In the streets of Bombay only beggars wear flip-flops — unless you’re Kane Ryan and don’t mind a bit of teasing.
Michael Jackson blares through my ear phones as I try to find a gap in the morning traffic. I step into traffic, then freeze just in time to watch a rickshaw skid to a stop to avoid a bus, covering me in a cloud of dust and dirt. As the dust settles and my heart rate begins to drop, I hear the laughter of a small child. I look down to find a small boy squatting, pantless and dirty, using the roadway as a toilet. He waves, I wave back and continue on my way, stepping over broken bricks and debris as I enter the slum.
I remove my headphones and the sound of barking dogs fills my ears. My heart races with every bark as I scramble to jump up onto the pipeline. In between the rabid growls of the dogs, I hear laughter coming from a group of men sitting under a crooked piece of rusted tin. They are laughing so hard that red pan spit dribbles down their chin. They point at me while speaking to me in Marathi. I laugh with them as I have little choice, and continue on my way.
Children run barefoot beside the pipe pushing tires and yelling “Kane sir”. Mothers peek out from behind ripped curtains and offer hellos as I pass. There is a group of people huddled around something on the ground and I spot Niteen. Sliding off the pipeline, I join the group curious to see what’s going on.
In the center of the group is a hardened women with a small fishing tackle box filled with inks and a small rusting battery. A boy of about 17 sits with his forearm exposed while the women roughly pins his arm between her fingers and presses a needle against his skin. The needle is hooked up to a small motor which turns the entire home-made contraption into a mobile tattoo parlor. I watch for a moment as the small tattoo becomes visible. When I ask how much this ‘tattoo’ will cost, Niteen tells me the cost is 10 rupees ( 22 cents CAD). Taking a closer look at her instruments, I notice there is only one needle and ask Niteen whether the needle is ever changed. They all find this funny. I say the word “AIDs” and the women looks up, angry at me for mentioning the obvious, as if it may be bad for business. Shaking my head in frustration encourages more laughter and I advise Niteen not to get a tattoo. He shows me the “N” crudely tattooed on the back of his hand.
I feel frustrated and anxious by the lack of awareness and the lack of education that permeates in these poor communities. I tell some of the women in the sewing class about the tattoo session and how dangerous I thought it was. They all smiled and showed me the small dime-shaped tattoos on their forearms. They tell me that getting a tattoo is a tradition upon getting married.
I love India and its people, but there are many religious and cultural traditions that put the poor in harm’s way. As a foreigner from Canada, a much different culture, I compel myself to try to understand their customs and rituals that, for me, have no meaning or logic, while I appreciate their questions to me regarding my culture.
I am a constant source of amusement for this community and spend the majority of the day being laughed at. My views of what is right and wrong differ so vastly that all they can do is laugh. When I pick up garbage thrown by a child and make a point of showing him/her that it belongs in the trash can, it confuses the child completely.
We took 50 women from the slum on a picnic to the beach. When the women finished with their juice containers, they threw them over their shoulders, leaving a pile of garbage on the shimmering sand. I began to pick up the garbage, which caused widespread confusion among the women who quickly told me that it was okay to leave the mess. My argument that it wasn’t okay fell on deaf ears and produced condescending smiles. In conversations we have about Canada, I speak about how clean it is. They smile and say how wonderful that must be, but fail to see the connection between the two?
My choice of clothing is a hot topic among the community here. I’m a shorts and t-shirt guy and with the temperature always hovering around 30 degrees Celsius, this just seems practical! In this Indian community of thousands, I am the only one in “short pants” which becomes a constant source of amusement.
The women tell me daily that I would look much smarter in pants and a collared shirt. When I explain to them that for a Canadian anything above 10 degrees Celsius is short pant weather, they laugh. Personal presentation is very important in India. Most men adhere to the strict dress code of collared shirts and pressed trousers regardless of their economic status. I’m from a wealthy country and thus must have money for at least one pair of pants.
Ashley (a local Indian man who I work with) wears black jeans, long-sleeved collared shirts buttoned to the neck and black plastic dress shoes no matter what the temperature is — and he doesn’t sweat! I am as amused by his attire in this climate as he is amused by my ‘presentation’.
To round off my look, I wear cheap, practical, long-lasting rubber flip-flops. (I’ve had my current pair for almost a year). This is another point of contention for the women because my feet get dirty and the only people who wear sandals like this are children or the poorest of the poor. According to the caste system a person should not dress below their station. They are amused and bothered as to why I dress like a beggar when I don’t have to.
While I am well-loved in this community, I have become somewhat of the slum jester. My inability to communicate freely due to the language barrier and my crazy foreign ways incite laughter up and down the pipeline. It is truly amazing how much work can be done with a smile and a laugh!
They tell me “I have the feet of beggar and the heart of an Angel….”
All photos © Kane Ryan, Dirty Wall Project. all Rights Reserved.
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