A Narrative of My Learning at an Urban Slum

Ever hiked the unpaved, dusty boulevards in Bangalore? You must, if you haven’t.

As the dust on the road settles, the panorama that unveils is a sharp disjunction. The alleys are cluttered, the buildings are in shams, filth piles at every few blocks and an extensive network of clothesline criss-cross the entire view; the urban slums are a striking contrast in the ever burgeoning and sprawling IT metropolis of Bangalore. Life is tough in these impoverished receptacles of the city. The ‘garden city’ that epitomizes affluence and prosperity fades into a void, and a disparate state of life emerges; one of poverty, victimhood, inequality and prejudice.

Squatters are glued to every dusky space with an eternally smoldering bidi, some perpetually lost in inarticulate agony, and some possessed by addictive-idleness. Moppets huddle at every doorstep, suckling broken toys, little older ones slyly venture onto the roadways staring at every creature in ambivalence yet carefully poised to run home yelping at any perception of danger. A thick populace of kids, youths and adults’ frenzy in the arena, with a good number devoid of any purpose, existing merely as a freak of humane process of replication. Teenagers and early adults with layers of color on their hair and countenance, disguise the scars lathered on their human identity. The bright and jubilant future which the cosmopolis romanticizes seems utterly fleeting in these grim spaces of reality.

My time as a facilitator with a non-governmental organization in one of the urban slums in Bangalore was an eye-opening experience. People residing in these spaces are mostly daily wage and migrant workers. They have little idea of the importance of education and its significance in charting a brighter future for their children. Children drop out of schools at an early age and inherit their parents’ occupation and remain in the loop, of a life of hardships. Some of them, under the influence of bad company, become addicted to drugs and alcohol at a young age. As they grow mired in instability and in the absence of tender warmth of parental advice, they end up becoming thugs. The life of girl-child is even more buried under obstacles. Patriarchy is pervasive in every home, and a blatant neglect towards educating girls is prevalent. The perception of confining women to the for walls kitchen and motherhood is also extremely prevalent.

In an article in the Hindu, the writer argues that children drop out of school due to several reasons. From economic to social prejudice, to disappointing operational efficiency of the school teachers, the motivations culminating a dropout from schools can be diverse depending on societies. Whatever be the impetus, robbing away the right to be receive education from a young budding mind, is a heinous act. It deprives a child of an opportunity to improve his/her life and thereby results in the nullification of the contribution these individuals could have otherwise made for the progress of the country. Their ideas and imaginations are squashed, which could have had the vitality to birth solutions to problems of humanity. And eventually most detach and fallout, particularly women, from the educated spheres of the societal fabric. Women are often cornered to the four walls of the kitchen, and often bear the scars of societal rejection. They are not given a chance; are not given a voice.

Let me try to amplify a whisper that I happened to hear, which was silenced indiscriminately. Naziya, is an eleven-year-old, a native of Uttrakhand, one of the six children of a traditional Muslim family. Her father and her elder brothers are handicraftsmen, who sell bangles and other odd items at ‘melas’ across India, perpetuating an inevitable migratory lifestyle to their household. Uncertainty exists through all paradigms of her life. Her mother, an ultra conservative woman who inherited prejudice from her community and peers, invariably passes it onto her lasses by infusing their tender minds with notions of discrimination and bigotry. Naziya was mandated to by her mother to study Arabic and Quran, alone. The fun, excitement and pun, of childhood are denied by the framework laid down for her. She is afraid to dream and to aspire, for they are monstrously alien to her. In one of the classes I had asked her to mural her dream on a white sheet. She seemed lost, but I nudged and encouraged Naziya a little and as I laid down a list of vocations that came to my mind her face brightened up the moment I uttered the word ‘dancer’. But almost instantaneously gloom settled upon her countenance and she said “Ammi jab school jane nai deti toh dancer kahan banne degi? (If my mother does not allow me to attend school how will she allow me to become a dancer?)”.

This is not just Naziya’s story. It is the story of thousands like Naziya, whose dreams and aspirations are buried alive, as most of us throw a glance and busy ourselves in the pursuits of our ‘passionate’ life. Little can be expected of our political leaders to play any role to meaningfully improve life at these urban slums. These are vote banks for political parties. It is upon the ignorance of people of such spaces that parties capitalize to play minority politics and ‘blame game’ politics. Emotions of the people are kindled often, to achieve political objectives. Civil societies and educated communities, like the one I worked with, are the only reliable options in launching these spaces onto a road to progress.

As citizens, it is our responsibility to see to it that the wings of hopes and aspirations are not bound by the limitations of poverty and lack of education. It’s a responsibility endowed by humanity. It is not charity but responsibility.

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