A Day to Remember in….Mumbai

By Aleka A. Kroitzsh

(Aleka studies at the American School of Bombay and came to ARMMAN while researching for her project on Maternal and Child Mortality)

 

I can say with certainty that one of my happiest, most contented moments I’ve spent out of the last eight years I’ve lived in Mumbai has been sitting in an extraordinarily compact room– about the size of the elevator at my high-rise apartment building– sipping chai next to the kindest women who had been strangers just an hour ago. I had arrived at T junction at 4:30 pm, and since then had experienced my first motorcycle ride, entered Dharavi– the largest slum in Asia– for the first time, met and connected with such inspiring individuals I otherwise never would have met, and drunk the most satisfying glass of masala chai I had ever tasted.

 

I am working with the NGO ARMMAN on a project to spread awareness and raise funds about the extremely high infant and maternal mortality rates in the slums of Mumbai, the infant mortality rate being 11% in India[1], as compared to 0.3% in developed countries such as Sweden[2], and the maternal death rate being 181 for every 100,000 births,[3] as compared to 4 out of 100,000 in Sweden.[4] My contribution to ARMMAN is a photographic exhibition and campaign on social media, to tell these women’s stories, and hopefully thereby raise awareness and funds. My plan was to take photographs of some of the mothers in the slums, and talk to them about their lives and how ARMMAN has helped them through their pregnancies. I had coordinated with them, and Richa, the communications head, with the help of Mandar, another coordinator from ARMMAN, had organised this site visit for me.

 

Going into the slums was extremely different than I would have expected. Quite honestly, I expected grey downtrodden figures dragging their feet, grey walls, and extreme gloominess, but soon discovered that this was an incredibly naive misconception of Dharavi. In fact, it was quite the opposite. There was a constant bustle and feeling of light-heartedness in the colourful fabric hanging from clothing lines and children playing cricket in the street. So, I arrived in the narrow walkways, with small doors leading into small shoe box-like houses on either side of the ground, paved with maroon tiles. It wasn’t a dark alley where people burrow themselves away, it was a home, just like any other.

Three women– Kalpana, Rohini and Rekha– who run a group called Tanishka that plans empowering activities for the pregnant women and mothers in this area of Dharavi, took Mandar– the coordinator with ARMMAN that brought me to Dharavi that day– and me to two mothers’ houses. Dharavi was like an obstacle course maze that had been drizzled with water colors. While walking through the narrow passages, grates, fire-escape ladders, tarps, plants and wires stuck out of the walls, clothes of every color hanging from them. Children were playing cricket in any lane that was remotely wide enough to suit their game.

Sakhis

The first mother’s house we went to was Kalpana’s (a different Kalpana from the woman who leads Tanishka). I introduced myself in my unseasoned broken Hindi, and she invited me into her house. Pots and pans hung on the walls, and there was just enough space in her one room for three of us to sit down. She offered me some water, and we began talking. When I asked her about her family, she replied, weaving through Hindi and Marathi, “I have two children, they are both boys- one is four months old, and the other is two years old. I’ve lived in Dharavi for four years now, before that I lived in my village.” She was soft spoken, and reluctant to make eye contact for long periods of time, but her eyes were kind and soft. When we asked her about Mobile Mitra and how it had affected her life, she said,

Aleka,s blog 1

“Now, I know what to eat, what medicines to take and how to take care of myself. Before, I did not know that I had to clean clothes before putting them on Rishikesh”–her 4 month old boy– “but after receiving the calls, I only put them on him if the clothes are washed. Because of the Mitra service calls, I have had two very safe deliveries.”

 

We asked her if her son, Rishikesh, was around, and a smile stretched across her face as she brought her baby boy down from a hole in the ceiling which lead to another small space upstairs. He was healthy and chubby, and I discovered, extremely photogenic, when I took his photo with Kalpana.

 

We walked through more lanes, ducking and dodging, until we came to a door that was about two foot tall, built under protruding window bars. We ducked inside and found ourselves in another room, different fabrics hanging still in the  dusty hot summer air from different clothes lines on the paint-chipping walls. We met Priya, who insisted I sit on the bed and she sit on a stool, even though she was nine months pregnant. Her Dadi offered me tea, which was the most delicious masala tea I had tasted. I sipped it out of a five inch tall glass that I had seen umpteen times at the chaiwala shops on the road.

 

We sat almost shoulder to shoulder in the compact room and joked about Dadi’s chai, and things mundane enough to forget the next day, but important in the way they made me feel connected to these women. I asked Priya about herself and her family. She said in Hindi, “I’m twenty-six years old, and nine months pregnant. This is my first pregnancy. I live with my Dadi and my mom. My mom doesn’t help me much, but my Dadi takes care of me sometimes. My husband works in Lower Parel. I’ve grown up in Dharavi, and have lived here my whole life.” I asked her about how Mobile Mitra aided her pregnancy and she said,

 

“After receiving the calls and SMS’s from Mobile Mitra, I know what to eat, when to go to the doctor, and the proper way to sit and lie down. My delivery date is May 10th, and I feel scared because this is my first pregnancy. But, the calls have helped me feel safer, and given me proper advice that I could not get from family members.”

 

I showed Priya and her Dadi the photos I took of them, and they both shook with laughter and covering their faces with their hands.

Dadi

 

These small things, such as washing the baby’s clothes, may seem insignificant, but keeping the infants from contracting small coughs and stomach infections are often the difference between life and death for them. To hear the gratefulness in their voices when speaking about Mobile Mitra was truly inspiring.

 

We then went back to the office. Kalpana and Rekha (the administrators of the Tanishka group) spoke about the mothers’ eagerness to get information about pregnancies. They said when there is the occasional malfunction in the mobile calling system, they receive call after frantic call from the mothers, asking what had happened and when they’d get their periodic information and instruction.

 

Kalpana, who has three children, talked about how her pregnancy had been very different from the women who get help from Mobile Mitra (mMitra) during pregnancy. She spoke in Hindi, saying, “When I gave birth, I didn’t have proper information. When I had my second child, I couldn’t produce milk to give to the child. I panicked. When I got pregnant with my third child, the experience was so scary that I even considered getting an abortion. If I had the information these women receive from Mobile Mitra, I would not have felt that way. Many women don’t ask questions because they feel embarrassed or are scared. Now, they receive this information easily on their own.”

 

Kalpana and Rekha also said that most women are never allowed to leave their houses. Not just during pregnancy, but ever. Most of the houses were no more than 5 by 5 feet at the most. Imagine being confined in a 5 square foot room for your entire life.  Rekha explained, saying, “They don’t have confidence, and their husbands like having housewives. That is the culture.” Kalpana and Rekha organise activities for the women to make them more confident, and this has brought many of the women out of their houses. They also talked about how Mobile Mitra brought certain families together, saying, “Sometimes the wives do not have mobile phones, so the husbands pick up the calls and pass on the messages to the wives. This is wonderful for bringing families together, and getting the husbands to take care of their wives and get involved.”

 

I was inspired by how these weekly calls had so much power. They were the difference between life and death for the infants. Riding back to T junction on the rear of Mandar’s motor bike, I felt a sense of satisfaction that this organisation was doing something good, and maybe somehow, I could, too. The women had asked me to come back and stay the whole day next time, and I think I will take them up on that offer.

 

 

 

 

[1]  Sumitra Deb Roy, “Mumbai’s Infant Mortality Rate Plunges 11% over Last Year.” (Times of India. N.p., 2 May 2014) Web. 17 Feb, 2016.

[2]  Angus Deaton, “The Great Escape:Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality.” Deaton, A.: The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. (eBook, Paperback and Hardcover) (Princeton University Press, 2013) Web. 21 Feb. 2016.

[3]  Tabassum Barnagarwala, “City’s Maternal Mortality Rate at Alarming 158 (“The Indian Express. N.p., 01 Apr. 2014) Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

[4]   Angus Deaton, “The Great Escape:Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality.” Deaton, A.: The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. (eBook, Paperback and Hardcover) (Princeton University Press, 2013) Web. 21 Feb. 2016.

 

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One thought on “A Day to Remember in….Mumbai

  1. Awesome narrative. Your descriptions and observations help me understand the circumstances of the women. The photos are beautiful.
    I had the pleasure of meeting you in New York when you were 4 years old.
    Thank youq

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