finding johncy – part 3

24Apr12

Emily and Bharith – or as I like to call him, the Indian Jay-Z

When I first started spending time in the slums in 2010, there were a group of students from the U.S. that were visiting, and one of them remarked, “Oh, these are kind of like middle-class slums.”

I knew what she meant. I think I expected severe poverty, people on the verge of starvation, and instead what I found were communities with constructed lanes and homes, well-fed children full of energy and curiosity, and women whom I often could not tell apart from their middle-class counterparts. Even though most of them did not have running water in their homes, I would never have guessed it looking at how well-taken care of and how well-dressed their children were. But as I started conducting the research and began to spend more and more time inside many different homes, I began to see where the gap was between their income and the necessities in life.

Most of the homes are about the size of a small bedroom, and they are usually divided into two parts. The front room often has a twin-size bed with a TV and stereo, and there is a cement divider which I thought hid the kitchen and bathroom. I had probably been in India for about three months before I realized, “Ohh, there’s no bathroom in here.” In fact, there was no running water at all. The “kitchen” was a large kerosene bottle used for cooking with small pots and pans. The water came from taps outside that women and girls would bring back into their homes in large containers. Although some homes in the slums have their own bathrooms, that is rare. More commonly people use public bathrooms. I remember in one area there were two public bathrooms for a community of 200 families, or around 1000 people.

A mark of status in the slums is therefore having a home that has running water and a bathroom. There are many different kinds of homes: some look brand new, with lovely tiles and fresh paint in bright colors, while one of the worst ones I saw was just a small room that was concrete gray, with no paint on the wall, and all their belongings pushed up along the side of their home in disarray. Most of the people living in the slums are at the poverty line, but they are able to pay the rent on their home, feed their families, send their children to school and have a little left over for non-essentials. But when you look a little closer at these communities, you see what is missing – proper sewage facilities, proper bathrooms, running water, enough beds for everyone, meals that offer nutritional value rather than just staving off hunger, etc.

The area Johncy (read Part 1 here and Part 2 here) lives in is called Ragigudda, a slum that is in the middle of being re-developed into middle class apartments. Her home is one of the last of the slums in that area, and I don’t know where she will be living a year from now. When I saw Johncy again, we spoke about how we could keep in touch if she moved out of Ragigudda. She used my phone to call her cousins Stella and Emily, and it turned out they lived in Koramangala, which was in the same area as Brinda’s organization, Global Concerns India.  They asked excitedly when they could meet me, so we arranged for the next day.

Stella always seemed like she is bubbling over with energy. She is constantly suppressing her smiles for a few seconds before laughing excitedly or chattering away to me in a language I don’t understand. She alternates between shy and affectionate. When she first saw me outside the Koramangala slums, she ran towards me and jumped into my arms, and then held on to my hand the rest of the way. It was very hot that day, so I let go of her her hand and just rested my arm on her shoulder, but eventually her hand would find its way back into mine. Later when we were talking to her mother, she sat quietly next to me without holding my hand. But as soon as we stepped outside her home, she grabbed hold of my hand again, laughing and talking in Kannada.

When I saw them, Emily, who was now 10, was the same funny, energetic girl I remembered, while 12-year old Stella had the more responsible, calm attitude of an older child. Stella asked me if I would visit their home, and I am always interested in seeing different homes and areas, so of course I said yes. Along the way, she said, “Some of my friends, when they find out where I live, won’t visit my home.”

Their mother was a domestic worker, and their father was an auto driver, and in addition to Stella and Emily, there was a younger son and daughter. I have heard the countless stories of husbands of domestic workers who are alcoholics and who contribute nothing to the family. As soon as I walked into their house, I knew this was a father who provided for his children. Their home was simple, painted in that bright (probably inexpensive) blue I had seen in many homes in the slums. The whole space was about the size of a medium-sized bedroom, and they were a family of six. But it was spotless, well-put together and had an open feeling, even for such a small space.  Their roof had cracks between the ceiling and the wall, which they had carefully plastered over with large Vodaphone marketing posters. It was the perfect example of the idea of a “middle class slum” and the gap between who they strive to be and the reality of the economic class they reside in, where you step into their organized, clean space that they work hard to turn into a home, and then you step outside into sewage that sits stagnant in useless gutters, and walk past garbage that will never be collected, scattered everywhere.

Stella talked a bit more about her family and about school, and that her parents sent her and Emily to a local private school. I was a little amazed that their parents both felt it was important to invest in the education of their two daughters. Unfortunately I couldn’t talk to them to ask them how they came to that decision and what they foresaw for their daughters’ futures. In my original research, we asked the educational background of the domestic workers, and found that 53% of the domestic workers had no education, 27.6% were educated up to 7th standard and below, and 19.3% were educated between 8th to 10th standard. There were no participants that had an education above 10th standard. I will definitely go to visit Stella and Emily again when I go back to India, and I would like to speak with their parents with the help of a translator. What expectations do they have their daughters’ futures? What would they think if I told them there are no domestic workers with an education above 10th standard, therefore, if they support their daughters’ educations up to a certain age, they can almost guarantee that Emily and Stella will not be domestic workers?

Johncy, Stella and Emily seem like young women who are supported by families with very limited options trying to do what’s best for their children. Although I am a little anxious about their futures, I am encouraged by the support they have and by their confidence, and I cannot wait to sit down and talk with all of them when I go back. I also know I will be able to find Johncy even if she moves,  now that I’m in contact with her entire extended family!

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2 Responses to “finding johncy – part 3”

  1. 1 luvngel89

    Many people often think that what they see on the surface is the truth when the real problems usually lie deep within. I think that many of us are so used to seeing young children in rags dying on T.V so often that our definition of poverty has become such images. It is true that those devastation are still on going and are in need of help, but our definition of poverty mustn’t be so narrow. People like Stella may be smiling with clean clothes, but there’s always more than meets the eye.

  2. 2 SpreadTheLove

    People always assume that poverty and slums directly correlate to hungry children, no food, no water, ripped clothes and so on. But sometimes we just don’t see that there are others who also need support, others who are on the border line of poverty. These people just have enough money but where’s the hygiene? Where’s the guarantee for education? It often seems that these families are ignored by society as Stella said many of her friends don’t visit her house after they’ve see it, but why? Because society won’t stop thinking about class status. Stella has clothes and home but there’s things that need to be done to help families like hers.


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