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October 19, 2003 - An update from Delhi, India
I arrived two weeks ago, and after a week or so of settling in, I began my work in the jhuggie. I've been meeting every day with about eight kids (11 through 17), and I'm loving both the experience and the kids. We have already created characters for book and now weíre working on some story ideas.
Things haven't quite worked out the way I had planned. I was hoping to help the kids (financially) to build a place where they could study. And when the study room was up, I would live in the building for a month, absorbing the interactions of the community and learning from the kids about their lives. My goal was, and still is, to gather enough information to write a fictional book set in a jhuggie. I worked out the logistics by e-mail with my friend, Carol, who originally introduced me to the kids.
When I arrived in India, I was greeted by Carol, who had been working to make the project happen. She opened with, "Do I have stories to tell you!"
Things were going beautifully, she reported. Unofficial permission was obtained from a local commissioner and the kids were thrilled that they were going to have a place to study. A site was chosen near a small tea shop in one corner of the jhuggie. Bricks (from a demolition, which were cheaper and actually better quality than the new ones) and gravel were purchased and loaded onto a bicycle rickshaw (which broke under the weight, but thatís a different story). The materials were dumped on the street not too far from the site. Around 15 kids spent most of a day carrying the bricks to the place where the building would go up. They were ecstatic, singing and talking and full of joy while they worked.
They dug a trench around the perimeter of the building plot. Some kids chipped rocks for fill. Others took turns digging in the hard soil with the few shovels they were able to scrounge. Still others handed bricks to the two resident masons who were hired to help (for three dollars a day).
The kids spent two weekends working, digging, building. By Sunday noon of the second weekend, three walls were nearly five feet tall. Carol reports that there was a festive, almost magical mood when she left to go to lunch. When she returned two hours later, disaster had struck. Fifteen cops had marched in and kicked the walls down. The kids were in a state of shock. They shouted and begged and cried. "Why don't you knock down the hut that sells alcohol to our fathers?"
But the voices of children are not much respected here and the cops continued to kick. The cop in charge later said that he had thought the building was an illegal extension to the tea shop. He was just doing his job. There is a regulation against any new building in the jhuggie. It is a squatters colony and totally illegal to begin with.
Sooooo, another appeal to the local commissioner is in the works for written permission to build the study hall. It looks good. The commissioner's wife stopped by with an entourage the other day to have a look (fortunately there is an election coming up and her husband wants the votes of the 228 families in the jhuggie), so it looks as if it may actually be built. But with all this attention, my plan to live there has been scrapped. There's just too much attention to the site and the project; a western writer-in-residence is not part of the package they are permitting. So, I'm looking for a room to rent nearby.
Meanwhile, I am meeting with the kids every day. After five days, we have an interesting cast of characters and some possible plot lines for the book. They are really into itÖ.and once we created the characters, they really started pouring out their lives onto the fictional versions of themselves. Iím learning so muchÖ..and loving it. I bring a few oranges and apples to keep us going every morning. I suspect they do not get much fruit in their homes.
My request for donations is still active (the Florida address on my home page is the place to send them Even a little bit will go a long way). But the designation is a bit changed. If money comes in, it will first be used to make the study hall functional. If there is money left over, or if the study hall doesn't happen, the money will be used for tutors. In meeting with the kids, I've learned a lot, but one of the most poignant bits of information has to do with their schooling. The kids who are not taken out of school to earn money for the family, the ones with determination to better their lives, go to a government school where many of the teachers simply don't teach.
Those kids who are trying to get themselves through high school have to take 10th and 12th grade government exams. Without tutors, the passing rate is zero. The poignancy is that a daily tutor, one hour each day, costs the equivalent of $6.00 a month.........and the families do not have the money. With your money, I'd like to set up a tutoring fund. It is very clear that education is the only way out, and it's inaccessible to kids whose parents earn a dollar a day on construction sites.
So that's my update. To be continued.