“All that I’ve hoarded is lost. All that I gave is mine.”
Near the center of Mumbai, between the sparkle of shopping malls, and the sprawl of a rolling slum, there is an intersection where a small girl dances. Perhaps 5 or even 6, she tumbles and twirls atop the pavement in an impossibly dirty dress. When she is done, she weaves quickly through the traffic, extending a small tin bowl toward each driver. As she does, a handful of Indian businessmen in late-model BMWs and Mercedes look upon her apathetically. She is invisible, a Dalit, one of India’s untouchables. When the light turns green, and the drivers race off–she is left empty-handed. This, until the light again turns red, and her audience is replaced anew.
As I pedaled away from that intersection, into the buzz-saw of Mumbai’s mid-town gridlock, any thoughts of that child’s future well-being were instantly replaced by that of my own.
We were pedaling for our lives.
Swept into an angry river of traffic–six lanes deep–we churned our pedals, choking on the chewable clouds of exhaust. Cycling with all our might through this vehicular doomsday, we’d spend the next 3 hours narrowly avoiding mad, swerving cars, motorcycle kamikazes, and the ever-closing canyons between buses and trucks. Looking entirely out of place riding two fully-loaded touring bikes down the middle of the expressway, we were nothing if not rolling roadkill. Damned if I would have my guts squished-out without the proper soundtrack, I pulled out my headset, dialed-in the band Metallica, cranked-up the volume, then prepared to meet my maker.
This was highway 8.
A snarling strand of traffic, that cut through the heart of Mumbai as a dull knife cuts through a fish. Stretching across India’s largest city in a series of concrete fly-overs, we were twenty miles into the fray, when the two of us pulled to the side of the road. “You alright?” I asked my good friend, and riding partner Eric Jarvis. He stood for a moment, silent, seemingly shell-shocked. Gazing-out over a jumble of high-rise, he turned his attention to the ocean of humanity swirling below us.
There were people moving everywhere, in all directions–an existential tsunami. Returning his focus to the roar of traffic beside us, he began speaking in code.
“It’s another F.B.I.C.F.” he responded wryly.
It was a term he’d coined during our month-and-a-half ride from the north. The first four letters of which stood for “Full-blown Indian cluster…” Having bicycled 1200 miles across India, on this, his first foreign bicycle tour, we’d survived the inconceivable: life threatening traffic, all night barfing contests, 400 miles of hill climbs; on rough roads; in the 90 degree heat. All while running hourly into the trees with violent bursts of diarrhea.
Now we were cycling the expressway to hell.
That was, until 5-miles later, when Highway 8 suddenly, and rather mysteriously, vanished into a bewildering curl of multi-directional turnpikes.
We were lost.
Again pulling to the side of the road, Eric retrieved our map, and searched for where we’d gone wrong.
Perched atop another flyover, I gaped through the smog. Directly below us, a small boy played on a carpet of refuse.
Rising directly to our east, was whatseemed a small city within a city; albeit one comprised entirely of tin and tarpaulin. Flowing beside it was a murkish-gray river. Stretching three miles long, and perhaps a quarter-mile wide, it was only after a shift in the wind that we realized it consisted entirely of raw sewage. As the stench tore at our nose and throats, Jarv called us back into action.
“This way,” he pointed.
Following the last of the causeway, we chose an offramp, circled back, then descended onto the surface streets.
There we were delivered into the heart of a slum, the sheer size and scope of which, was beyond anything I’d ever seen. Cycling amidst this gargantuan sprawl of dilapidation, we pedaled through a square mile of low-rise wood, concrete, and rusted-out tin. Each quadrant alive and abuzz with activity, we stopped near a man picking through an enormous pile of garbage. “This is Dharavi,” someone informed us, after I’d inquired of our whereabouts. Somehow we’d landed ourselves in the world’s largest Slum. Home to an estimated million people, Dharavi had gained worldwide notoriety as the centerpiece for the film, “Slumdog Millionaire.” “Coloba?” I asked, hoping to finally reach Mumbai’s tourist district. The man raised his finger and simply pointed south.
I awoke the next morning to a trickle of light.
Not knowing if it was day or night, I looked to our room’s only window. Facing an alleyway of garbage and rats, it offered little clues as to the time. Reaching for my watch, it read 7am. Grabbing a book and a notepad from a scattering of gear, I flashed down a flight of stairs, and onto the streets. There I came upon a mother and her young child sleeping soundly in the middle of the sidewalk.
Ducking into the restaurant next door, I took a seat in the back corner. Ordering a cup of coffee, I opened the book, “Life, Love, Laughter,” written by the Indian spiritual teacher, “Osho.””Have you ever thought that everybody carries a murderer inside?” the author asked. “Not at 7:30am,” I mumbled. Two cups of coffee later, I was alternating my attention between the book and my surroundings, when my eyes came upon something strange. There were 2 deeply impacted holes inthe wall next to me; an inch wide, and perhaps an inch deep.
Looking around the room, I discovered them everywhere: in the walls, near the ceiling, in the glass; dark-fat holes with a spiderweb of cracks emanating outward. They were the remnants of Mumbai’s worst Terrorist attack. On the night of November 26th, 2008, two men entered the Leopold Cafe and sprayed a crowded room with AK-47′s. Ten people died, including two tourists. The two attackers were part of a larger group of terrorist who’d unleashed a 60 hour assault upon the city. Bombing, shooting and killing, they’d left 166 people dead.
Setting down my coffee, I stared for a moment at those bullet holes. As I did, my head began to swim. At first, it was easy to put myself above those who killed in fits of rage. Easy to see anger as someone else’s problem. But if anything, India had me looking inward–taking an honest moral inventory. And though it was hard to admit, the truth was, there’d been too many times in my life when I’d reacted in anger. Too many times I’d spoken out of fear and jealousy. Too many times I’d tried to control. It was what I’d learned. Now it was time to unlearn. Digging deeply within myself that morning, it was only after sometime that a greater truth arose within me.
This is that each moment is a new beginning; each new moment a chance to begin again.
“Know thyself,” the Indian spiritual teacher urged. “Know all thy climates…the criminal, the saint, the holy man. Can’t you see a simple law? Everything changes. The good man becomes the bad, the bad man becomes the good; the saint has sinner’s moments, and the sinner has saintly moments. Act when the saint is uppermost–that’s all.” Grabbing my things from the table, that’s exactly what I set out to do. Jumping into a taxi, I made my way through Coloba.
I stepped out and entered Mumbai’s cavernous Victoria Train Station,
…then crammed elbow to elbow into a commuter train.
Jumping off in the Chinchpokli district, I followed a scribble of directions, until I reached an office building with the word “Akanksha” painted on the door.
Akanksha had been founded by Shahin Mistri in 1990.
An eighteen-year-old college student at the time, she’d become weary of watching the endless parade of Mumbai’s slum-children roaming the streets, begging for Rupees. “Why are they not in school?”she asked. The answer was simple. It was poverty. The World Bank estimates that 456 million Indians, or a third of the global poor, now reside in India. Thirty years ago, much of that poverty was based in India’s rural countryside. But in the years 2003-2007, the nation suffered the worst agrarian crisis in decades. During that time, farm incomes collapsed, hunger grew, and millions began immigrating to India’s larger cities. This resulted in a shortage of city resources, and a massive increase of large slums and shanty towns.
Today it is estimated that there are 3000 slums in the Mumbai region alone. Growing tired of seeing these children of the slums being shorted of an education, Shahin Mistri decided to act. Gathering groups of up to 15 students at a time, she began teaching them right on the streets. Eventually utilizing unoccupied office-space, public halls–even public parks–she then came upon the idea of borrowing unused classroom space during non-school hours. Recruiting volunteers, her student list swelled. A year later, Akanksha was registered as an official Indian Charity.
Today Akanksha consists of 54 centers and 6 schools in the Mumbai Region.
Several minutes after my arrival, I introduced myself to Akansha’s Chief Financial Officer, Tina Vajpeyi, and Social Leadership Manager, Mansi Shah. When they inquired about how I’d learned about their organization, I told them I’d found them on the internet. “I like what you do,” I told them, “and I’m interested in lending a hand in whatever way I can. “We ask that our volunteers commit to no-less than a month,” Tina informed me.
Because we’d only be in Mumbai for a week, I thought for a moment…then spoke again.
“Perhaps there is something else I could offer your students…”
The Coloba school lies in the heart of the Old Coloba Market.
Sharing a building with the local hospital, the school sits next to a bustling maze of service shops, fish-markets, and brightly colored fruit stalls. Climbing a flight of stairs, I wandered aimlessly through the halls, until a faculty member noticed me searching. “Akanksha?” I asked. He pointed to a door. When I walked in the room, all heads turned. There were no desks, no chairs, just twenty or so students from the neighboring Ambedkar Slum. They were huddled in groups on the floor, reciting an English assignment from a worksheet.
Before I knew it, a teacher signaled me to the front.
Then, after a few giggles and whispers, the room went silent.
“Hello…” I said nervously, “my name is Rick Gunn…and I’m a writer and photographer from America.” A stream of whispers followed my introduction. “When I was a student like you…” I began, “my home life was not so good. My parents fought a lot, then my father moved out of the house. Not long afterward my mother died.” As a serious tone overtook the room, I knew that most had understood what I’d said.
“Though my parents did the best they could, I spent a lot of years afterward blaming others for what I felt was a bad start in life. But then, after looking a little deeper within myself, I realized that I was responsible for all the things in my life–good or bad. I also realized that I could do anything if I put my mind to it. This included my dream of riding a bicycle around the world.”
With that, a teacher turned off the lights and I began rolling a small slideshow on my laptop. For the next 45 minutes, I shared stories, ideas and images, from my 25,811-mile bicycle journey around the globe. When I was done, the lights came back on, and I asked if anyone had any questions. Half the class raised their hands.
“Where did you sleep?” they asked.
“What did you eat?”
“Weren’t you afraid of snakes?”
I explained that I’d had many fears, and still do. But that in order to realize my dream, I had to set those fears aside. I also reminded them that the truest happiness along my journey came when I’d volunteered, or had been of some service to others. “That was my dream,” I said, “now it is time for all of you to realize your dreams. You can do anything you want if you put your mind to it,” I concluded.
The kids applauded, school let out, and they were on their way.
A week later, after a serious effort, 400 miles had passed beneath our bicycle tires.
Taking a well needed break on the beaches of Goa, I sat and sipped a beer, and thought of the three presentations I’d given the kids at Akanksha. As I did, I wondered if I’d had some effect upon them–if any at all. In the dimming light, my mind leaned toward the latter.
Then I remembered Alok.
I’d been invited to take a tour of the Ambedkar Nagar Slum.
Joining me was Akanksha’s Social Worker, Sneha Bajaj. We wandered amidst a maze of dilapidated concrete and rusted-out tin, watching the endless wave of children giggling and playing amidst the dirt and squalor.
Then Sneha turned to me and spoke. “My job is to empower these children,” she said,
“I want to get them out of this place.”
Just then, we came around the corner and ran into one of Akanksha’s students. His name was Alok. Guessing him to be about 15, he was elated to see us. He immediately invited us into his home.
Stepping down from a small doorway, I entered into a small concrete box with a rusted tin roof. Seemingly defined by what it lacked, there was no toilet, no running water. Only a small kitchen, a few belongings and a grimy TV set in the corner. Not much wider that your average parking space,Alok informed me that he lived there with 8 other members of his family.
Alok had made a point of making himself known to me earlier that day. His eyes had lit-up as I’d shared photos of the Himalayan Mountain Range. “Have any of you ever seen a mountain?” I asked. No one raised their hand. “How about snow?…have any of you ever seen snow?” The room remained silent. Feeling stupid for even asking, a heaviness descended in my chest. This in the realization that, without a proper education, most of these students would see nothing but abject poverty. It was then that I looked upon the Akanksha teachers and volunteers. It was at that moment that they instantly became saints. When I’d finished my presentation–after all the others had left–a single student remained.
It was Alok.
Moving in close, he fidgeted for a moment, as if mustering the courage for what he had to say.
He reached for my hand. “Someday,” he said, “when I am older…I will be a mountain climber.”
*To learn more about volunteering with Akanksha or to donate, you can visit their website at www.akanksha.org.