Yesterday was our first site visit with Aangan Trust. For those of you who are unfamiliar with what Aangan does, they work with state run institutions to ensure they actually take care of the children. Many of the homes are in jail-like conditions: no sanitation, few meals, and high sexual abuse. They also run community programs for rehabilitation of children from these homes and prevention so at-risk youth have appropriate community support to avoid the system altogether. So Shakti, the girls program, helps introduce empowerment so girls join together to make their communities better.
Carole and I took a cab to meet our Aangan Shakti lead at Sandherst Station. The ride itself was a wave of industry. Men carrying large beams, sweating through their shirts pushing giant wheelbarrows of metal. Half the road was unpaved so the force of a million strained travelers urging on the traffic as we attempted to reach on time but were delayed. Pakistani flags waving proudly, and the one undusted item in the whole sky, the mosque, begging us for a prayer. Men made noises at us through the cab windows and we tried to avoid their glances. Open-air shaving stations held man after man, and groups spitting their tobacco while watching us onwards. We hid beneath our sunglasses and laughed in the uncomfort of the situation.
We arrived at Sandherst, which intersects both the Western and Harbor train lines. Imagine a giant wishbone, begging to be cracked in the middle and breaking someone around the middle. Western and Central lines support the deepest wishes of the city. And Harbor Line, the one we were taking, represents the breaking point for so much of the city’s population. Hard-cut steel continued to hit my head as I was too tall for the cars meant for a people who were not heard by the city. The creature comforts of both Central and Western lines are forgotten, and left to rot on the passing heaps of trash as you ride by, watching children and men alike play in areas where rusty nails and bad water flows.
At Govandi we arrived, and crossed the train tracks to enter the community to find a nearby rickshaw. I imagined myself being hit by a train as there are signs everywhere detailing how many people died this year attempting to cross the train tracks. Nearly 600. We packed like sardines into a shared rickshaw with six passengers total in a space really meant for three comfortably. As we left the rickshaw, I was overwhelmed with the feeling of being in a panopticon. I was naked.
Small children and men followed us to our destination, a two-story flat which houses a workshop down below and a three-room center up above. The stairs leading up to the second story are blockaded by giant bags of Jaypee cement which is making the vertical walk up the stairs even more difficult. My head continues to hit uncovered wires, and we enter into the Shakti space which is one of the three rooms above. The other two are filled to the brim with something out of a second-hand store: Samsung tvs, chairs, ripped up furniture, and peaking behind the window I spot a Scholastic book, “How to Be an Artist”. I smile at this one, and head back to the room we are supposed to be meeting two peer leaders in. My roommate realizes I am bleeding and our coworker showing concern. I’m embarrassed my leg has now become a burden to someone other than myself. I change the subject, and begin discussing the art. “Michael Jackson drawings are more important than my blood,” I think silently to myself. Finally the two girls arrived and after short five minutes we headed to another space after they restored their veils.
Our next stopping ground appeared to be a one-room schoolroom, with bright blue walls and hand-paintings of Spiderman, Donald Duck, and Mickey Mouse on the walls. We laid out a mat on the concrete and waited for the younger four girls from the community who were beginning one of their first Shakti sessions. As the girls arrived my smile could not stop growing.
We began discussing issues in the community, such as eve teasing. Eve teasing for my American friends, is sexual harassment named after the master temptress herself, Eve. I understand. Happiness filled my heart as we passed around a stamp pad with a flower imprint, and each girl impressed the flower as a sign of sisterhood on the next person in the circles hand. Although I can’t understand a lot of what is being said, I began closing my eyes to imagine what my dreams for the community is. My life. I cheat and open my eyes, as I always seem to do. Some of the girls say college. Some say family. They put stickers on workbook pages of women they identify with: women on computers, dancing, and swimming in a race.
The group decides to name themselves “Peace”, in Urdu. They make designs with markers that look as if the ivy can jump off the page of their creation. One of the girls begins lying on my feet and I feel like I am apart of something truly special. She is shy and doesn’t draw, as she doesn’t feel like she is as good of an artist as the other three. Instead they ask her to draw the flowers imprinted on our hands, and after one of the girls forces theirs out I join my hand as well. She moves the other girls hand out of the way so only mine is left to imitate. She looks down and the other girl takes over the rest of the composition. I fall in love with this girl in particular. She is innocent. She is beautiful. She is shy. She is worthy of the whole world, and she desires for more. She does not know how amazing she is to me.
We put on our shoes, and leave with the two peer leaders to check out a new space we may be moving Shakti to. The keys are being held by two other peer leaders, and the process of putting shoes on and off begins. We arrive, shoes off. We leave, shoes on. Then we have to wait for another girl, shoes off. Then she arrives, shoes on. I am always last to leave since my shoes are not so convertible. I look down the way to see goats eating grass, and men in a barbers station watching me.
The new space is surrounded by women working on beadwork, one holding a baby on her hip, and these same Pakistani flags flying proudly over us. We enter to find a man who is reworking the rooms, and more of that Jaypee cement. My mind rushes back to a painting from MC Escher, Relativity. The girls wind toward the sky, and I see a million possibilities for our lives, the reality, and the future. I began questioning why I have been borne to the life I have. We reach a beautiful rooftop and I say thanks. Thanks to God for this moment. Thanks to God my leg has not fallen off. Thanks to God I am here, with these people, in this place, and that I can share this story with you now.