Friday, February 07, 2014
Pumpkins for a Smile
This blog is contributed by Shilpa Raj, a Shanti Bhavan graduate now studying in college.
Take a walk on the road by the National Games Village in Koramangala, a prosperous section of Bangalore. Apart from the stench of cow-dung heightened by the odor of the gutters, you will notice signboards posted on blue corrugated sheets shielding a construction site that reads: “BBMP project. Trespassers will be penalized.” A sad story lies hidden behind these barrier walls that run for miles.
Just over a year ago, driving past that very same road, you would have seen smoke rising in the morning from the line of shanty huts. They had been in existence for decades, housing hundreds of poor people who worked at construction sites and as maids in close-by apartments. But now, with all the bulldozer work going on, not even one upright shed or litter on the ground is there to remind you of what lay there before.
On the morning of January 18th, 2013, amidst angry protests, demonstrations and tears, the ‘fifteen acres of land and 22 guntas of prime land in Ejipura,’ as described in newspapers, were ordered by the government to be mowed down in order to utilize half of the land to build a mall and the other half to construct 1,512 luxury apartments. What remains is a nightmare for the hundred or more slum dwellers who now live in makeshift tarpaulin sheds and inside open demented water pipes.
Learning about the deplorable condition of the slum dwellers, I decided to take a look with two of my classmates, Kavitha and Chaitra, from Shanti Bhavan school. We were greeted by restless stray dogs, curious children, and older women with questioning looks in their eyes.
The women shared with us their present situation: how they were struggling to cope in the absence of proper shelter, exposure to rain and cold weather, lack of food, running water and any resemblance of sanitation. They explained that at night usually three woman and their children cram themselves in each makeshift shed, while men sleep in the open on pavements. Worse, with the continuous monsoon rains, many of the residents of the slum were frequently falling sick. It was obvious to us that their needs were many ranging from clothing to food and proper shelter.
Standing outside her small, low ceilinged shed, Maramma, a middle-aged woman, explained to us, “Finding a private place is the toughest part. We don’t have bathrooms.” Other women who had by then crowded around us nodded their heads in assent.
That day we had come empty handed, and I could sense disappointment in the eyes of Maramma and the other women. Seeing us asking several questions, one woman enquired, “Are they going to give us any food?”
Dr. George (DG) heard from us what we had observed, and immediately put the foundation into action to help the slum dwellers. The school’s staff sorted through the storage facility to identify clothes, blankets, and sheets we could supply for each of the dwellings. Accompanied by male staff members, we returned to Ejipura to distribute all the items that were brought from Shanti Bhavan in a jeep.
The news that we had come with clothing and other material spread like wildfire throughout the colony. A little boy excitedly went from shed to shed to inform everyone of our arrival. I was touched by the caring they showed towards each other; neighbors insisted that they collect clothes and food items for their friends who were away at work.
One of the women, presumably the leader of the colony, helped organize and control the excited crowd waiting eagerly for us to distribute the supplies. We were afraid that there would be a rush and commotion, but nothing of that sort occurred. In an orderly way, the women took with them what we could give, gently expressing with their smiles the joy they felt.
Soon after, another trip was organized. This time we asked that only those mothers with babies come to us, as we had gathered baby clothes, cribs and dolls from the school storage. Some pregnant women also joined the mothers who carried their babies with them on their hips.
Shanti Bhavan prepared a small plot of land to cultivate vegetables exclusively for Ejipura residents. Pumpkins and carrots were planted, and in two months or so, a bumper crop was harvested. In subsequent plantings, potatoes and other vegetables were added to the crop. We were excited to take loads of produce for distribution.
Shanti Bhavan kitchen staff packed proper combinations of spices in small plastic bags, along with vegetable oil, to be given to each of the dwellings in required quantity for a meal preparation. We were very happy to hear the women tell us in subsequent visits that they had really enjoyed the meals cooked with the spices we provided.
As the winter approached, the priority shifted to woolen knitting for babies, scarf, sweaters and blankets. Once again, the staff of Shanti Bhavan searched through all we had in our stores and dorms, and put together another supply of material. Our juniors back at Shanti Bhavan were asked to come up with ideas for what we could provide for Ejipura. In no time, many suggestions poured in: candles made inside clay pots, repaired soccer balls and used tennis balls, scrap paper and crayons, toys and indoor games, and brooms made from coconut leaves. There is no doubt that Ejipura is ours, and we will find ways to make life a little easier and enjoyable for our newfound friends.
There will be many more cold winter nights and hot summer days for the slum dwellers of Ejipura. It is hard to know when their lives would turn for the better. On our part, we are trying to indentify four-year-old children from Ejipura for admission to Shanti Bhavan. Like me, one day those selected children will also have the capacity to transform the lives of their families and others. Until then, the children of Shanti Bhavan will take pumpkins for them and watch the smiles on their faces.