Even though we don’t live in a cloistered expat community, there is still the potential to live in a bubble, unaware of many of the challenges around us. That is not the way I want to live here. Sure, I will occasionally seek the bubble, but I also want to truly understand and be a part of life in India. With that in mind, I went on a social awareness tour conducted by Five Oceans, a local club that gave memberships to teachers at Tom’s school.
I was part of a group of five women who met our guide, Kaveri, a cultural anthropologist who has long interacted with and supported the community that she took us to visit. This particular slum was initially formed when the government gave a 25-year land grant to villagers lured to Bengaluru to work on new road development in this ever-growing city. Twenty-nine years later, it’s still there, home to 25,000 people who live in small homes of their own creation without plumbing, running water, or garbage collection. Children who grew up there now raise their children there, and yet there is joy among the garbage.
The focus of our tour was a group called Anu Life, created 8 years ago to give women in the Janakiram Slum the tools to support their families. It has done so much more than that for the 11 women who work there. Officially, it offers healthcare and education for the women and their children, helping them to learn the English that they need to succeed here. Unofficially, it offers pride and confidence, both unknown to these women before their involvement.
Kamala came to Bengaluru as a young child and worked with her parents on road building with no protection from chemical exposure or general safety. She grew up, got married, and had four children. When the fourth was born, she and the infant were both very ill with tuberculosis. Her husband sent her to his parents’ village, far away, where she was horribly mistreated. Eventually she was strong enough to leave with the baby and return to home in the slum. When she got there, she learned that her husband had run off with another woman and
abandoned their children alone to scavenge in the streets. Kamala brought them all together again and got a job working nights for 100 rupees per night (about $1.40). It was a constant struggle. And then Anu Life recruited her as one of its first members. She is paid 200 rupees for every bag that she weaves (each taking about three hours to create), she receives healthcare for herself and her children, and she’s proud of what she does. She said that when she began, she was always scared and wouldn’t talk to anybody, but now she’s confident enough to talk to anyone. And she’s proud of her three older children in boarding school.
Sophia proudly invited us into her home to see her two prized possessions: a large blue plastic rain barrel and a double bed on a metal frame. Water is a major factor in these women’s lives – it is an effort to get clean water to drink, do dishes, wash clothes, wash themselves; they are also at the mercy of any flooding. Sophia is able fill her rain barrel, occasionally with help from Lalitha, and doesn’t sleep on the floor where it’s often damp. Like Kamala, she has three older children at boarding school and one at home with her. She told me that she visits a different child each month so only sees the older kids every three months. She also told me that she is not sad when she says good-bye “because they must have a beautiful life and they can’t have that here.”
Lalitha’s home is up a flight of stairs. It’s tiny (about 5 feet by 6 feet with a 3 foot square L
off one side which serves as her kitchen). As small as it is, she has two distinct advantages: the height means that she is not subject to flooding, and she has actual running water for two days each week which she shares with friends in need. She also has a distinct disadvantage. She shares her small home with her husband and three children. When she was asked if her husband works, she said, “No, he drinks.” We were then told that he beats her often and she’s just getting over a black eye. She also told us, though, that through Anu Life she has learned to stand up to him so it’s not as bad as it was. The other women spoke of her strength and generosity.
Anu Life means a great deal to the women who serve as its collective workforce and owners. They were taught the craft of making baskets and bags out of tetra packs (juice boxes) and of embroidering on old cement bags. Their supplies are otherwise garbage, but the things they make with them are lovely. They do, however, constantly struggle to find buyers for their work and nearly had to end their operation last month when they had no sales. Happily, a woman placed a large order and kept them going, and everyone who tours their operation buys something (I bought two bags that I love). If you’d like an Anu Life bag, let me know and I’ll make it happen!