When our car slowly began to turn through the rusted gates of a massive construction site yesterday afternoon, I was sure that our group had gotten horribly lost. As the driver continued to progress along the gravel path, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, reasoning that he was simply taking a short cut in an attempt to bypass the endless throng of Mumbai traffic. However, when he abruptly cut the engine and pointed us in the direction of a compound of make-shift shacks, I realized that we had reached the homes of the children served by the next NGO we were visiting. The first thing I noticed, as we maneuvered our way through the narrow lanes separating the sea of corrugated metal and plastic roofs, was the overwhelming amount of dust and dirt we kicked up with every step I took. When I peered into the dark rooms entire families were living in, I did not know how they could even breathe through the layers of soot settling in the air much less perform all their familial duties within the confines of a 10x10 space. If the sun was ceaselessly beating down on my back, making it hard for me even to walk in a straight line, I could not imagine how the men spent 10+ hours every day for months on end physically laboring to build a high-rise; how a woman could begin to wash away the layers of sweat and filth caked into her family's clothes, hair, and body or voluntarily add more heat to her home so that she could make some food to feed more mouths than she knew she could afford; or how a child could focus at all in a classroom packed with hot, shouting children in an environment reflecting the bleak poverty of their lives.
When we reached the end of the lane and initially entered the Mumbai Mobile Creche center I was unsure about how I would react to the work of this NGO, in part, because I was still hit by the conditions these children were born into. However, as I peered around the room, I began to notice the bright artwork proudly displayed on the walls and the stack of books, eagerly awaiting the return of the children, stacked in the corner of the room. The kids slowly began to trickle back in from the lunch breaks they had with their parents, and the small classroom soon began to fill with genuine excitement and anticipation.
Listening to the director of the mobile creche talk about her organization and helping the children make paper mâché puppets suddenly made me very aware of our Niswarth goals. Even though the Reality Tour through Dharavi was one of the deepest emotional and psychological experiences I have ever had, I didn't feel as connected to the community as I had imagined. I still felt as if I were walking through an area that I didn't have any place being in; I struggled to find my place as a respectful observer or remain optimistic about the devastating poverty continually plaguing the slums. However, the mobile creche allowed me both to survey and engage with a specific community as well as connect back to the various conversations that we have had throughout the week. I felt that I was able to sit back and observe the children -- their often malnourished figures, the way they shyly pointed at us and smiles amongst themselves -- so that I could feel like I was paying close attention to the context of their situations. However, as they became more comfortable with us, we also had the opportunity to do an art project with them, toss some balls around, and learn a secret handshake. For the first time, I felt the exchange of knowledge that I had been seeking and came to understand just how much these young children can teach us -- from silly hand games to an unwavering willpower and dedicated passion for life. As I continue to move through my Niswarth journey, I hope to always keep in mind the way I interacted with the children at the mobile creche so that I can continue to gain the rich understandings of the different facets of India and the different roles individuals and larger communities occupy.