Over 100 new migrants squeeze into Mumbai on a daily basis. Those counted come with official papers, so the real number is probably around 500 people. Many, many of these migrants become “pavement dwellers.”
It’s impossible to move around the city without seeing whole families spread out anywhere there is space for them. Seeing such families every day, I can only marvel at the capacity of the human race.
Mothers of many tie their dupattas at their waists and meet at any source of water that is available. This is a gathering place for all of the women, who scrub stainless steel dishes with ash and talk together.
Nearby, Hindu and Muslim kids play cricket or badminton with whatever equipment they can find or create. I never had to make a roadside into a park, I wonder. But these children have done that. They laugh even more loudly than the traffic that surrounds them.
In the evening, Dad comes home and the family gathers to eat together. They squat rather than sitting, and eat simple dal and rice with their fingers. How rich am I, I wonder, to be able to worry about the nutritional value of the food I put in my own mouth. The migrant family’s needs are much more immediate and relevant to the moment they are living in.
Come evening time, the whole family spreads out to sleep, evenly spaced on a tarp in that covers the ground that they call their own. Over time, they toss and turn and their limbs fall over each others. Husbands and wives that have never known privacy sleep side by side on the ground, under bright lights. I from the west, with the blessing and the disease of too much privacy, watch and wonder. What a sad thing, to have to sleep so close.
Back in my own comfortable, furnished room, I lie underneath the fan. Hours later, I wake up sweating from a nightmare, and there is no-one there. I’m a million miles away from my own family. For a moment, I wish that I wasn’t richer in everything else, but richer in community.
The roadside woman possesses a plethora of stunning textures. She wears clothes from every place she’s been, with beads and threads that are coal black, crimson sindoor, pale dust gray. Her hair is coarse but her skin is as though polished: shining, rich, dark. Too soft for someone who has spent life like a flower offered to the salty, dirty ocean, being swept here and there.
The nonchalance with which she throws her ragged sari pallu over her shoulder and glares her raven eyes has been mimicked by many wealthy actresses and fashion models. None of whom can match her impossible combination of carelessness, frustration and softness, because none of them have her history.
The wealthy Indian model has been flown all over the planet, and requires many attendants to take care of her needs. The migrant woman has walked all over India on her own bare, hard feet, while being a strength for many more, and all of that gracefully. Facing life head on because she has knows no other way to do it. With her heavy silver ankelets singing.
What takes me is that these women don’t know that they are doing something that is difficult, because they have never done anything that is easy.
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