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‘Slumdog’ Sisters

Sisters from Kerala serve Mumbai’s most destitute

text and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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As the sun in all its tropical fury drifts west over the Arabian Sea, rush hour sets in on the coastal megacity of Mumbai. India’s largest metropolitan area, the city and sprawling suburbs are home to an estimated 20 million people. As the clock nears 5, Mumbai’s streets grow congested with buses, taxis, cars, rickshaws and bicycles. Professionals and laborers alike elbow past one another on the crowded sidewalks, hurrying home after a long day’s work. As with most weekday evenings, traffic is stop and go.

Dharavi — a shantytown on the city’s north–central outskirts that has gained worldwide fame as the real–life setting for the Oscar–winning film “Slumdog Millionaire”— experiences rush hour no less frenetically. Taxis, trucks, rickshaws, even the occasional cow push through throngs of pedestrians, all sharing the same narrow, unpaved streets.

Roughly a million people live in this impoverished, underserved and cramped area, no larger than a single square mile. Poverty–related illnesses, such as scabies, tuberculosis, dysentery and fungal and upper respiratory infections, are commonplace. According to a 2006 United Nations Development Program report, Dharavi has one toilet for every 1,440 residents.

Most Dharavi residents work low–paying, unskilled jobs in nearby factories and sweatshops. Many are children who do not attend school. In Dharavi alone, there are an estimated 15,000 single–room sweatshops.

A few residents make ends meet by hocking any variety of knickknacks, household wares and food items from small carts that line Dharavi’s winding streets. Evening rush hour for these street vendors, such as 69–year–old Mary John, is a peak time for sales.

The widow of 16 years focuses her attention on the passers–by, determined to lure a potential customer to pause a moment at her booth, which specializes in teas, cakes and candies. Though she earns a pittance from sales — far from enough to cover basic living costs — she smiles easily and hustles her goods with the charm and energy of a much younger woman.

But as dusk slips away and foot traffic thins out to a trickle, Mrs. John’s mood suddenly darkens. She shutters her cart for the night and begins to explain candidly and without self–pity that she and her family are struggling to survive.

Mrs. John’s husband had neither savings nor life insurance. When he died, she found herself broke and alone responsible for the care of her children. Ever since, she has awoken every morning at dawn, opened her stand and sold teas and snacks until nightfall.

After her son’s sudden death several months ago, however, she found herself struggling to deal not only with grief, but also with how to make ends meet. The loss of her son’s income has left her and her family in dire straits.

“Rent is 1,500 rupees [$30] a month, not to mention the cost of electricity, water, gas, meals on the table, health care and education for my two grandchildren,” laments Mrs. John. “My daughter–in–law works as a cook from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. I work all day. But still, survival is the hardest thing.”

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Tags: India Children Sisters Poor/Poverty Syro-Malabar Catholic Church