I grab a strap from Zeza’s backpack, as not to lose her in the crowd. We’re constantly swerving to avoid bumping into people, jumping over cow dung, or dodging hasty motorcyclists. Food and spice stalls, stores and temples are all open, even though we’re way past sunset now. I never thought a slum would be such a bustling place at this hour.
This must be the slum’s main thoroughfare. Wider and fairly brighter than the side streets. Colorful Diwali decorations hang from windows, sometimes dangerously crossing entanglements of electric wires.
Every breath carries in a different smell. Spices. Burnt motor oil. Marigold flowers. Garbage. Candy. More spices. Incense. Urine. Meat hanging in hooks.
Manoj presses on ahead of us, occasionally glancing back to check if we had not fallen behind. Sometimes we do. It’s not easy to keep up with his pace while ignoring the groups of idle teenagers and young men calling us out, the shopkeepers and beggars blocking our way, the children chasing us down.
Even dogs and goats seem to stare at us with bewilderment.
In the following weeks, we would (kind of) learn how to (somewhat) cope (to some extent) with this mash up of sensorial overload and impending sense of exposure. But right now, it’s throwing our focus around like a ping pong ball at the Chinese Table Tennis Super League final match.
I do reckon it must not be very usual for westerners to venture off into this slum after dark. But this wasn’t originally on our plan. If it we were to visit a slum, it most definitely wouldn’t be at night. Nor on our first day in India, alone and with someone we had just met.
How exactly did we get here, then?
We have arrived in Delhi just a few hours ago. Manoj, the private driver we hired for the Rajasthan trip we’ll embark on tomorrow, was waiting to pick us up at the airport. Since then, we’ve been wandering around India’s vibrant capital, getting acquainted and discussing a few details of our upcoming road trip.
We presented him with a gift we had brought him from Portugal. Nothing too special, just a small demonstration of friendship to mark the Diwali festival, which will be taking place a week from now while we’re on the road. When, in response, he invited us to his house to dine with his family that same night, we were thrilled. Suddenly, all our concerns about whether we would be able to get along with Manoj disappeared.
It was only when we understood we were about to enter this dense cluster of decaying, exposed brick houses that a whole different kind of concerns began to surface on our minds.
“So here is the plan”, Manoj told us as we regrouped just outside the edge of the slum. “You will walk behind me in a straight line, with Zeza between us. My house is 7-8 minutes from here, more or less. Please walk fast, don’t stop and don’t speak to anyone, OK?”
That Manoj could potentially live in a slum had, perhaps naively, never occurred to us. Another thing that didn’t occur to us at the moment was a possible way out that wouldn’t come across as outrageously insulting. I wished as hard as I could for an instant episode of explosive diarrhea. But to my own misfortune, this wish would take a few days to come true.
I guess we’re just going to have to trust Manoj. “OK”, Zeza and I replied in unison, while we shared a what-the-f***-are-we-getting-ourselves-into look. The first of many in India.
The real slum
Manoj glances back at us, and turns right. He says something over his shoulder, but I can’t hear him over the honking and the rumbling of the busy street. He seems anxious, which is new.
I’m not sure whether we should be worried about that. Not that we know him for long, but his bravado is one of the most striking features of his character.
A minute or so later, the atmosphere turns grimmer. The street narrows and the lights dwindle, allowing the night to absorb the hues of the Indian landscape. The exposed-brick houses give way to fiberboard and metal sheet shacks with rusting zinc roofs. No shops or food stalls anywhere.
I get the feeling that only now we’ve entered the slum.
The crowds stayed behind as well. A few shadows explore a pile of stinking, sunbaked garbage. Others move swiftly in the darkness, making it harder to shake off this subconscious feeling of being followed.
Suddenly, I’m missing the sensorial overload of the main thoroughfare.
Then, we turn right into a narrow alley, so dark I almost stumbled on Zeza. The only light comes from a house at the dead-end of the street. “That’s my house”, Manoj says. “Welcome”.
Manoj’s house is made of concrete, painted brahmin blue. Above the door, there’s a figure of Ganesh sided by swastikas. We leave our shoes outside and enter a very crammed room, no more than 6x4m. A woman in a blue headscarf comes to greet us.
She has the same tired, sunken eyes as Manoj. “This is my wife Latika”, he says. She doesn’t speak English, so he translates our salutes to her as she smiles and bobbles her head. His sons aren’t home yet.
Latika serves us a cup of piping hot chai. “The children should be here any minute”, Manoj says apologetically, as he checks the dark alley for signs of them. Zeza and I sit on the bed at their insistence, trying not to look too intrusive as we look around the room.
Furniture is displayed against the walls, in order to leave the central space free. There’s only one bed, a wardrobe, a cupboard, and a desk with a a small TV and a jurassic computer. A curtain partially covered a concrete tub. The kitchen, on the far corner from the bed, consists basically of a gas stove and a few shelves with spice jars.
Only here did I realize this room was the whole house. Where four people live. In a space smaller than my living room.
I blow awkwardly on my tea. Of course we imagined our driver wouldn’t be filthy rich. But the fact that he spoke good English and owned a car made us assume, once again naively, that he would be able to afford other comforts.
However, the misery we saw while crossing the heart of this slum was only a taste of what India would present to us in the next few days, and which would end up changing forever our concepts of poverty, modesty and comfort.
To an extent where an old single-room house in a slum might be considered “other comforts”.
Whatever Latika’s cooking smells wonderful, and this chai is nothing short of delicious. But being about to eat from a struggling family’s supply kind of messes up my appetite.
(to be continued…)
(PS: we didn’t take any pictures of the slum, since we thought we were getting enough attention already without the cameras out).