Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Uma's world

This morning, as I made my way down the hill where I live, I passed by the family of ragpickers that live on the road. The mother, her two children, a boy and a girl, and another little boy who belongs to another woman, were sleepily making their way up towards the public toilet. Further down, the other woman, a thin tall woman who I see everyday, was fast asleep, on the parapet of a fence not more than 18 inches wide.

Through the rains, this family of five have been allowed to seek temporary shelter in the Central Government officer's colony on this road. Now the rains have ended. And they are once again on the road.

Uma, also called Ruby, the little girl I saw earlier, has luminous eyes. And a wide smile. Most mornings I see her dressed in the dark blue uniform of municipal schools in Mumbai. She trudges uphill each morning to a school that is little more than a shed. Probably illegal. Claiming legality by naming itself the Ambedkar school.

Uma, alias Ruby, is the new India. Yet she is also the old India -- or an India that stubbornly refuses to change. Uma has no home. She sleeps during most of the year, barring the monsoon months, with her little brother and mother, and the other woman and her son, behind large sacks of recyclable material foraged by her mother from the brimming dustbins of the denizens of elite Malabar Hill. For all accounts and purposes Uma's address, if you can call it that, is also Malabar Hill. But neither her mother, or her brother, or she can lay claim to the 10 ft on the side of the road, next to the garbage dump, where they sleep each night.

But Uma is the new India because millions like her, even if they have no roofs over their heads, are now going to school. Will this make a difference? Will she grow up and find some shelter, because she is lettered? Will she escape the indignity and abuse that have been a part of her mother's life?

Call me an unrepentant bleeding heart, but every morning when I bump into Uma, and she gives me a shy smile, I am forced to think about her, and millions of other children. In the new India, what is their future? Will it be any different from that of their parents?

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