N otes from the Field: In the Slums of Delhi

June 2007 / Notes from the Field

This is an unusual piece to be included in the Integral Leadership Review. But when I read it, I couldn’t resist sharing it with you. It is so easy to forget that leadership shows up in many places, not just the corporation or other organization. It shows up in communities of all types all over the world. These small acts of leadership so sensitively reported here are important for us all to remember and support.

> Russ Volckmann

Things good, as ever, here. Back in Kolkatta for 24 hours, before flying out to the Philippines. Just done 26 hours on a train back here from Delhi, part of 3,700 miles completed by train in the last 12 days, or thereabouts. And all has been marvelous!

Initially, I left here for Varanasi for 2 days, a holy Hindu town on the banks of the Ganges and an auspicious place to die, apparently, as it guarantees escape from the cycle of reincarnation straight into heaven or Nirvana. I didn’t die; instead I just had a great time wandering along the river, through the markets, temples and silk factories, watching the nightly rituals on the river banks, having Hindi lessons from the local kids. I also befriended a local family and got to know them; I went back to their house a few times…a whole army of teenage girls making a living by making Bindhis and folding envelopes.

Then I sold my “I’m not a tourist” soul and went to Agra to see the Taj Mahal—it was on the way!!!! I only stayed one day!!!!! It is exquisite, stunning, but I found it rather sad and austere—not so much the monument to love as they claim, more a monument to a guy who couldn’t get over his grief and ended up with a big lump of marble when all he wanted was his dead wife. And more insistent, annoying touts and salesmen than anywhere I have ever been. It was pretty though…

And Jodhpur, which was not on the way, but somewhere I really wanted to go. I spent two days there, in Rajasthan, only about 60 miles from the Pakistan border. It gets all a bit more Middle Eastern than “typical” Indian (there’s a meaningless phrase if ever there was one!) Mostly desert—45 degrees plus—and then there is this ancient city, every house painted a beautiful, shimmering, cool sky blue. And above it all, on a massive rocky hill, is Mehendragarh, the citadel of the sun, an exquisite fort and home of the Rajput kings for hundreds of years. Loved it. Got sunburnt.

Then Delhi, and back to the real reason for my visit—

In Delhi, on a piece of illegally squatted land, along a drainage ditch and a busy road, surrounded by others just like it, is a remarkable house. You wouldn’t notice it. Maybe the only thing that distinguishes it are the few potted plants growing over the wall on the roof. But this is a house full of remarkable people.

On the second floor, up two dark flights of stairs, where I stayed, live Peter and Jane (not their real names) and their two sons, Luke and Hans (again, not their real names). Originally from a “Western country”, they have lived in this house about 3 or 4 years, but in Delhi for more than 12 (other than the kids, who aren’t that old yet). They came, quite simply, because they believed that if you claimed to be inspired by Jesus, then in some kind of capacity, this is what you would do, because its what he would do.

Despite the hardships, they have lived in the slums of Delhi throughout, and are quite at home with having to carry water up flights of stairs or go without, deal with disputes, cope without electricity—and so no fan in 40 plus heat—cope with illnesses, cook over a tiny stove when you’re already sweating standing still, push through overcrowded streets for the simplest of outings, dress appropriately (sometimes, for Jane, even in a Burkah) whether its you or not, home school because the local schools are scarcely running and your kids are the only white kids there, use a bucket bath every night, cope with intense dust and wind storms that cover your house in a thick layer of dirt (we had one the day arrived…pretty intense), look out over a street full of open drains, buffalo eating dirt, pollution and houses made out of scraps of wood and tin and plastic bag roofs.

And yes it is hard—they don’t deny it. But there is also no question that they should be anywhere else, or wish they had done things differently. This is what they came here for—to live amongst the poor, and to call them their friends. And that is what they do. They don’t have massive projects running. They simply live as close to the people as they can, raise their family as well as they can (and they’re certainly doing that—these are two of the brightest, most well adjusted kids in one of the closest, most supportive families I’ve met in a long while) with the best values that they can, and to be a good neighbour, responding to the needs of the people around them, loving them, and helping out where they can and where appropriate. This they do often, and their effectiveness is clear.

There were so many disasters going on downstairs whilst I was there and it was evident that these were the family that people turn to for all kinds of support. And gradually, they think about engaging with the wider community, finding key people to identify the neighbourhood’s problems and work things through as a team. A slow process, particularly when you consider the scale of problems experienced by the family downstairs , replicated again and again in the homes of each of the 50,000 people squatting on this tiny piece of land. To solve a problem that big, you need big solutions. They don’t necessarily have that, as they will admit. So for now, they just keep finding the small solutions and letting them grow and spread, like the flowers on the roof, the only sign that there is anything unusual here, a small spot of beauty in the midst of much darkness.

On the second floor, just two things. One is the loo/bathroom (i.e., a tiny room with a hole in the floor and some buckets full of water) the other is a little NGO office (non-governmental organisation). I didn’t really get my head round what was going on there in the few days I was in Delhi, but it seems that it started when the family below couldn’t send their kids to school, so the older ones started teaching the others to read in what was then a half built house. Others joined in, and now, out of that little house and that little start, something bigger is growing.

And on the ground floor live another remarkable family. To fill in their story—Mum and Dad got married in a strict Muslim village not far from here. To try to get some money for his new family, Dad moved to the city, whilst Mum stayed with his parents in the village as was customary, never going out as she was a woman, and on the rare occasions that she had to, in full Burkha. He would send money home, but his family did not pass it on to her and their children, and she was not well treated. So one week after her fifth child was born, she gathered her children together and ran away to the city—an extraordinary thing for her to do in a culture where she would never have been out alone before and would have no idea how to find her way around. More children followed for a total of two sons and eight daughters. This was a huge struggle. Eventually though, the sons were old enough to work and joined their father at a bookbindery. With three wages, things were good and they were able to begin to build their own house.

Until now, they had lived on this same patch of squatted ground, between the road, the buffalo and the drainage ditch, but in a small shack built of wood and plastic and corrugated iron, held together with rope and weights. Floor by floor it went up. But then disaster struck: the binding factory closed and they were out of work. One of the brothers was able to get work traveling around Delhi (no travel costs being met) fixing machines at other binding factories. But the father and the other brother have not worked since— maybe three years ago.

The building of the house now meant that they were hugely in debt. In order to get some money together, they organised a lottery scheme with a neighbour and friend—a common scheme— and sunk their remaining cash in that, only to have him runaway with it. Their eldest daughter, in the midst of this, managed to get married, to a member of her wide extended family from the same village, and her husband moved to the city with her to get work and money, again against the convention that dictates that she should have moved to his family in the village. He has so far managed to do this and they had a son together.

All of which seems like good luck. But there were complications with the baby’s delivery; he was starved of oxygen and needed intensive care. After a few days of this, though, the money ran out, and against all medical advice, they had to bring him home, trusting to “gods will” whether he lived or died. He lived, and now, aged 18 months, is a smiling, happy child, with a string of aunties who dote on him. But he still can’t sit unaided, has difficulty supporting his own head, eats only mashed food, has constant diarrhea, cannot put his weight on his inward curled feet and rarely makes eye contact. But when he does it is always with a laugh and a grin that brings out the same in you. He has been on anti-spasmodic medicines every day of his life. These, and the cost of the care at his birth, add massively to the family’s debts. But he has what he needs most—a family who will love and support and encourage him no matter what. And that “what” remains a huge question for him. The girls, all of whom are incredibly talented needle workers and seamstresses—their work was outstandingly beautiful—try to take in some sewing work. But the only way to get much would be to work in a shop, which would not be allowed for Muslim girls of marriageable age and would ruin their name and prospects. The few items they get in from friends are often not paid for, and when they are, are not cost effective (the piece they were working on at the time would get them 200 rupees…about two pound fifty…for two weeks, six hours a day, of embroidery.) Their total debt is around 50,000 rupees, (625 pounds) their total monthly income about 3-5000 (35-62 pounds) for 12 people.

At the time I was there, alongside these “everyday” disasters, we had a few extras. The entire family had upset stomachs. A neighbour, the man who had been selling illegal electricity to the whole neighbourhood, had lost his livelihood as legal meters had been put in and so he had the entire bill for tens of thousands of rupees sent to their address (including the Canadian family upstairs) and fled, meaning until it is sorted out they have no power, so no light at night and no fans in the intense heat. Their father, so stressed out by this, had stormed off and has not been seen for three days. And an uncle, back in the village, had needed urgent surgery, causing much worry and adding to their debt.

I chatted with them for a while about whether things were better here than in the village. They were. Here the girls could go out; they could sit outside if it was hot in the house. They did not have to wear the burkha, which whilst they thought it was a good thing because it was ordained by Allah, they admitted they couldn’t hack falling over,
because they couldn’t see where they were going, being so restricted and hidden. But they were not able to enjoy this freedom, because they knew that in the city, not wearing it, they were sinning. So they had to carry out other rituals to offset that.

I asked them what their dreams were. They wanted to travel, to see another country (other than the village and this neighbourhood, most had never been anywhere, not even elsewhere in Delhi). Other than that, their only dream was to see their mother’s problems sorted out. They could have no dreams until then. And then they wanted to marry and have just two children, because they had seen the problems of a large family. With two children you could give them everything you had ever wanted but not had, like education and food.

In the middle of this, the elder, married sister came into the room. One of the younger ones had been joking with her husband; the joke had gone too far and he had now taken it out on his wife, shouting and hitting her. She was shouting and crying. After telling off the younger girl, she left again. The atmosphere having changed, the girl to whom I had been talking broke out angrily that it was only a matter of chance whether you were born a boy or a girl, so why should one life be so blessed and the other so hard. Every day she wished she had been born a boy, or not at all, or that she was dead. That was the only answer to life’s problems. Her sisters, all teenage or younger, quietly gave their agreement. Their mother watched all this in silence. I have no idea what she could have been thinking. But the image I left with is not one of despair.

Yes, it’s overwhelming. What can anyone, whether it is the small scale approach on the upstairs floor or sweeping changes at higher levels, do in the face of this, multiplied thousands of times for every family in this slum and the thousands like it. What I left with is an image of beautiful, extremely talented, humourous, clever, bright, astute, curious, supportive, loving, welcoming, generous, hospitable, resourceful, resilient, immeasurably strong young women. I told them this, along with the fact that it is not only a matter of chance whether you are born male or female, but also whether you are born in a slum in Delhi or in England. I told them that one of the greatest advantages of being English is being able to travel to meet people like them and that I hoped to use that gift wisely. I left amongst exchanges of gifts, photos, email addresses and invitations to return. I got the metro out of the slum (something they have never done) and burst into tears. They asked me to pray for them…I’ll pass on that request, if that’s ok…

…and don’t forget, in the middle of all that, it was this family who started the teaching NGO on the first floor, that now maybe helps other local kids achieve some of the things that these girls don’t even dare dream.

So that’s the story of this little house in Delhi, with a miracle hidden away on every floor. I don’t know what all the answers are, but I agree with Peter, Jane, Luke and Hans upstairs that if there is a God, and if he is good, he would be putting himself somewhere he could love this family and others like them. They definitely deserve it, and give it all back, even to passing strangers.

…so that was Delhi. 26 hours on a train later, I’m back in Kolkatta, and fly tonight for Manilla. We will see what happens there….

All the best,
Miriam

Miriam Hadcocks has been involved in a wide variety of community development and individual support roles throughout the UK and in other cultures for nearly fifteen years. Her work and the people it involves has been diverse, but the approach has always been to encourage and empower people to find creative, independent, co-operative and sustainable solutions to their own and their communitys problems. One of the most fruitful and exciting aspects of this has been the cross-polination of insights, learning and experience between cultures. In recent years, this has included her involvement with an NGO living and working with people in the slum communities of a number of Asian megacities. Currently visiting a number of such locations, Miriam as always is discovering that there is more to be gained from the character and lives of the people she meets than there is from her own expertise.
miriamjangles@yahoo.co.uk