Updated: Mar 14, 2021
The UnPublished blog series is about the flawed process of unlearning and re-learning from water justice and climate justice perspectives. These are real stories of water, climate change, and people. In these writings, blind spots and mistakes are laid bare in the hopes of encouraging others to peel back the layers of their privilege with courage and humility, so that we can charge towards intersectional climate justice together.
Mumbai, India. 2013.
I hear the familiar sound of her small, bare feet on the sidewalk tiles behind me. As usual, I slow my walk and look at her face as she emphatically speaks to me in Hindi. And although I know very little Hindi, her message is clear. She is hungry and wants food.
I see her and her family almost every day in the streets of Colaba. Like many other families who live in the streets, often referred to as “pavement dwellers”, they move from corner, to awning, to stoop. I don’t know the details of their lives, or how they ended up on the sidewalk like this. When I walk by, the little girl always follows me.
After being in Colaba for some time, I have become aware of the “usuals” on the street. And I have become a “usual” too.
A usual what? Well, that depends.
...My first encounter with a family living on the pavement is burned into my memory. The way that a really embarrassing mistake can leave a lingering residue, even if no one saw you commit the error. On my second day in Mumbai, having had no coffee in what felt like a long time, I didn't hesitate when I saw a coffee shop. I bounced in, ordered a latte with cinnamon, settled in to one of the comfy chairs, and turned my gaze towards the large storefront windows while I waited.
My heart began to sink as I realized what I was seeing just outside the cafe window. A young woman was bathing her three small children on the sidewalk. It was morning, and she was getting her children ready for the day. She poured water from a dented, dirty plastic bottle into the palm of her hand, then gently bathed a tiny, squirming baby that was on a piece of cardboard on the pavement.
I remember my niece being that small. I remember bathing her in the safety- tested infant tub nestled securely in the full-sized bathtub at my sister’s house in Alabama. I would sit on an ergonomically designed bath stool that allowed me to safely reach her without straining my back. Her neck would smell like lavender after her bath.
I looked at them, transfixed, through the glass of the cafe window. And the mother looked back at me. I could see them, and they could see me.
I felt like such an arrogant, privileged fool. I knew I would have to walk past them on my way out of the cafe, a jerk with a latte. I lingered, dreading it. The disparity between our realities haunted me.
But it was more than that- in the time that i had been sitting there, sipping my latte, this mother had successfully bathed and dressed three children on a sidewalk in Mumbai. With way less, she was doing way more.
...As I spent more time in Colaba, I was constantly asked for food, money, etc. by women and children. Some were pretty aggressive, and I was troubled by my reactions to this. It felt horrible to say no. And I began to resent having to say no and feel horrible every time I walked down the street. I would feel angry because I was made to tell people no, and MADE to feel guilty. I don’t always feel up for being followed, grabbed, begged. That was fair, right?
I mean, what am I supposed to do, give money to everyone? Buy everyone dinner? While the dollar to rupee ratio is roughly 1:60, the real cost of food doesn't actually vary that much from Mumbai to Chicago. Im a poor grad student, for heavens sake! And anyway, don’t I subscribe to the idea of macro-level interventions, creative research and responsive policy?
Okay, sure. Then why is this bothering me?
I still don’t know exactly. But I know that telling people “I’m here doing human rights research, blah blah blah”, and wearing that as some sort of Good Person Badge made me feel like such a fake- if later I found myself wishing those hungry children would leave me alone.
As I began to gain the trust of a few people who work in the Colaba streets, they shared a myriad of information with me about how the different panhandler/begging schemes work. Everyone has a Game. some people harvest information, and then sell it. Some people ask you to buy them food, and then lead you to a store where they receive a commission from the owner after you buy the food at a jacked up price. If a panhandler can get you to accept a blessing or flowers “for free”, consider yourself marked. Everyone has a Game.
So...what’s my Game? do i tell people, “I am doing human rights research”? Yeah, sure, I actually am. but what am I trying to tell people about me when I say that? What am I trying to get them to buy? Am I supposed to have such an awesome understanding of the reasons for a person’s poverty that I don’t have to participate in it? I mean, excuse me hungry person, but don’t you know where I go to school? Don't worry, we study your type of situation all the time. We’re working on it. So hang in there. But leave me alone, okay? ...hmmmm....
I started to see parallels between my experiences in Colaba and my personal life. My disconnect with the people I encountered in the street was sort of like the fear of pain. Like the fear of grieving a loss that you know is coming. The loss of a relationship, of a life once shared. You know it's gonna hurt, so you avoid it. You squirm, you reason. But you cant understand it until you surrender to it. Let the pain run you over. Look at it and let it see you.
I realized that I hadn't let the people in. I was in Mumbai, working on their behalf. But i hadn’t let them in as individuals. I wore my training and education like armor to protect me from the pain of their experiences.I was hiding from their humanity. I realized I had to face it. Had to let their pain wreck me before I could begin to understand it.
So.... what kind of “usual” do i want to be?
... I heard the familiar sound of her feet on the sidewalk behind me. As usual, I slowed my walk and looked at her small face. she began her practiced request. I let her finish, then I made a silly face at her. She giggled, and I pulled the bananas from my bag of groceries. I handed them to her, and she skipped away, back towards her family. I felt so much better having allowed myself to do this One Tiny Thing.
Does this make me a jerk with a bag of groceries who is looking for redemption via bananas?
Maybe I don’t believe that this little girl will ever know that I did research about lives like hers, and fought for her right to water in a case brought before the High Court which argued that all people in Mumbai have the right to water, included folks who do not have recognized tenancy. Maybe I fear my work wont have any real impact for her.
Or maybe it will. Maybe the Human Rights Commission will successfully make the case for decoupling water rights from land tenure, and people who live in unrecognized settlements will get access to the water that they so desperately need.
Wait- that’s overshooting it. People living in unrecognized settlements will gain legal standing to pursue their right to water. Permission to fight.
And a few years from now, maybe this little girl (should she be lucky enough to move from the pavement into a settlement) will be able to access clean water for drinking, washing, preparing food. and maybe she wont become one of the nearly 4,000 children that die from water-related illness every day, suffering from diarrhea, cholera, typhoid, trachoma, skin lesions and cancer. Maybe if she doesn't have to prioritize each day according to how she will find water, she can have a life beyond survival- maybe go to school, maybe be an artist, maybe be a doctor. Maybe sit in a cafe and have a latte with cinnamon. Maybe live a life with less maybe.
I want to give her that more than I can describe.
But tonight, we both had to settle for bananas.