In a hard-to-find school in the Dharavi slum, I never expect to find toddlers doing arts and crafts: but they are. I’m inside a warm room with a whirring fan, where children’s feet stand on coloured circles painted on the gray ground. Oiled hair on each head is neatly parted. The kids have just finished with greeting time, and have now moved on to activity time.

Each child is summoned forward one by one. With help, they dip their feet into watered-down paint before stamping their prints onto big sheets of paper. I watch a teacher who is also a young woman, a wife, a homemaker, an accounts manager for the same NGO she teaches for, and above all a nurturer and uncelebrated heroine. Tanuja teacher has developed an efficient system. With one arm laced beneath the kid’s armpits and gripping their body, she reaches her other hand down towards the paint-dipped foot. In a series of quick motions, she deftly pushes each individual tiny toe to the paper, to ensure a mark. Another teacher diligently records each child’s name next to their footprint, as though they were creating a government document.

Dharavi-slum-school-800Ayush doesn’t understand what he’s supposed to do. All of the kids in the Kumbar Mela colony, where Muskan Kindergarten is located, are Gujurati: none of their teachers are. So Kasturi Aunty, the cook and maid, is summoned again and again to communicate with the kids in the language closest to their hearts. Once she explains to Ayush, he still shakes his head, muttering. Aunty translates to Tanuja teacher in Hindi, saying something to the effect of:
“He says it’s dirty water! So he doesn’t want to put his feet in.”

But Ayush is convinced by the others, who are all laughing, dipping their feet, and laughing some more. So, with Tanuja teacher’s help, he steps a foot into the basin. And then the other. Everyone claps and congratulates Ayush for his courage. A smile breaks across his precious face, and Ayush is overcome. He brings one foot up and down, hard, and then the other. He pumps his fists and stamps his feet! Watery paint starts to fly everywhere. All of the teachers stop clapping and say hsssssssssss and chhhhhhh before Tanuja teacher can lift Ayush out of the basin. Another teacher swoops in to wipe his feet with a rag. Ayush is grinning though. Even back in his place in the circle, he continues to jump up and down, celebrating life despite all odds.

Bronwyn McBride is a student from Vancouver, BC, and now lives between India and Canada. After quitting her intensive study of circus arts and dance in Quebec, Bronwyn flew across the globe alone to see if she could live in a very different way. It wasn’t her first visit to India, and wouldn’t be her last!

Wherever she is, Bronwyn explores different ways to volunteer and get involved with local communities. She’s worked with severely disabled kids in a Mother Teresa orphanage in Kolkata, crossed the country with a social change performance tour, and has spent long months through the boiling summer in Varanasi, working in a school for girls. Next up: enjoying volunteerism and a foray into Bollywood in India’s cosmopolitan metropolis, Mumbai.

More of Bronwyn’s writing can be found at: www.bronwyngrace.wordpress.com