The City of Joy
As I prepared for my trip to Kolkata, the irony was not lost on me that the home of the street children and slums I would be visiting was affectionately known as The City of Joy.
According to the 2011 Census, there are 70,000 homeless living in Kolkata and NGOs feel the actual numbers are much higher. Kolkata also represents over 37% of all the child trafficking cases in India.
West Bengal also has the most cases of missing children, reporting 14,671 cases in 2014, which is 21 per cent of the total such cases registered in the country (thehindu.com). Many of the missing girls are forced into sex trade.
It didn’t sound like The City of Joy to me.
(Photos throughout taken by me and Jane Armour).
So why was I going?
About a year ago I started sponsoring a 6 year old girl called Priya through a charity called The HOPE Foundation. HOPE provides protection to vulnerable children living on the streets and in the slums of Kolkata. I had learned from HOPE’s correspondence that Priya's family lived in a slum area beside the river, in occupied and illegal land in one small overcrowded room. Her father is the only member of the family who is earning and his income is around £48 per month. Priya has one older sister and her mother finds it very difficult to take care of both of her children. She admitted Priya to the HOPE crèche so that she could receive non-formal education and nutritional support. When the opportunity arose to visit the HOPE projects and meet Priya in person, whilst also enjoying wonderful restorative yoga sessions with Simon Lowe and Vikki Stevenson, I knew I had to go.
On 5th January 2018 I set off on what would be an emotionally and physically exhausting trip. But one that I would never ever forget.
Having been to Delhi, I anticipated that Kolkata would have little regard for the highway code and I was not disappointed. Our taxi from the airport attempted to weave through an endless stream of bumper to bumper traffic showing no concern for lanes and sounding the horn in a way that suggested a severe case of road rage. But there was no rage. He was simply announcing that he was coming through and there was nothing you could do to stop him. The taxi was hot and stuffy so I opened the window, sat back and inhaled the invigorating concoction of car fumes and India spices. We had arrived.
Right from the outset our schedule was relentless, in a good way. Every day was jam packed with visits to various HOPE projects to learn more about them. At each one I was blown away by the amazing work that this charity do.
One of the facilities set up by HOPE is a small hospital. Many street children are not permitted into the state hospitals because they have no address and no verifiable identity so they remain largely without medical care. At the HOPE hospital we met a young girl who, at 16, already had 2 children. She had been married at 12 years old and her husband is addicted to substance abuse. This is common as it alleviates hunger and provides some form of short lived escapism from the terrible conditions in which many families live on the streets and in the slums of Kolkata. The girl’s husband had violently attacked her and slashed her face open all the way down one side. Along with her 2 young children she was taken into care and is now receiving medical treatment. Situations like this are unfortunately not uncommon. This particular hospital can hold around 35 people. There are over 700 believed to be in need of medical attention.
Belgachia Bhagar dump is one of the biggest slums in West Bengal. The area is heaped with waste material and most of the nearby communities are engaged in rag picking as a profession. Due to the lack of childcare and education, families working on the dump have previously forced to take their children and babies with them but HOPE provide a crèche facility to enable children to be dropped off whilst their families go to work. The crèche was basic but full of smiling and energetic babies that genuinely seemed to enjoy our company as much as we enjoyed theirs.
As we walked back along the dusty tracks through the slum, there were mounds of litter everywhere which attracted pigs and swarms of flies. The smell was not as bad as I expected but I can only imagine how stifling it would be once the summer months arrived. I couldn’t believe how densely populated the area was. There were people everywhere. Local children flocked around us curiously, wanting their photographs taken.
On the dump itself women and children were rummaging through waste, competing with pigs for scraps of food and material. I could see flies congregate around them and knew that if they got into open wounds, there would soon be maggots feeding on their live flesh. Lack of medical care makes this a common problem in the area. Sandflies lay eggs in untreated open wounds and these grow into maggots which live under the skin.
Standing in the middle of this vast dump ground community, I couldn’t help but feel totally overwhelmed. How could we ever make a difference? It really struck me just how critical education was to these communities. The HOPE crèche facilities, in many cases, are providing an education to first generation learners. The first children within their family histories to attend school. I looked at their tiny faces and wide shining eyes and knew that they really could change the future.
Another serious problem in Kolkata is solvent abuse. We visited the HOPE rehabilitation centre for boys who had been rescued from the railways. Living under the arches, many had been abandoned by their parents. 90% of them had become addicted to substances such as glue, which they use to help alleviate hunger and provide some short lived escapism from their daily reality. The boys openly talked about their addictions and how they had been driven to do bad things like fighting and stealing. They explained how happy they were to have this second chance.
These boys initially embark on rehabilitation programmes to address the substance addiction and then receive an education to help them turn their lives around. In my opinion educating and nurturing young boys such as these is crucial in order to change the mind-sets of the previous generations and make India a safer place for its women and children. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, a girl is abducted every eight minutes in India. It is said to be the most dangerous place in the world to be born a girl.
We met some of the luckier girls in the HOPE protection home. I couldn’t believe how open and full of love they were. They seemingly carried no anger or resentment despite the cruelty the world has shown them. Instead they simply beamed with happiness and warmth. We discussed bollywood movies and favourite meals and they put on a special dance show for us. They looked so beautiful.
Everywhere we went we were met with open arms and huge smiles.
However it's a sad fact that children in India are often abandoned because their families cannot afford to raise them. This is especially relevant in the case of children with special needs or disabilities. At the Protection Home for special needs children we learned the tragic story of one of its residents. A couple of years ago, when he was just a little baby, this boy had been wrapped in newspaper and left by a rubbish bin. By the time HOPE found him, rats had already nibbled away at the infant’s face stripping his nose back to cartilage. His face was still badly damaged and he is having on going reconstructive surgery to repair the damage. On a positive note they had just received news that a family had successfully applied for his adoption and next week he would be starting a new life, with a new family in Rome.
‘Nightwatch’ was a very memorable experience and probably the one I was the most apprehensive about doing. This is where a HOPE ambulance travels from slum to slum providing the opportunity for the homeless to speak to the doctor or social worker and obtain prescriptions for medication.
As we pulled into our first stop it got noticeably darker and I’d be lying if I said I felt fully at ease in my surrounding. Out of the undergrowth of dark tarpaulin emerged several men, women and young children. One young boy was in shorts and a t shirt and was visibly shivering. He had also cut his foot but was walking around in open toe flimsy footwear. We gave him some socks to help keep his feet clean and warm. Others flocked around for medicine and received the necessary prescriptions. The social worker was amazing. At only 22 she was calm and kind, patient yet authoritative. What a truly remarkable and inspiring young lady.
At stop number 2 we met a Muslim family. Two young boys appeared from nowhere and held my hands, one on each side. They led me down a small dark pathway towards their real estate which was no bigger than your average bathroom but was accommodating 6 people. From my left scurried a dark black rat the size of a small dog. The boys didn’t flinch. It took every effort on my part not to scream. When we reached their ‘home’ they were keen for us to meet their family. We chatted to them for a while and they asked to have photos taken with us. The elderly grandparents sat on the floor around a blazing fire and it did occur to me that this was something of a fire hazard!
From another corner of the street appeared 2 young girls who proceeded to walk with us on the round, curious to see what we doing and keen to speak to us in English. One of them told me how she wanted to be a dancer. ‘Bollywood dancing?’ I asked. ‘No, classical’ she replied. I asked her to show me and in amongst the heaps of rubbish and thick dusty plastic sheets she performed a beautiful classical dance with the grace and poise of a princess. We walked until we reached an elderly lady, perched in a makeshift ‘bedroom’ made of pallets and plastic. I offered her some biscuits and, as she looked up at me, her eyes spoke to me with a kindness I have never seen. Slowly she reached out and took my hands as she leaned toward me and kissed the tops of my fingers. Her eyes filled with tears that never fell but instead just seemed to hang, as if suspended in her jet black eyes. She told us that her arthritis was very bad and she struggled to walk. We went back to the ambulance and the fetched the doctor who spoke to her and provided a prescription which I expect was to help with the pain. She smiled and thanked us and I felt that it truly came from the very depths of her heart.
The hardest part about meeting all of these incredible people is of course having to leave them.
Walking back down a dark alley lined with homeless families we passed a late night bar. Music and laugher echoed out into the street as punters partied into the night while babies slept outside on the concrete. I almost didn’t see this tiny little baby asleep on the pavement. HOPE will keep an eye on her over the coming weeks and months and hopefully even enrol her in school when she is older.
One of the highlights of my trip was getting to meet my sponsored child. I was nervous, as no doubt she probably was too.
I met her in the afternoon at the HOPE café.
That morning we had been to visit a crèche about an hour’s drive away. On leaving the crèche I met a lovely family walking around the slum and was drawn to a very sweet little girl all dressed up in a beautiful green dress. It seems selfies are a global phenomenon and we spent some time having pictures together and communicating as best with could. I couldn’t establish why she was all dressed up but assumed she was off to a party or celebration of some kind in all her finery. Wherever she was heading she looked like a little princess and was clearly very excited.
We got back on the bus and I felt nervous about heading to meet my sponsor girl. What if she didn’t like me or seemed uncomfortable meeting a strange westerner with whom she couldn’t properly communicate? What if I didn’t know what to say to her or worse still what if I became a tearful emotional wreck in front of her. I’d never been so anxious about meeting a 7 year old! I waited nervously at the café and very soon she arrived. She looked as nervous as I felt, wearing a pretty dress with a thick woolly jumper over the top. Her teacher accompanied her and explained to me that she had been excitedly getting ready all morning. She was beautiful. Like really beautiful. She smiled shyly at me and I felt overwhelmed with love for this tiny stranger.
I gave her some little gifts, simple things including a colouring book, some bangles and hairbands. Each time she gasped ‘wow’ and said ‘thank you’ in a little raspy voice. Excitedly she started colouring, filling in the intricate designs perfectly in carefully selected bright colours.
We stayed for a while before walking back up to the HOPE office down the road. We walked hand in hand and every now and then she would glance up at me and beam a big smile. Each time she did it I swear I felt my heart crack a little bit. We said our goodbyes and I reluctantly let her go. I knew that I would miss her desperately already. I rejoined the rest of our HOPE team and one of the girls said ‘wasn’t that the little girl from this morning’? No I replied, just a similar colour dress.
As we set off to our next project I flicked back through my photos from the day and reached the pictures from the morning in the slum. Sure enough the little girl I had spoken to in the slum was my Priya.
How had I not realised? It seems silly now but in my daze, nervousness and excitement I hadn’t recognised her as the little princess from that morning. I wonder if she had made the connection and recognised me as the girl with the camera taking their photos in the slum. That must have been her mother I spoke to that morning, and her sister. I felt sad, not to mention stupid, that I hadn’t recognised her. Then I just smiled at the absurdity of our chance encounter. Fate maybe, I don't know but I knew it was a day I would remember forever.
From there I was offered a tour of the HOPE office, in particular one of their I.T rooms. A couple of us went up a few flights of stairs and when we arrived at the I.T room there was a small group session in progress with a handful of teenagers being supported and educated through HOPE. They were discussing ‘what builds a person’. He said education, self-reliance, moral values, compassion and sharing. He said that war starts when sharing ends. We all reflected on the importance of sharing, in every sense of the word, and at point he said he would like to share something with the group. He reached into a folder and pulled out this beautiful sketch of Vivekananda, on what also happened to be the anniversary of Vivekananda's birthday. He was born in 1863 in Kolkata.
Kolkata has a special place in my heart now, along with each and every one of the people I met there. I know I have made some lifelong friends and feel fortunate that I had lovely group to share the journey with; all mad as a box of frogs but with huge hearts (my kind of people!).
But without a doubt, Kolkata is not for the faint hearted. Families line the streets under webs of tarpaulin, tiny babies sleep next to their mothers who pray they won’t be snatched and sold into the sex trade overnight. It feels grubby. Thick dust and pollution fills the air, and your lungs. The sound of car horns reverberate through your whole body. But the chaos becomes oddly comforting after a while and strangely I miss it. The colours, the smells, the people.
There is an undeniable joy in their faces. I can’t find the words to describe it. It’s like the sparkle in their eyes cannot be dimmed, even in their darkness moments. The sound of their laughter cannot be drowned out by the traffic and, for sure, the hope in their eyes cannot be distinguished.
Before I went to Kolkata it seemed deeply ironic to me that it was known as The City of Joy.
Now I understand…
How you can get involved:
For just £20 per month you can sponsor a child, providing them with an education and nutritional support. That’s less than a coffee a day and your contribution really will make a huge difference to a child's life and future.