By the map, the road back to Delhi should have taken around three hours. It took closer to eight. On rural roads, our van jostled through livestock, camels, trucks, and motorcycles. We even had to take a dirt road detour when we came upon what looked like a political rally in the middle of a main thoroughfare. And our backseat gave out every time we hit a big bump, threatening to bash out the back windshield. Falling short of breaking glass, the back seat would slam back and down several inches, leaving Zoe, Murphy, and me reclining with our knees higher than our chins. Each time this happened, Robyn quite rightly insisted on stopping the van, getting out, and single handedly jamming the seat back into position.
Keir honked and stopped and swerved and bore down through it all. We had hoped that it would be smoother going once we hit the highway. But after sputtering alongside cars, trucks, and motorcycles often carrying four passengers, Keir opted for a dirt path that appeared to run along the side of the highway, perhaps fashioned by other frustrated drivers who reasoned, “What the hell. There are no rules here. I’ll just create my own road. Can’t get too lost if I just follow the highway.” The problem with this kind of thinking was that the dirt road dropped off on the side, and when anyone insisted on driving toward or around us, as they often did without hesitation, the van would inch along at a forty-five-degree angle threatening to roll over. Inside the van we kept up conversation that I later realized had a slightly hysterical sound to it. Banter would halt for minutes at a time as we teetered on the brink, only to resume at a higher decibel when the crisis at hand appeared to have been overcome. None of the adults voiced their fears but I realized that I hadn’t been the only one silently praying while gripping the seat ahead of me, when we finally rolled into the Embassy School compound and broke into spontaneous and vigorous applause for Keir, hugging him with watery eyes as we quickly piled out of the van. He was our Captain Sullenberger gliding us to safety onto the Potomac.
The boys ran around the compound like lab rats. We had two more days in India and I felt that it was best to let them relax rather than drag them on more excursions. I had been hoping to take them through the jhuggi (slum) across the street, but decided to let them be.
Shortly after we arrived in New Delhi Keir had suggested that we visit the jhuggi before we left. He taught English to many of the kids there and said that one of the parents would be happy to have us over. Throughout their travels Keir and Robyn have felt that one should endeavor to experience the whole gamut of existence within a given culture and country. The day that we had visited both the imperial hotel and an outdoor hand laundry was a perfect example. Since jhuggis are common in urban areas, they thought it appropriate for us to see one. For my part, I wanted to have a clear idea of what they were, separate from my own images garnered from movies. In contrast to celluloid images I’d also been told that many jhuggis weren’t that bad and most residents even had TVs.
Keir arranged for us to visit his friend, Abdul, who lived in the jhuggi. Abdul’s son took English from Keir and he also did carpentry work for many of the teachers. Light was fading that evening as we entered the Jhuggi. The paths, or narrow streets, by the low-roofed tiny homes, teemed with activity. Children chasing each other, men talking in groups, women carrying laundry, bicycles, families squatting around small fires. Almost all of the homes were open. In fact, it was clear that all of life here was lived in the open. People showered and brushed their teeth in the street. Young kids squatted to relieve themselves. Pat and I followed Keir past a counter fashioned from wooden boxes. Behind it was a chair. Keir said that this was the barbershop.
Small fires were being stoked everywhere. It was cold and residents would burn anything they could find, even plastic. The streets were muddy and lined with garbage and waste. Keir told us that there was only one bathroom in the jhuggi and it cost a rupee to use. It made sense that an actual loo wasn’t always deemed necessary. Several folks came up to Keir to chat about their kids or ask after him. Keir was also recruiting parents for a meeting about the English classes the following week. Learning English is desirable because it makes jobs in tech and at the American Embassy possible. Therefore, learning English can be a way out of the jhuggi.
Here’s the thing. Everywhere I looked I could see what was missing. Plumbing. Heat. Walls. Bathrooms. Space. But the mood on the street seemed matter-of-fact. Residents here weren’t exactly skipping through the streets without a care, but they didn’t seem to be globally depressed by lack either. In short, it was a functioning community.
When we got to Abdul’s home, he was waiting and politely ushered us inside. The tin roof was low and flat. There were two rooms that together seemed as large as half of a one-car garage. The first room appeared to be a kitchen and a living room. There were a couple of chairs and an area where dishes were stacked. Abdul took us into what appeared to be a bedroom and motioned for us to sit a raised pallet that I imagined doubled as a bed. Three children perched on top of a stack of bedding and giggled down at us as we introduced ourselves. Abdul told us that two of the children were his (another one was off somewhere) and one was his nephew. So five people lived in these two rooms. I assumed that at night they each pulled out bedding from the stack. Maybe Abdul and his wife slept in the kitchen. I furtively glanced around trying to figure out how it all worked. There was order here. A cupboard. Children’s jackets hung on pegs.
Abdul offered us tea, which we all eagerly accepted. I was developing a chai tea dependence fast and wasn’t looking forward to drying out in the states. Abdul’s wife smiled and dipped around the corner to grab cups and heat the water. I assumed she was using a hotplate. Keir had told me that folks in the jhuggi simply tapped into overhead electrical wires. That said, I had yet to see a TV.
Abdul pulled up a chair opposite us and Keir facilitated the conversation, pointing out that Abdul had built the steps for Zoe in her bathroom, some of his frames, and the shelves in this living room. Yes, Abdul nodded. He took out his cell phone and showed us pictures of other things he had built recently. I could barely see anything on the small screen, but I nodded knowing that his work for Keir had been solid.
I looked up at the kids watching us. Without television, computers, or game consuls to distract them, we must have been most interesting thing around. I wondered if they would talk about us after we left. I briefly regretted that I hadn’t brought the boys. I wondered what they would make of it all. Maybe they would simply have seen potential playmates.
Abdul was explaining to Keir that he had to ride his wife on his bicycle for two hours to get her to her English classes, but she was almost finished with her course. I glanced into the other room and saw the edge of her through the doorway as she busied herself with the tea. I hadn’t brought a camera because I had thought that it would seem rude to take pictures. I hadn’t wanted to make our hosts feel self-conscious. Now it seemed that I was the self conscious one, feeling prim on the edge of the bed, my thigh pressed against Pat’s.
Pat as an innately egalitarian soul. He treats homeless schizophrenics on the street with the same ease and respect as he does a Hollywood celebrity. I, on the other hand, converse too much with homeless schizophrenics (leading them to follow me for blocks) and coolly ignore Hollywood celebrities as if I’m punishing them for some great wrong they’ve done me. Obviously, I am over-compensating for the universe but I’m also compensating for my own discomfort with our differences. I either have too much or too little and I feel charged with the task of evening it all out.
It was in this spirit that I left the camera at home, and it was also in this spirit that I insisted on speaking to Abdul in my usual vernacular. Which, even to Americans, had a tendency to make me sound like I’m hosting a literary segment on NPR.
“So you assemble your projects on site?” I asked, after he told us that he used the front room as a shop.
Abdul looked at me, questioningly. Pat jumped in. “You put together here?” He clarified, lacing the fingers of both hands together.
“Yes,” Abdul nodded.
Abdul’s wife handed tea through the door to Abdul who gave us each a cup. I said to myself, “Just be here and listen. Don’t try to compensate. Don’t try to do anything.” I lifted the warm cup of sweet tea to my lips. The children jostled above me. Abdul’s wife stood at the door, listening to Abdul and Keir talk. Pat asked a few questions and admired more pictures of Abdul’s work. I sat and listened, feeling that right now – this moment – was enough.
|I found this picture of a jhuggi on the web. This looks much like the jhuggi Pat and I visited.|