way into the community where the class was to be held, I learned that Niki has been involved with social work and teaching for the past ten years, and that in the mornings, she teaches for Akanksha, another educational service org in Mumbai. As we walked the twists and turns of the gullies, every other kid who passed us greeted her with a wide smile and a "Hello Niki Didi!" Here and there she stopped to make conversation--in Hindi.

One kid she mildly berated, with palpable love under the surface toughness, for not coming to the last session. We also visited another kid briefly, who had recently gotten a terrible electrical shock due to some exposed wiring in his home. His right arm was laced with scars and hung by his side as he sheepishly accepted Niki Didi's assertions that he definitely needed to go to the doctor. Despite one last exhortation from Niki Didi that he should take care of himself and get medicine from the doctor, one did not get the sense that he would be able to go. As we walked along we collected a half dozen companions - kids who were coming to the Down to Earth class.

The classroom was a tiny room accessed via a built-in ladder. Niki kindly took my backpack from me so that I could manouver myself into the room. Soon there were about a dozen of us seated cross-legged in a circle, with all eyes on Niki Didi. She began the session with some breathing exercises to center our attention. The kids smiled at me and I sensed their curiosity about this new person. At this point Niki introduced me briefly and asked each of the children to introduce him/herself to me--name and one thing that they like to do. Some were shyer than others, as English is definitely not their main language. Nevertheless, they persevered, and I learned that sports is very important in their lives -- many said that football (soccer) was their favorite activity.

Having been a teacher myself in the past, what impressed me about the kids is that despite the crowded classroom and distractions -- bad weather all too palpable in the room with holes in its corrugated tin walls and visitor from abroad-- the kids were remarkably focused and intent on learning. Their respect for their teacher and for the spark of education she was cultivating in them was visible in their intent gaze and their immediate attention to all that Niki Didi asked them to do. When I taught middle school I would have given an arm and leg for such dedicated students!

Then Niki asked me to tell them a little -- in English -- about what is it that a librarian does, especially a librarian in the U.S. As I spoke of the kinds of programs that I conduct with the youth at my library in Brooklyn--gardening, arts and crafts, computer games, help with research--I couldn't help but wince at the relative wealth even average and working class Brooklyn kids have as compared to these bright young Mumbai-ites. Niki and Mansi explained to me later that Mumbai has no free public libraries in the tradition of what we take for granted in most cities in the States. I felt ashamed to have tantalized the kids with what is not available to them, but I only told them out of a sense of enthusiasm to share... It is difficult to know what is the right thing to do or say, especially when there is such dire disparity in our world.

Then, much to my relief, we moved on to word games. We played a word association game where we went around in a fast circle, each naming an English word that closely related in any logical way to the one just spoken by the previous person. No words could be repeated... The words went something like: black, white, paper, pencil, pen, school, child, boy, girl, child, school, desk, book, notebook, draw, bird, fly, sky, cloud, high, low.... (You get the picture.) If you couldn't think of a word within 5 counts on Niki Didi's fingers, you were out. The game moved quite rapidly with some funny attempts that didn't always pass the sharp scrutiny of Niki Didi. The winner was shining quick Jyoti with the mango-tied braids and the open smile.

The next activity was to think and write down as many br- words as possible, with the br- sound appearing anywhere in the word. As I myself could think of only two or three words off the top of my head, I was impressed at the diligence of the kids in creating quite a voluminous list of br- words. They could give Sesame Street a run for its money -- or at least help out with script planning!

And then, all too soon, my time there was over, as I had a promise to meet my dad early that evening. But I hope --no Plan!-- to go there again before this too-short trip to India is over.

I can't help but wonder how I - short on time in India - can help in any way besides donating funds. When I asked Niki and Mansi, they said that what they most need is not supplies but human power. It also seems painfully evident to me that they also need more classroom space. I can't help but marvel at the irony of the $2 billion Ambani tower going up in the neighborhood of these very same kids, and wonder if somehow wealthy folks like the Ambanis could not be prevailed upon to provide more space to these kids and their teacher. As far as human power, what with grad school and a full-time job, I won't be able to come out to help anytime soon after the conclusion of this trip, but I have a fledgling of an idea involving establishing some kind of cooperative project between the kids I see every day at the Brooklyn Public Library and the kids of Down to Earth.

Any other ideas?


Anil D said...

I'm sure the human power factor always was and will always remain the most pressing problem. At the same time, I'm sure there are many organizations that function on similar lines as DTE. This situation really needs a unified sustainable model, for which, ideally there must be a way to bring together the innumerable fragmented endeavors that are currently struggling in parallel for the very same human power reasons. If there were such a unified effort, I'm sure there would be a lot less unnecessary functional overlap, better allocation of resources and a much more sustainable model where people associate with and support a well known cause through collective effort.

Martha Garvey said...

What Anil said. I love that you did this. And creating a kind of mirror program in Brooklyn has intriguing possibilities...thanks for your story.

Adrian said...

hey, my name's Adrian. i enjoyed reading your blog because i was in Mumbai in April and helped out some with DTE as well- it brought back some fond memories to hear you describing the little ladder up into the hut. I'm a musician, so i was mainly helping some of the older kids learn guitar, but i got a chance to talk to a while group of the oyunger kids as well, and i learnt as much about India in those 2 weeks than almost my entire 9 months in India.
anyway, i know how you feel being far away from the action now, far away from where so much time and human power is needed. i guess we can spread the word about DTE so others like us going over there can get involved. And stay in touch with them, keep abreast of what is going on. But yeah, it's hard from a distance.
anyway, just wanted to say hi and i'm glad i got a chance to read this.
i wrote a little about some DTE experiences in my blog as well: .
talk to you later,


Anonymous said...

" Niki and Mansi explained to me later that Mumbai has no free public libraries in the tradition of what we take for granted in most cities in the States. "

Yesha, there is an organization that collects books in the US to help start libraries in less wealthy parts of the world. One of my cousins is involved. Perhaps I can put him in touch with you and together work out something for DTE.

Nikita said...

Hi Yesha - I'm a recent law graduate and am interested in volunteering in Mumbai for a few months...I had previously heard about Down to Earth from another acquaintance and am further inspired by your blog. Could you point us in the right direction to getting in touch with/emailing the coordinators? I have been Google searching but can't find anything concrete...and still no website.

why said...

Hello Nikita,
I somehow just saw this!

send me your email address and I'll connect you with the DTE folks!