I once had occasion to talk with some ladies who lived on Forjett Hill.
For those readers who are familiar with Mumbai, this area is across the street from Bhatia Hospital at Grant Road. On the slope facing Bhatia Hospital there is a slum settlement.
Viewed from the road, it seems to rise up in layers and layers of rows of dwellings, continuing up to the top of the hill. On the opposite side of the hill, which is less steep, lies the affluent area of Peddar Road.
Many of the people living in this slum settlement work as domestic helps in the houses at Peddar Road.
I had arranged to wait in front of Bhatia Hospital, and Vijay, the young man who was to show me the way to where the ladies were meeting, was to come there. Accordingly, he met me there, we crossed the road, and started up the hill. It was a good fifteen minutes climb and there was just a winding dirt road, stamped smooth by the local residents. I was quite out of breath by the time we reached our meeting place.
This was on a comparatively wider part of the road itself, which had been swept clean. Some youngsters were spreading straw mats for the ladies to sit.
I knew that Vijay was married, so I asked where his wife was. She would be there shortly, he assured me. A few dozen ladies sat down on the mats and I was requested to start. A women’s organisation had been newly formed by the local residents, and I had been asked to suggest activities that they could conduct there, which would be beneficial for the residents.
We were sort of a ‘floating’ group there, some ladies were there from the beginning, some coming after fifteen minutes, some after half an hour. They left pretty much the same way, at intervals. But overall, I had the impression that they were eager to start some activities there. Towards the end of the meeting, Vijay’s wife arrived and introduced herself.
Afterwards, she invited me to their home for tea. Vijay was already there. His wife seemed very friendly, so I hesitatingly asked her why she had not come earlier. She glanced at her husband and told me the reason.
The slum settlement being unauthorised, did not have water supply from the Municipality in the houses. Water had to be fetched from the public taps which were situated at the bottom of the hill.
Since the taps had running water for only about an hour in the evening, the residents had to go down the hill every evening with their buckets and handis to fetch it. The round trip took half an hour not counting the time spent waiting in queue.
When Vijay was at home in the evening he fetched the water, otherwise his wife did. That evening Vijay had come to escort me to the meeting, so his wife had gone for the water. The ladies who did not go to get the water- sending some other member of their family- had come early to our meeting. The other ladies came as soon as they finished their ‘water fetching duties’.
She assured me that she, as well as the other ladies, truly wanted to start some activities there. She said that they particularly wanted to start some activities for children so that they would not fall into ‘bad habits’.
So we both sat down on the floor of her tiny kitchen, and for half an hour discussed what type of activities would be feasible.
She had obviously given a lot of thought to this subject and had some good ideas herself. Could they start some classes to teach women to make pickles or papads, in a way which would be commercially viable? Maybe start sewing classes? Then the women could work from home. Could they start an Anganwadi, so small children would have some structured activity for a few hours daily?
Whenever I read in some article that the future of our country depends on its younger generation, I think about people like Vijay and his wife. Despite having such a hard life, they were ready to look beyond themselves and think of doing something for society.
Or was it precisely because of having experience of hardship themselves, that they were prompted to think of others, too?