Kane Ryan of Dirty Wall Project encounters two beautiful children in the slums of Mumbai. An unlikely pair, these two, Ashwini and Boomi, cling together amidst the abuse and lack of affection at home.
Boomi’s tiny fingers grasp the rusted metal edge of her tin doorway. Just outside, a dog lazing on the pipeline growls but doesn’t move. With great effort, Boomi climbs out and drags her bare bottom along the broken concrete and adjusts herself into a sitting position. Triumphant, she claps her chubby hands together and smiles to herself. Her tiny white teeth show through the layers of dirt around her mouth, and as I get closer to her, she exclaims, “Whoa wow” and my heart melts.
I extend my arms to her, inviting her to play. She stares down at her hands, a cheeky grin creasing her grimy face as I lean against the pipeline and say, “Boomi, come!” Ashwini yells, “Good morning Kane Sir” from inside the hut, hops onto the pipe then quickly slides down to give me a hug. Boomi giggles as my hand rubs Ashwini’s freshly shaven head and I talk to her about being late for school. “School chelo!” Ashwini, who is maybe 10 years old, jokes with me, mimicking my voice and then she starts to run down the laneway with me in pursuit and Boomi bouncing in my arms in fits of raspy laughter. My fingers catch the top of Ashwini’s shirt collar and we wrestle for a moment. “Te ke Kane sir, Te ke…school, school!!
Ashwini runs back towards her hut, jumps up on a pile of loose boulders, hops back up onto the pipe and disappears to finish her mornings chores. Arful and Sunni, two half-brothers who also live in this small hut, yell “good morning” from the doorway. I place my foot on the pile of rocks and heave myself unsteadily onto the pipe and crouch as I enter their small home. Arful and Sunni are sitting with their backs against the rusted tin wall eating a biscuit.
I yell for Ashwini who is somewhere in the laneway or upstairs in the hut they sleep in. “Chedi, copra doosra!” (shorts, change clothes) It’s a terrible attempt at Hindi, but she knows I want some clean clothes for Boomi. She plucks a pair of raggedy, faded shorts and a shirt off the clothes line, rustmarks a permanent reminder of where they hang and hands them to me. Boomi’s little fingers pinch my leg as I help her wriggle into her shorts and shirt. Ashwini dumps talcom powder into her hands and covers Boomi’s face. Boomi’s eyes blink under a thick coating of white powder and we all laugh.
I prod and taunt Ashwini several more times over the next 2o minutes to hurry up, but I know that she must finish cleaning the dishes or suffer a beating from the women of her home. Changed and clean, Ashwini comes up behind me and hugs me, looks up and says ” chelo” ( I, go). “Yes, cheli cheli, go fast,” I say. A smile beams across her weathered, tight face and she breaks into a run clutching the small pencil box and notebook DWP purchased for her last month.
Four months ago when I first started to work in this section of the slum, I noticed Boomi, who is about 18 months old, who smells of dust and coconut oil, permanently attached to the hip of Ashwini. Ashwini was friendly and interested in the strange foreigner wading through garbage in front of her home.
They live with four other children (all boys), and three women sharing two small shacks. Of the three women, one is Ashwini’s birth mother, a sad women who I’ve yet to see smile, who lost her oldest son (from a different man) to a train accident two months ago. Santoshi is the birth mother of the three youngest boys and although she retains a rough and tough exterior she has some sweetness which I am slowly being exposed to. The third woman is Boomi’s adoptive mother, the queen and ruling dictator of the entire household, who is easy to despise.
Gossip among the neighbours claims when her husband fell ill with TB and became bedridden, she refused him medicine and food, forcing his death. Days before his death, she went “shopping” and purchased Boomi when she was a few days old for 11 dollars from a local prostitute who has nine other children and was eager for cash. Boomi was then passed off as her birth child, giving her the right to inherit her dying husband’s meager property holdings in the slum.
The three women work outside the slum cleaning offices and the children are left on their own to cope with the day and take care of each other. None of the three women have much interest in taking care of any of the children and there is thought to be prostitution in the home. The small boys, aged about six to nine, walk to municipal school each day outside of the slum through horrendous, dangerous traffic.
The rest of the day they spend playing with other kids in the slum. Ashwini’s life is different. She is Boomi’s primary caregiver and a slave to the women. Her life is difficult, and full of drudgery and pain. The physical pain comes from beatings, and the emotional pain comes from anxiety, loneliness, and a total lack of human affection. Despite this, Ashwini is spunky, laughs easily and is agile and smart, but the women don’t allow her the time for school and she struggles with literacy.
She has scars on her head — freshly shaven to get rid of lice — from beatings from Boomi’s mother. She is rail thin. Her bones jut out through her clothing. She is probably malnourished. A peek inside the doorway of the home reveals a chaotic, dirty room, clothes hanging from the doorway and along the tin walls, a few pots and dishes on a make-shift shelf and a chapati lying on an oily rag on the floor. The children eat cheap snack food from the tiny store in the slum. This food is loaded with sugar and useless carbohydrates. The boys’ teeth are rotten.
Boomi and Ashwini are a team. It is Ashwini who bathes Boomi under the tap in the laneway, combs her hair, puts it in pigtails and decorates it with barrettes, and dresses her in clean clothes when Boomi gets too dirty or soils her pants — and it is Boomi who gives Ashwini the only affection she is allowed. Ashwini is masculine and tough, and though she seems eager to play with the other little girls, they tend to shun her. Her future holds no promise, and possibly, and most likely, she will be groomed for prostitution in order to survive. Boomi’s fate will be much the same.
As I learned more about these two little girls, I wanted to help, but how? Life in India is complex, especially for the poor, and there is no easy way. If they could be removed from their home, the option is an unregulated government institution where they would be at risk for the same abuse, if not worse. The chance of being separated from each other is high as the two girls are not related. Everyday I watch as Ashwini fulfills her role as mother, doting on Boomi, while fetching water and washing dishes and attending to the needs of Boomi’s ‘mother’. The boys go to a municipal free school but Ashwini is not allowed the basic right to education.
One morning I asked Ashwini to come to the school with me, and as we reached the school I handed her a new book and pen and told her to sit in class. She looked up at me curiously and said, ” No Kane Sir”, then she smiled and sat down, Boomi sitting quietly beside her. I was happy. Ashwini was in school and all was well. The next morning Ashwini was not at school. I walked to her house and found her doing dishes in the laneway. “School ?” I asked. “No, Kane sir, mommy no.” I smile and tell her to hurry. Then she says, “Mommy boxing Kane sir, no school.”
When Boomi’s mother arrived home from work, Ashwini was beaten for attending school. Frustrated, sad and angry, I waited until the early evening and spottted her mother as she entered their home. In broken Hindi I asked why her why Ashwini couldn’t go to school? Clearly frustrated by me, she said Boomi must be taken care of. I countered, and said that every morning Boomi would become my responsibility while Ashwini attended school. Her eyes became small at the same time as Ashwini’s eyes became big and hopeful. Several minutes passed as Ashwini and I exchanged glances. The mother agreed that I could babysit Boomi. Ashwini and I quickly high-fived and I said I would be back in the morning!
It has now been over 10 weeks and Boomi and Ashwini and I have become close friends. My mom arrived six weeks ago and fell instantly in love with this ragged tag team. Boomi is too young to understand, but for Ashwini it is the first time in her short life that someone has cared. She enjoys my prodding her to get to school. The community told me that the kids and women of this household were bad people and that I should leave them alone, but after weeks of attention Boomi has become a doted on child, with other mothers pinching her cheeks and helping me in the mornings. For two hours every morning I am a single dad and a novelty which makes the women giggle and come to my aid.
For Ashwini, this precious two hours is more than just a school lesson, it is time to just be a kid and forget her daily burdens. She plays and writes in her book and is like every other 10 year old. When the bell rings, like Cinderella, her life changes, but she knows that she has a friend looking out for her. Ashwini and Boomi now spend most of the day hanging near the school or sitting with my mother as she sews with the women, joking and being mischievous.
I am due to leave Mumbai shortly, and will be away from this community for a few months, and I am concerned about Ashwini and Boomi. Every part of me wants to steal them in the middle of the night, take them with me or to somewhere safe where they will be loved and respected. But the solution is not that easy and I know this. Ashley will be watching over the girls and will do what is best for them if they need help, but that is as much as we can do.
When I return, I will continue to work on ways to bring some happiness and a better life for them, with the hope of somehow changing their destiny. This may sound like a sad ending to a sad story, but for the last 10 weeks, Boomi and Ashwini have had lots of affection, attention, love and laughter, and although their situation hasn’t changed, at least they are aware that they are worth something to someone.
Notebook & pen – 25 INR – .56 cents CAD.
All photos courtesy of Kane Ryan, Dirty Wall Project