In all the euphoria about the success of Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire (a fairytale rags-to-riches love story of a Mumbai slumdweller Jamal), we tend to forget the real ‘slumdogs’ of India.
In the latest issue of the New Yorker (February 23, 2009, p.22-29), Katherine Boo has a must-read piece about 13-year-old Sunil, a real ‘slumdog’ living in the fetid Gautam Nagar slum of Mumbai (near the airport and abutting the five-star hotels where the wealthy in 10 minutes consume rare scotches that cost what Sunil earns in 700 14-hour days picking up trash like aluminum cans and tampon applicators).
Sunil is a scavenger, now turning into a petty metal-thief at the Mumbai international airport since the crisis in the global economy has depresssed prices for the trash he collects.
A heartrending account written in a calm, dispassionateÂ style by a fine journalist, Boo’s piece titled Opening NightÂ is a depressing read on the state of India today (the title of the pieceÂ Opening Night is a reference to the Indian premiere of Slumdog Millionaire).
Sunil is the face of Mumbai, the face of modern India where income inequalities are now so vast that someÂ moghuls build billion-dollar homes while millions live in miserable hovels amidst rats, feral pigs, buffaloes and dogs, and without electricity or water.
School? Don’t even ask because that’s not an option for youngsters like Sunil struggling to survive.
Since a lot of desis take pride in not buying or subscribing to newspapers/magazines (these SOBs want everything free), we are providing an excerpt here from the New Yorker piece:
Sunil had entered the garbage business when he was seven or so, after his mother died of tuberculosis. His father did roadwork when it was available, then drank his wages. Sunil’s sister, Sunita, was two years younger; when he was small, he’d lost her for a week, but he’d been careful not to misplace her after that. He’d shared with her the money he made roaming the airport roads with a sack, retrieving and examining the stuff that other people tossed away. An older boy, odd and constantly blinking, had been his preferred companion, and Sunil even now viewed the dustbins in the cargo area with a proprietary eye, as they had been the boys’ most profitable target.
Sunil still did not feel much like a thief. When he took a bath in an abandoned pit at the concrete-mixing plant, he pushed away the algae to inspect his reflection. The change in his profession didn’t yet show on his face: same big mouth, wide nose, problem torso. He was too small all over. Even Sunita was taller now, though he bested her in hair. While both of them got bitten by rats, and the rat bites sometimes turned into head boils, she’d recently become a baldie like Anna, because her boils had erupted with worms. [New Yorker, February 23, 2009 p.23-24]
Mera Bharat Mahaan.