Extravagant generosity: an afternoon in the slum

“Our humanity comes to its fullest bloom in giving. We become beautiful people when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life…all of our life.” Henri J.M. NouwenLife of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World

It was the hottest day of our trip. Maybe it just felt that way because it was our first time away from the swinging trees bringing breeze and shade to rural children and traders and laughing old women, and from the noisy fans of tailoring centres and classrooms and village shops packed full of spices, rice and fruity drinks. No AC here. A very large white horse, though, so that was cool – and fairly unusual in an over-crowded city known for its iron industry. It stood at the invisible gates of the slum. Just behind it, a ‘eunuch’ spotted our van roll up and signalled for us to come down the first alley on the left. Pomegranates. A whole basket full. Their stock. “We just want employment. It’s all we ask for. But no one will hire us.”

We move on. A boy whose grin stretches impossibly close to both ears latches on to me and directs my camera to various other children, arranging poses and pointing out the goat that is peeking its head through the door of a shack – from the inside. Two mothers sit chatting and chuckle heartily as we walk by. A little girl, no older than 10 years old, sits behind a makeshift desk on which she sells sweets, minuscule packets of crisps, neon boxes of additives.

My host continues to direct his photo shoot, but by now we have established a code of sound effects ‘ah’, ‘ooh’, etc…. as we laugh at our mutual non-understanding. A woman emerges from the crowd, shouting angrily about the lack of education in slums – the kids can’t access programmes and benefits when they live in this village of pastel-coloured walls and palm-topped huts. It’s surrounded by a polluted water system, and traces of leaks are evident everywhere.

I’ve now acquired a baby wearing lots of necklaces and an old green t-shirt – not sure who he belongs to, but he seems content to sit on my hip as we continue our tour. I wonder if this is a marketing ploy from my new friend Steven Spielberg. It’s working. I don’t want to leave. Our last visit is to a jewellery maker who sits on the steps outside her hut. She uses copper wire and plastic beads of all the colours of the rainbow to create her masterpieces, proudly gathered on her wrist as we gladly admire her work. She’s fast, and works meticulously while carrying the conversation. Dan buys a couple of necklaces, one for each of our mums. I imagine them here. It’s overwhelming. Poverty, illness, danger, lollipops, giggles and necklaces. We pay more than her asking price, still less than what our wallets will ever notice. She is delighted. We play and chat a little while longer before beginning to move back through the uneven stones and crowds of curious children. She gestures for my neck. I bend it and she slips on a third necklace – she points, explaining in Tamil that it matches my outfit and gives me a thumbs up. Money? No. It’s a gift. We hug.

We make our way out of the slum. I’m torn. We need to move on to the next visit on our schedule. It’s a heart-breaking place. It would take a week to walk through it and listen to all the stories. Even then, we would only be scratching the surface. All I want to do is stay and let the kids take pictures and laugh with them as we realise that the noise I make to emulate a goat is most certainly not theirs.

We get into the van. The kids are still hanging around, this time at the window. I open it and touch the little fingers on the ledge. Five of them belong to the daughter of the jewellery maker. She has her smile. She points to my nose stud. Hers is much cooler than mine. She is wearing a set of rings on her index finger. I point to them and say ‘lovely’ in an attempt to communicate something – anything.

What I really want to say is that I’m sorry she is at risk of disease because of where she lives, that I’m sorry she can’t go to school, that I’m sorry the slum is a dangerous place for everyone, but for young teen girls in particular. I want to say that I’ll do my best for her when we get back home, that I’ll try to help. I want to tell her that she is unique and beautiful and that she is here on purpose.

The van is moving. She laughs, pulls off her lovely rings and throws them through the opening of the window. Generosity seems to run in the family. My teary eyes look into hers and in the same moment she is out of sight as we drive back into the smoke and noise of the city. I’m stunned.

I still am.

*

“But she, in poverty, gave all she had.”

Read more about our trip to Tamil Nadu here.

This post was originally written for Threads.

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