I am walking; blissfully filling in time on a dusty Mumbai street before I am due to attend a Youth for Governance Forum.
Up ahead, clothes and rugs colourfully adorn a mid-street barricade. Ah, memories of my days living in China; someone’s washing has been tossed over the metal frame for a public airing. I decide to take a photo to remind my children of their early days in China.
But suddenly this becomes a photo that cannot be taken. For now I see the family, the owners of the washing. Without realising it, I am centre stage in an Indian roadside slum.
Torn blue tarpaulins, roughly hewn blankets and thick, dusty black plastic form the makeshift walls of rows and rows of cells. To even attempt to call these ‘rooms’ would be to dignify the undignifiable.
My eyes are drawn unwillingly through an open doorway and I feel the guilt and shame of a voyeuristic tourist, unable to look away. A dirt floor, a bit of plastic. Nothing else inhabits this family home. Instead, their meagre possessions all seem to be outside – pots and pans –where cooking is taking place on the street floor. Babies are being fed, children sitting and dazed dogs lie still. Too still. My thoughts are carried to my own two dogs, back in Melbourne, each of them possessing boundless, well-fed energy.
Like thousands of western tourists before me, I wonder what to do. I’m overwhelmingly sunk in reality. No-one looks up at me nor any of the other passers-by. No-one is asking for money – no shaking coin baskets pushed in my face.
I know there are NGO’s working to improve the quality of these people’s lives. I know now that the Indian Government has implemented a progressive health scheme for the poor. I know too that the ‘School for the Homeless’ rolls on in the shape of a large yellow school bus, enticing the children to practice their reading and writing with the promise of chocolate.
But what can I do? How am I supposed to help? I keep walking, head down, pondering, questioning. For now, I let sleeping dogs lie.
— Marg Hepworth January 2014 visit.
This reflection was written by me on my first sojourn to India, before I met the breathtakingly inspirational ETST team. And now we will work together... in schools for children of the slums, in schools for children of the wealthy, in all schools - because we all need to consider the values we want to take with us into our future.