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There’s a particularly powerful sequence early on in the award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire that affected me deeply. It is a moonlit night on the outskirts of Bombay. In a clearing among the trees, Jamal, a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed little Indian boy, stands ready to perform for a group of men who have recently taken him to a charity home they ostensibly run for street kids. He is about to sing a Bengali song they have taught him. He is unaware that when he finishes the plaintive tune he will be pinned down and blinded with boiling oil that is being heated in the background.
This scene brings back a long forgotten memory from my childhood in Delhi–of parents talking in hushed tones of gangs kidnapping children, maiming them and sending them out into the streets to beg. The rationale was that the blind and maimed children would attract more sympathy and therefore collect more money. The fictional grown-up Jamal and I are roughly the same age, and my memory is from a time in which I would have been as old as he is at this point in the film. But aside from this brief convergence of matter and memory, we have no experiences in common; sadly, it is easy to live segregated lives in India.
According to the latest census (2001), 1.9 million of Delhi’s inhabitants are slum dwellers, yet I have never visited one until this year. Some slums are gentrified; others are wastelands of sub-Saharan poverty. I recently visited one in the Nizamuddin Basti area, barely a mile away from my house. This is a fairly well-to-do slum; the houses are brick rather than plastic-sheeted tents, and there are water and electricity connections, unlike in many other slums.
I made my way through the narrow lanes to a school run by a local charity called Hope Project, which was established by an India Sufi mystic whose sister worked for the resistance in France during World War II until she was betrayed to the Gestapo and executed at Dachau. Here I set up a meeting with the brightest kids in the school; two of them are 17-year-old girls, Saida and Parveen. The first thing I noticed was how fashionably dressed these teenagers are. Saida wore a lemon shalwar kurta (tunic and loose pants) with a sparkling border of ruby- and pearl-colored sequins, an olive sweater, lemon ballet pumps and three sets of golden diamanté studs glittering through her dark hair. The two girls were shy at first but soon became quite chatty and disarmingly charming. Saida wants to be a doctor. Parveen wants to be a journalist. All of these girls want to go to college and to work. But they also have household duties that include looking after their younger siblings and cooking and cleaning, while their parents are out working as rag pickers, rickshaw drivers and day laborers.
Circumstances might make it hard for these girls to fulfill their aspirations, but the school has produced students who have gone on to become flight attendants, typists or owners of small businesses such as beauty salons. The girls exhibit no self-pity and expect no charity; they have determination and hope. I recall the young Jamal’s brilliant smile and seemingly unbreakable spirit. Dev Patel, the actor who plays Jamal as an adult, said in an interview with the Hindu: “I have seen slum boys. They have the brightest teeth and the highest hopes. Jamal is one of them.”
In their own way, these girls are lucky. A lot of slum children do not go to school, many work as rag pickers, some are sexually exploited and others become heroin addicts. I am told that the local police work in cahoots with the drug gangs that sell smack in this slum. There are also a lot of people here begging. I inquired about them and was told that they are the new arrivals–people who have come from penury-ridden villages where their lives are so desperate that they come here, hoping they can somehow bend the arc of fate. Most of them have no one to turn to, no government or charitable organizations, no soup kitchens or homeless shelters. Their plight, stories and aspirations have been largely ignored.
But now Slumdog Millionaire is focusing attention on this issue that was previously of little concern to most middle-class Indians, the media and the government. Home Minister P. Chidambaram is encouraging Indians to watch the film and has been quoted in the Times of India as saying that the government and the private sector should reach out to people in slums where young men and women are “humming with business ideas and innovations.” To me, Slumdog Millionaire is to be admired for shining a light on the trials and hopes of slum kids, and for sparking an interest in their lives that I hope will lead to action.