Wednesday, February 25, 2009

VillaCat Threadbare

Notwithstanding the various shows that are held in Mumbai, where dogs bathed with special shampoo, and brushed till Garnier Nutrisse gets a complex, sort of "perform" to exhibit their abilities to follow human commands, to the average Indian, a dog is some animal, who , unkempt, scavenging around garbage, running with a pack of like minded friends, sometimes is seen lying down , possibly out of sheer fatigue and or boredom, on the steps that lead to the entrance of an imposing railway station. You stamp your foot, wave your bag, the dog stays put after giving you a bored look.

So being called a dog, is not a great achievement, unless of course , you happen to be a dog. Least of all if you happen to stay in the cinematically highlighted high density enclosure called the Mumbai slum.

Mumbai with its 17 million teeming humans, is a miniaturised clone of India.

We are the traditional Mumbai. We are also the middle class Mumbai. We are also the place -of-opportunity Mumbai. We are also the evil and amoral Mumbai. We are also the "educated" Mumbai. And finally, we are also the Mumbai of folks who buy real estate like you and I buy guavas in the market on a sunny weekend morning.

India has areas where development gallops. Some other places, where it breeds cynicism. In some places , it has never been seen. In many places, when natural calamities occur, people don't wait for the government to act. They simply move out. En masse. Word gets around. And migration happens. Sometimes, elsewhere. Mostly to Mumbai.

Shalini is 20. Her mother works as a household helper. She lives with her mother, and 3 brothers in a locality, which can be politely termed a slum. Anyone who can identify 2 potentially supportive walls, can construct the other two under the benevolent eye of a local goon, who may occasionally decide to shut it. His eye, that is. Shalini has studied up to high school. She works early mornings in a factory and does some sewing work for a tailor at home in the remaining time. Her family has relatives who are better off financially. But they don't like to ask.

And so the girl attended school till she had a brother attending a higher class at the same school. When he left, it was no longer safe for her to go by herself, now that she was in her teens. Her mother and eldest brother burn the midnight oil working and staying up worrying about everyone who comes late from work. Toilets are not part of the house. They are a common shared facility. And it is not uncommon to see women congregate there in the abnormally early dawn hours , seeking safety in numbers and anonymity in the semi darkness. The body cooperates in wondrous ways.

Every morning when she leaves for her factory, she has to walk through a narrow path lined with half sleepy folk chewing and spitting outside, in various stages of dress or undress, some under the haze of alcohol, leching, and she tries to avoid stepping on various varieties of trash , dumped by the residents, hoping it will get washed away in the open gutters that network through the area.

efore she leaves for work, she fills water for the house from the communal tap. The power games played here with the blessings of the local males, often decides who gets water first. But no longer.

A local goon hero, threatened Shalini at the tap, with words, and made the mistake of touching her shoulder patronizingly. He didn't know what hit him, as she gave him a wide stinging slap, which would have had Venus Williams applauding the forehand stroke. Told him to stay away, and leave the water woes to the ladies. Besides his cheek, his ego hurts. She has been threatened. he calls out to her in the worst possible terms as she walks to work in the morning, except when her brother is with her. Which isn't always possible....

And it is difficult being good and remaining that way.

The neighbor lady has two drunkard sons, who abuse their wives. They carry on the tradition of the drunkard lady's husband. The lady is jealous of Shalini's stable household, and likes to pick up fights by doing irritating things, like pouring buckets of water at Shalini's entrance , so the young kids in the house cannot play there, or if they do, they slip. The neighbors are also illegally building another floor, and destroying the strength of one of Shalini's house walls by hammering and banging away. The electric meter which Shalini's family managed to install in the early day, now has a lot of undefined wires resulting in several households enjoying free electricity at her cost. The complaint gets nowhere, as the inspectors are paid off.

But she plods on, taking all possible precautions, being super aware of her environment when moving, and basically minding her own business. She is a God fearing, parent respecting girl who thinks the world of her brothers, who are so different than what she sees around her. She has seen girls who move around with the local goons. She has seen the sudden comeuppance in the world. But she is determined to keep saving, so she can get some useful training and get a better job.

So terribly unlike the pseudo society doyennes, who rule the pages, as they entertain in style at parties to celebrate one more step in the power world; construction projects completed by their husbands, and huge profits generated by importing cheap labor from elsewhere in the country. Clothes are planned , analysed, worn and discarded for their ability to expose rather than cover. Those in more power are fawned over, even tolerated. And while you decide the tonnage of the air conditioner for your pet's bathroom, these laborers return to their 2.5 walls in a slum, created by default. Quick money blinds,and more relatives arrive to claim their own 2.5 walls , resting on some others.

I don't know any millionaires from slums, even potential ones. I don't see any dogs from slums either.

But yes, I do read about folks entertaining other celebrities in their villas, cuddling their pet-cat-with-the-diamond-neck-piece fashioned in Paris. Crocodiles would sell their patent on tears, after hearing how these people's children "slum' it on trips by flying economy class; "oh wow, how simply exquisitely proletarian...."

They tint their window glasses on their latest cars, to avoid facing the dirty dusty world, as they drive to the premiere of the film based on the Mumbai slums. They have Oscar parties where huge screens show the victories of creative people, and they toast each other with the priciest of champagne at the end of it all -- happy in their cocoon of security, imagery, contrived conversations, and money.

Sometimes one looks for solidity. And finds the termites of the society. Gnawing away with their money power . Leaving things threadbare. Like their super fashionable designer clothes, a strip here, a hole there.

In the meanwhile , Shalini has just returned from work, raging against some comment heard on the way. She washes her face with minimal wastage of water, takes a drink of water, exchanges a glance with her mother as if to say "what else is new", and sits down to late frugal meal, while watching on their ten year old TV, the entire brouhaha over a certain film about Mumbai slums and some guy making it big.

Well, good for him.

She washes up, and gets down to her afternoon tailoring work, as her mother leaves for her afternoon work in 3 households, and asks her to ensure the door is locked properly.

She isn't looking to be a millionaire.

Its a huge achievement just getting on with life.

As for the lady in the villa, what can be better than a sequel by Danny Boyle called VillaCat Threadbare?


  1. I like the way you have put it across !! excellent...

  2. I don't know what the reaction in India was about Oscars and slum dog but here it just felt that because it was made by a british producer/director it got the attention it did. All PR work. So let alone be proud of it but none of the indians even felt connected. Except for Rehman/ Gulzar team . They are true geniuses. But then again the songs and music of slum dog didn't feel that impressive. But I just felt that it was like a recognition for their life long work.The duo did deserve an oscar.

    Story of shalini..what can we true.


  3. After having seen the movie, Slumdog Millionaire, it brings a visual to be shared with stories such as that of Shalini. It's not a real thing, the millionaire chances and wealth opportunities, but what is real ~ the poor living conditions and that's what brought my heart into my throat, a lump to stay there throughout the movie and now in reading this post. Shalini and those like her are in my prayers. Thank you for sharing her story.

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  5. Wonderfully crafted ! Buying guavas or real estate, i guess the essence of Mumbai has been some kind of mute acknowledgement of each others presence in the next door. Or at the next cart !

    More importantly, getting by with so little to look forward to, and getting on despite a world of a boulder is the essence of this place.

    A place which gives new meaning to 'innovation' and 'spirit' ! An essence that cannot be captured in a small movie.

    Perhaps VillaCat Threadbare will attempt that !


  6. Great post! I was curious and wanted to ask you what your thoughts/reactions to slumdog millionaire were. I didn't see the movie -- rarely go anymore, not fond of what they turn out in Hollywood.

  7. Beautiful picture of words!! Loved it!

  8. Perfect. You never cease to amaze me. Can you send this somewhere to be published - it's very topical and I think many would find it fascinating. I could visualise exactly what was happening with Shalini through your story. Your language and phrasing is so descriptive and colourful. I am so glad I found your blog. Even though my next post has nothing to do with this topic I am going to put a link here just because I think everyone should read it! And I hope there is an agent out there because VillaCat Threadbare is a story that needs to be told.

  9. When I first read the title of your post, it didn't make sense to me. But then I thought again and "Bingo"!! A beautiful piece...Really, you should publish it....

  10. radhika, Hitch-writer Thank you.

    Vinita I havent yet seen the film, but would do so only to listen to Rehman.....

    Aleta Thank you for the insightful comment. Yes, its easy to lose sight of the real issues of everyday living, when you oscillate wildly between highs and lows as depicted in the film. Sometimes I feel the real heroine is Shalini.

    Kavi, Sylvia K, Roshni, Rajk Thank you for the kind words.

    Lilly Thank you for all those wonderful adjectives.... As for this publishing stuff, I think in all the brouhaha here, this doesnt stand a whit of a chance being published, as everyone is more interested Frieda Pinto's outfits and the various awards, and her abandoning her boyfriend in favour of Hollywood :-)

    Sometimes you just have to be sufficiently angry before half-way-decent posts happen ....

  11. Lilly's Life sent me here - and I'm glad I came. I haven't seen the film you are referring to, but understand that life is usually nothing like that portrayed on the big screen.

    I hope Shalini manages to more than get by... thank goodness 'good' can be found everywhere.

  12. This was way too good by comparison to my post. Loved the way you have laid the villawalis threadbare! I feel indignant for the same reason. While one set wants to safely go to a pub for a drink, another set is seeking protection in numbers to even relieve herself. And imagine what they must be going through when they have their periods!