Mumbai is a pretty exciting place – it’s vibrant, there is a lot of history, a long seaside promenade. But the slums, the dark side of Mumbai, that is a different story. The poverty, dirt, garbage, and human waste in the slums of Mumbai are impossible to describe in words. It has to be smelled to be believed. People live piled on top of each other, many have been trafficked from the poorest parts of India to work in slave like conditions in manual labour or the sex trade.
I was there traveling with Stop the Traffik, a global coalition against human trafficking. As a small group of Australians and Brits, we experienced first hand how poverty and desperation really looks, and the lengths people will go to just to meet their survival needs. It was eye opening to say the least, and gave me a completely new view on my own life at home.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. We saw the incredible work local community group, Oasis India, did to raise awareness about human trafficking to try and prevent them being ‘tricked’ by trafficking agents. They support people – especially prostitutes – who have been trafficked to develop skills so that one day they may be able to buy back their freedom and restore their lives through the dignity of work. They are making a difference, one person at a time.
Oasis India anti-human trafficking rally in the slums
Labels are oppressive
In India the labels are overt, all people have a place within a caste system. The caste system is laid out by the Hindu scriptures so it is deeply engrained in religious beliefs as well as cultural norms. There are as many as 6000 castes which individuals are born into. Their social and economic status, opportunity for education, living standards and general place in the community is defined by the class into which they are born.
The bottom 200 castes are the Dalits, also known as the ‘untouchables’ of India. These people are not even seen as human. They do not live in the villages and are made to live together in slums on the outskirts of villages. Usually their slums are on the west side of the village because the wind comes from the east, so it will not blow their air over the main village. They are known as the untouchables because you can not even touch them - if an Indian from a higher caste even touches a Dalit they must go and bathe, if a priest touches a Dalit it is seen as a great sin. These people are destined to a life of desperate poverty with little opportunity for improving their lot in life.
A Dalit Village
Labels in our homes in the west are less overt but very much as real. Our labels tend to be attached to things like job titles, schools we graduated from and the suburbs we live in. The symbols of our labels are the size of the houses we live in, the brands we can afford to wear and the cars we drive.
Our identity is defined by the titles and the ‘things’ we accumulate in our lifetimes, rather than the light and soul within us. Falling into the trap of attachment to transient things such as job titles and incomes leads to fear, control, competition and a loss of fulfilment in our lives. We spend our lives living up to the expectations we put on ourselves to maintain our labels and all the symbols associated with it. It is race that is unwinnable because there is always a bigger house to buy, or the next promotion to fight for.
Human connection is the key
Despite the filth there was a lively energy within the slums, which is unexpectedly uplifting. In discussing this energy with the Oasis representative travelling with us he said, ‘No one is ever lonely in the slums. Loneliness is a burden of the west’.
Desperation and the pure lack of space causes a unique interdependence of the people in the slums. They trust and rely on their neighbour because they have to. When something difficult occurs they rally together because there is no other support system, they help each other because they know that help will be returned when they need it.
But here at home in relative comfort, we are separate. We rattle around in big houses, work long hours to pay for it. If we fall on hard times we just cut out non-essentials such as gym memberships and a house cleaner, or downsize our house. And we do have government welfare available to us. We are lucky to have these options and big safety nets, but we have lost any need for interdependency. If we run out of milk, we don’t need to go next door to the neighbour, we just go and buy some.
We also have little interest in the helping others, we are interested in our own satisfaction and fulfilment of our own desires. Many of us have little interest in the sacrifices that need to be made for all of humanity and all beings to allow them to survive in the future. Our concern is for ‘me’ and ‘mine’, being us and our immediate family and close friends. As resources get scarce, fear sets in and we become even more self centered and selfish. We need only look at the way we treat refugees for proof of such a thing. It’s this self centredness that feeds our loneliness and our separateness.
A sex slave taught me at our essence we are all the same.
Oasis India had arranged for us to have henna painting – an Indian traditional type of body art – done by a girl they had been working with who had been trafficked into sex slavery. We had been told her story before she arrived, that she had been brought to Mumbai by a neighbour on the promise of work in house cleaning. But once she arrived, she was sold to a brothel. She was to remain working there until her ‘debt’ is repaid – meaning that she is to work off the fee that the brothel manager ‘bought’ her for.
The girl painted a detailed flower pattern down my arm and as she did so, I was struck by how much she seemed like any other woman who was just like me. Dressed in a dark purple sari, she carried herself with an elegance and grace that made it difficult to imagine the harshness she had endured.
She didn’t speak English so we couldn’t communicate directly but in her eyes I could see the same basic hopes and desires as there are in mine – hope for safety and comfort, desire to live amongst a caring family, her dignity and self respect.
She and I could not live more different lives. But I could connect with her. The light within me could see the light within her. She wants the same basic human comforts that I do. She is a victim of the circumstances that she was born into, and it could have happened to any woman born into those circumstances. There is nothing different about me that protected me from having such a harsh life, only the pure luck that I happened to be born in Melbourne Australia, rather than a poor rural village in India.
Before my trip to India, I had an awakening forced on me with a divorce and a job loss together in a short space of time. We don’t realise just how important those labels and symbols that we place around ourselves are to us until they aren’t there anymore. They are important to us, not just in what we project to others but to ourselves as well, in showing the world who we are and where we fit. Who am I now without my husband, job title or my luxury car? How do I now demonstrate to others in a tangible way that I am worthy and I have status?
The trip to India was a deep confirmation of what I had already started to see for myself. At some point in time we need to develop that worthiness from within first rather than from without. My experience is that if we don’t do that for ourselves life herself - as the ever gentle teacher - foists it on us.
If we can feel worthy without any external indicators and connect to other human beings, recognising them as just another soul searching for the same things, then we can find peace in any life circumstances. The need for selfish pursuits and competition with others melts away. Once we have that peace and worthiness within ourselves we can extend it beyond ourselves to the community at large.