Slum blog

I have never seen animals so happy in India. Pigs snuffling around in shallow filthy water flowing through the middle of the slum in Dehradun.

In places, rubbish has accumulated to slow it down and alter its course but the water is still managing quite a pace. There is a lot of rubbish. In fact, rubbish is this slum’s business. People will pick through piles of rubbish and sort it, scraping a meagre living from it.

From Bindal Bridge we watch as a skinny man hoists up on to his head a huge wedge of crushed cardboard, tied together with cord, and brings it up a steep dusty track to a waiting van which will take it away for recycling.

We see other adults emerging for the day and leaving the slum for the city, where they might be beggars, cleaners or vegetable sellers. Many children are left behind to fend for themselves or be looked after by older siblings.

With the Himalayas sitting very hazily in the background, the slum is waking up. Washing hangs around the lowest rungs of a large electricity pylon. Adults are sitting around picking nits from the hair of other adults. The small shops are open, selling strips of packets of crisps and sweets.

Some young children are half-naked, I presume because they are not toilet trained, and their parents cannot afford nappies. A young girl is squatting at the edge of the drop to the river having a poo. Shared toilets drain untreated straight to the river. Sanitation is the community’s worst problem.

An average home here has a family of five living in a basic room half the size of our kitchen back home.

Due to the numbers living in close proximity with each other, sexual and domestic abuse are rife, we are told. Incidents are reducing, more because of the fear of the consequences than because they think it is wrong.

Migrants came here from Bihar, seeking a better life. We can only wonder how bad it must have been where they came from.

There is no intention on the government’s part to move the people from the slums because they would merely displace them. Where would they go?

We accept a chai from a man who disappears into his dark hut to make a brew. The chai is the lumpiest we have ever seen (we hope/guess it is spices rather than shredded cockroach) and served in a cheap plastic cup which is warping with the heat.

The man kindly offers a plate of slices of plain white bread. It is humbling that he has next to nothing and yet he accepts no payment.

The work of the AASRAA Trust began here at the riverbed slum in 2009 in response to a crisis over the welfare of children. Today they introduce hundreds of underprivileged children to education, keeping them off the streets and introducing them to basic literacy skills. They run an anti-begging campaign, offer medical care, a good midday meal and nutritious snacks, and they have their own shelter homes too.

The work is wide-ranging and never-ending.

On a day like today, staff members will go to the slum to collect children to take them to a school. One bus fills up and another arrives to take some more.

Staff also keep an eye out for those who are missing from school, and will check on why. It is all too easy for the children to be kept at home for work tasks or to look after a parent, or simply because their own parents have no understanding of the need for education – because they themselves never went to school.

Dehradun is not a touristy town and this is not a tour organised by a travel company, in the way that we were shown Dharavi slum in Mumbai.

Rather it’s a personal visit to see for ourselves the work of AASRAA and see where my daughter Anouska volunteered three years ago. I will always remember when she phoned home on her second day in tears because she had seen the conditions in which the children lived.

There are 118 slums in Dehradun alone. To my eyes, this is in stark contrast to the rest of the city, which has an international reputation as a centre of excellence for education. The equivalent of Eton is based here. (You may remember the Channel 4 TV series Indian Summer School earlier this year in which five troublesome teenagers were sent to The Doon School.)

The vibrant young student population here is very evident – youngsters who are keen to learn and consider education a privilege.

One young girl who has learned the value of education is Himanshi, who we know as Mansi. She was four when Anouska met her and (due to her very difficult background) she was a shy, withdrawn child. She wouldn’t smile at Anouska for weeks. Once she gained her trust, however, she opened up and Anouska couldn’t talk about anyone else.

In a couple of weeks Mansi will be seven. She is a shining example of the success of the AASRAA programme to enrol underprivileged children into mainstream education. She is still very shy when we meet her and her older brother Himanshu. After all, why should she trust two old white strangers who turn up and interrupt her school day?

We have a brief chat through an interpreter and she tells us she would like to be a doctor. To one side we ask if that is realistic. Yes, her teacher says, she has the potential.

Shortly before we met Mansi, we went to her home in a different part of town where she lives with her grandmother. It wouldn’t be appropriate to detail her family’s history here, suffice to say it’s been a tough start for a little girl whose parents are no longer around, and it continues to be a tough life for the grandmother.

As she talks to us, she wells up and her hand goes to her heart. Even though she is speaking in Hindi, we feel every emotion as she says it.

She guesses at her own age, about 60, though I think she looks older. The average life expectancy for a woman in India is 65. She is illiterate.

David asks whether there is anything right now that would make her life better, thinking there could be something practical we could provide very easily.

She thinks for a moment, but very matter-of-factly replies no, it’s all ok.

But it is clear that her income does not match her expenditure – and her need to support her two grandchildren. As we leave, we give her some money to keep her going. It is much what we paid for our train ticket from New Delhi, but it means the world to her. She cannot quite believe it and she has to choke back tears.

She touches our feet as a mark of respect, but in return we give her a great big hug.

This story began with one little girl who captured my daughter’s heart. But it’s her grandmother who has captured mine.

*Please read more about the work of the AASRAA Trust here.


We reached Dehradun by train from New Delhi. Once again, the train service is exemplary. It departs and arrives perfectly on time, it is clean and we are given an edible breakfast and a large bottle of water.

For once David and I are not sitting next to each other, but we are only two rows apart. There are some spare seats around but we are going to be making several stops picking up more people so we settle down where we are. (Read on below for his journey, quite different from mine!)

Thought you might enjoy some of my jotted observations made during the six-hour journey…

A couple are travelling with two young children. They seem to have booked only two seats between them. While the two seats to my left remain available, the man and young son sit there. He tries to change a nappy. He passes a drink across me. He passes the child across me.

A man (behind, right) coughs. Not just a polite cough but something deeper, wetter and disgusting.

A woman burps.

Someone starts snoring loudly.

Chai is served in individual flasks, with biscuits.

Two women arrive for the seats next to me. They insist on putting large bags under seats. My elderly grey-haired neighbour is very mismatched, pink floral top, crazy pattern bottoms, grey tank top, pink socks and flip flops.

She gets out what looks like a yellow bandana, ties it around her hand, seems to bless it, puts a floral scarf around that and keeps her hand raised. Maybe it is like worry beads.

Another belch rumbles out from a woman.

The woman behind me lets out three belches in a row. The first one transforms seamlessly into an exhalation of ‘ohhhh’. Not an embarrassed ‘oh’, just a relieved if slightly painful one.

After breakfast the belching begins in earnest, women all around me let it out as if in training for a new category in the Olympics.

The man behind does a combined cough/sigh in a strange way almost like he’s just been stabbed.

All I am doing is trying to read my book. And hoping it’s not the turn of farting next.

Breakfast has revived everyone and it seems that strangers are striking up conversations all round. Some women are having a funny chat with a man with a long greying beard and friendly face. He is sporting a black and white checked bandana.

To my left a woman comes out with a belch which rivals Elf… I nearly get the giggles.

Behind me the ‘oh’ belch repeats itself.

My neighbour puts her bobble hat into her camouflage handbag and gets out her smartphone to put on some Indian music. It’s strangely relaxing.

I glance over and smile and she smiles back. The music is coming from a video on YouTube which shows a baby-god with a revolving halo behind it and what looks like a parrot swinging on a banana. Her head starts moving to the music and her hand gesticulating.

Her socks have big toes. These are socks designed for flip-flops.

She crosses her leg, ankle to knee, in a way only an Indian can. If I hadn’t seen her face I might have thought she was 20. The other foot taps to the music.

We establish that she is going to Haridwar.

A breakfast tray crashes to the floor. A little girl to my right, left alone for two minutes while Mum goes to the loo, looks up with a ‘It wasn’t me’ look. She leaves it there. Mum returns and she leaves it there too.

The train empties station by station with not many new passengers, leaving it blissfully quieter and calm.

I might even try the loo now, something I resist as long as I can.**


David’s journey went like this…

I live in an island 45 miles square. Our beautiful Railway Walk is the last reminder of the steam train that crossed the island many years ago. For that reason, or maybe just because I am a nerd, I love trains. Particularly dirty, old Indian trains.

Despite this train’s relative antiquity it is clean and comfortable. We weren’t able to get seats together and when I took up my position in the middle of three seats I only had a Granny-Ji on my right to talk to. It soon became obvious that as she did not speak a word of English and I only know two words in Hindi, chai was more likely than chat.

Just prior to take-off, a young girl of about 20 claimed the seat to my left. As we departed the station, I busied myself looking at photos on my iPad and she started reading a paperback written in English.

When chai was delivered, I politely passed her tray to her. When the breakfast arrived,  ditto. She thanked me in English. I continued to look at my photos and before long her curiosity got the better of her… In perfect English ‘Where are you from?’

Throughout our travels this question has been asked many times by the friendly locals but explaining the tiny Crown Dependency of Jersey (closer to France but definitely British) has been a protracted mission usually met with a blank stare and the obligatory head wobble.

This time, iPad at the ready, I touched on and with a pinching motion was able to show my island home in between France and England.

For the next four hours we chatted on and off about many different topics from travel, to politics, arranged marriage, religion, toilets, WiFi, head wobbles, Indian manners, queuing.  We spoke about women’s emancipation in a still patriarchal society and about the appalling caste system which, though often denied, is alive and well in India.

Bharvvi’s older sister is getting married in two weeks’ time, an arranged marriage and when it is Bharvvi’s turn to marry, her parents will want to choose her husband. In India when a daughter gets married the parents will often go into huge debt to throw an ostentatious party that can last for days. Elaborate costumes, horses, catering, photography all because ‘everyone else does it and we have to been seen to do the same or face shame and ridicule’. Then there is the payment of a dowry… still very much alive and well. The newly-weds will be expected to live with the groom’s family and there will be many demands on their income.

The purpose of Bhavvi’s journey to Dehradun is an interview process. She hopes to persuade the Department of Defence that she is worthy of their scholarship. Higher education has to be paid for in India and a scholarship is her only hope of realising her dreams.

Hopefully she will succeed in her educational aspirations but she tells me that before she reaches 30 her parents will select a husband for her and she will be expected to forgo her career to keep home and produce a family, as per ancient tradition.

My new friend was kind enough to seem interested in my family and my recent travels.

At one point, probably as a result of feeling obliged to look at my 20,000 photos, she fell asleep and being of a certain (advanced) age I put my jacket over her. When she awoke she thanked me for the use of my jacket. I replied that my daughter is probably about her age and I hope that when she travels alone, people are kind to her.

Bhavvi is an intelligent, articulate and well educated young woman. She speaks excellent English and is interested in the world around her. We agreed that India, the place of her  birth and the place I love, is in transition. Its problems are many, huge and seemingly insurmountable. But her generation are the hope for India.


**Talking of toilets… it was World Toilet Day on 19 November.

It gives us a chance to reflect on the fact that although more Indians than ever before have access to a toilet, at least 522 million people in this country still defecate in the open. Better sanitation reduces the incidence of diarrhoea, mostly spread by faeces-contaminated water. Diarrhoea is the second leading cause of death in children under five.

We have encountered four kinds of toilet in India – the western loo, the Indian squat toilet, a combination of the two so you get what looks like a squatting ledge but at a toilet seat level, and (worst of all really) the western loo which has no seat.

At every single room we have been in, whether it’s a hotel, guest house or homestay, the shower has been in a wet room, meaning that the toilet inevitably gets wet. You always have to take time to dry the seat first.

Indians do not like the use of toilet paper. They prefer to use a jet of water, claiming it is more hygienic.

In our homestays in Madurai, Udaipur and Dehradun, no toilet paper was provided nor was it forthcoming. In Madurai we couldn’t find any on sale in the town, so we had to make do. You had to time things so you could have a shower immediately afterwards, or you would have to use the power hose on the wall – we think it has two purposes – one instead of a toilet brush, the other instead of toilet paper. You just have to remember to then have a towel to hand.

The seatless toilets are the worst (for a woman). You hover at first, but can’t relax enough to release. So you dip to a point where the minimum amount of flesh meets the porcelain, enough to get a result, before hovering again.

Most toilets ask you not to put toilet paper down the loo. It is so automatic for us that I still often forget. And if you happen to lift the seat, most toilets will release a dozen mosquitoes into the air.

The award for the best toilet in five months (I am not expecting it to be beaten):

Marriott Hotel in Panjim (Goa) when we gatecrashed. It was in an outdoor subterranean toilet block, which was also the changing rooms for the pool. Two immaculate toilets, toilet paper, wonderfully scented hand wash and soft towels. I could have stayed there for an hour.

In second place… the black marble toilet of the Royal Opera House in Mumbai.

Worst loo: There haven’t been too many really bad ones, not like 30 years ago. One at the back of a temple in Sri Lanka smelled particularly dire. Luckily I didn’t need to stay long.

Another, I needed to lurk a little longer, if you get my drift. It seemed to be the only place to go at Marari beach (Kerala). It was an Indian squat toilet and it wasn’t exactly clean but when you gotta go, you gotta go. So I went. I stood up, mortified (if not a little amused) to find that I had missed the hole. I had a bit of spare toilet paper to encourage it over the edge but not enough. (In India, things are never as… um… solid.) I looked for the traditional hose on the wall, that’s what was needed – some high-pressure water. Except there wasn’t one. Just a small plastic jug in a large plastic bucket. I swished and tried to get as much ‘pressure’ behind it as I could. Eventually I had to leave it. No worries, I thought, no one has seen me. I came out to find a man waiting for his 20-rupee payment. It looked like this was the toilet for his family home.

Favourite toilet moment:

At a motorway service station in Sri Lanka, we had to pay 20 rupees to go in. A woman stamped a little ticket and handed it over. David looked at her wryly and said: ‘That’s not enough to wipe my arse, is it?’

2 thoughts on “Slum blog

  1. I love your posts. I’m leaving for India for the first time in a month, and I feel like I’m there after I read your blog. BTW, I’m traveling equipped with a ShePee, plenty of disposable PeeBuddy thingies and plenty of toilet paper 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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