Photo Essay

Following Shantaram through the slums of India

Toothless Matriarch I

For my birthday a friend bought me the book "Shantaram" by Gregory David Roberts. In spite of its hefty 936 pages, I lugged the book everywhere, living with it as the pages flew past. I was fascinated by his stories of coming to Bombay, living in a slum, getting thrown in jail and the underworld of India. After the book was done, what stuck with me were his vivid images of the slums. As an American working in India in microfinance, I kept remembering the community that he experienced in the slums and the participation among the families while he was there.

It occurred to me one morning that I had similar slums in Bangalore. I grabbed my camera, went to a poor section of town and asked around until I found a tiny tent community; only about 20 homes covered in blue tarps.

At the entrance of the community were two matriarchs selling peanuts in a roll of newspaper for 25 cents; ironic as neither of them had any teeth. Through someone I had met, we asked in the local language if it was okay to take pictures. They gave an Indian head wobble, which can mean about anything. As they didn't say "no", I proceeded down the hip-wide path between the houses. A small girl with a dirty yellow shirt popped up with a smile. She followed me as I peered in the tiny houses. She didn't speak English, but words weren't required. I took a couple of pictures of her and of the tiny homes.

I wandered into the next row and by now a small boy had joined us as well. They knew their neighbors and willingly opened their doors so I could see what was inside. Although I thought I had happened on a tent community, inside these homes were more permanent. Alongside a filthy river and underneath electrical towers the families had collected stones and bricks and leftover pieces of corrugated metal to create their homes.

At one home a young boy came up and asked me what I was doing. I was surprised to hear his perfect English; better than most educated Indian adults. I explained that I wanted to learn more about his community. He asked if I was a journalist, surprising me again. I tried to explain that my passion was learning about different cultures.

He took me in some of the homes and I asked about their lives. Without electricity (in spite of it being above their heads) they woke up and slept with the sun. Their diet was fairly simple with staples of rice and sambar, a soupy tomato sauce. Some of the kids went to school, the rest were the ones peering in the doorway. They had a washing spot in the back. A slab of granite with rough black plastic walls on three sides made a shower enclosure and the waste water would run down the hill into the filthy river.

Each of the homes was about 6'x8' and housed 4 to 6 people. During the day a small fire pit in the corner would heat their meals. At night small mattress would be laid on the dirt for their beds. Above the doorway was a little ledge that held a bar of soap, some laundry soap and a small plastic box to hold the families' toothbrushes. In the back of the small space they often had a small pooja to their Hindu gods.

All too soon it was lunch and I had to run off to meet a friend. While talking with her I realized something that had been missing in their homes that was common to most Indian houses; they had no pictures of themselves and their families! It only took an hour and I got prints of the photos I had taken that morning.

Arriving back at the community that afternoon, the first person I encountered was the little girl with the dirty yellow t-shirt. I pulled her photo off the top of the stack and handed it to her. She looked confused for a moment until she realized it was her own face smiling back at her. The boys around her realized the same and held out their hands for a photo. I handed over the photos of the ones I had seen that morning, happy that they were still in the same shirts for easy recognition.

A crowd gathered as everyone wanted a photo, even if they weren't in one. The two matriarchs came up for their photos with a third older woman who looked sad not to be in a photo. I gave her a photo of her two friends. Another older boy, about 14, showed up and started directing photos like traffic. "That one is her. That is his brother. That is his sister," he said pointing to a girl. He also warned me to watch my stuff as not all of the kids were trustworthy. One of the fathers came over and was literally beating kids back with a stick as everyone was pushing and shoving.

I had hoped to see the photos posted in their homes, but at that point it seemed best to leave. I backed down the street and the kids waved goodbye with their photos in their hands.

With only a morning in the slum, not a year of living with them as Roberts had, I got to glimpse into the lives of the families poorer than the ones I work with. I got to see their tiny homes that are amazingly passed down between generations. I got to a glimpse of the community atmosphere of the twenty families who call this slum home. And I got another confirmation of the amazing ability of families in India to survive on next to nothing. I'm still impressed.

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2 responses

  • Robert Fall

    Robert Fall said (4 Mar 2009):

    cool story... have you ever seen "born into brothels"? Also, a fun way to persue this further would be to do some participatory photography to see their lives from their perspective. Here is an example:

  • Susan Hall

    Susan Hall said (4 Mar 2009):

    I took a polaroid camera to Afghanistan. I had planned to do a photo exchange between A4T girls school in Afghanistan and my sisters school in USA. The students would have none of it. They were very excited and no way were they giving pictures up.

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