Once upon a time there was a slum in New Delhi near the tomb of Humayun, the mild-mannered Mughal emperor who fell to his death from a ladder in his library. A few centuries after his death, a young woman walked into that slum with a camera and tripod slung all over herself to conduct an interview and take some shots for the NGO she was volunteering with. She was accompanied by another young volunteer. He was a college student, a Youth Congress leader, who visited that slum often as part of the NGO's Right to Information programme. He and his team helped make the people who lived in that slum aware of their rights as the citizens of India because those rights were often denied to them.
The young woman and the young man couldn't have been more different. She had an Indian passport but had never lived in India. He probably didn't have a passport because he had never travelled outside of India. She had travelled east from the Western hemisphere to be there. He had travelled north from Rajasthan. A decade yawned between the two of them. But he was her guide that winter afternoon in one of the most densely populated parts of the world. She had been asking him a lot of questions about himself, his work, and the people he had met at the slum. She had never been to a slum before and didn't know what to expect. They had taken an autorickshaw to Humayun's Tomb and had then started walking down a dust path right around the corner.
And then it happened.
A handful of scrawny brown children came tumbling down the path and called out to the young woman. "Hiiiii, Didiiiiii!"
They were gone as fast as they had appeared. The young woman and the young man kept walking. She didn't pay any attention to the children, they had probably mistaken her for one of the other volunteers they had met before. A thin man passed them by on a rickety cycle that was hitched to a wooden cart. Both he and his vehicle creaked and shook over the broken stones that stuck out from the ground as if they were growing out from it. The young woman remembered something her father had once said about the fertile soil of that part of India. "Something will start growing even if you spit on the ground." Magic soil. She remembered Stephen King's 'Pet Sematary'. The soil of life? What kind of life?
Some more children bounced past them. "Didiiiiiii!"
They're talking to me, she realised. She didn't know how to feel about it. Delhi was not a city where strangers almost fell over with excitement upon meeting you. She had spent a year around the smooth-talking, educated, rich, famous, sometimes good-looking segment of the Indian population. The elite. She was used to the people she worked for not knowing her name and not caring about if she lived or died. As long as she got the work done, as long as she made them look good. She was used to hard eyes and snarls and bad behaviour. Then what was this?
They had followed the path to its end into the heart of the slum. They had passed thin children hopping around chained puppies, they had passed an immobile old man exhaling smoke outside his shanty on a charpai he shared with an equally immobile white dog. An outdoor tap dripped Chinese torture onto a pile of steel pots and pans. Shanties lined both sides of the path until where it ended into a dusty open area. That is where the piles and possibly miles of garbage began. A couple of older women in saris and a baby sat on a charpai near the hill of garbage. There was a tall green gate nearby, some Muslim organisation. A clothesline with ratty colourful clothing hung along its wall.
The young man set out to find the woman they needed to speak to. The young woman surveyed the scene for a good interview location. She settled on a pink and blue wall that tapered off into the background to a line of shanties. She pulled the tripod out of its cardboard box and set it up on the ground. She screwed her camera on top of the tripod and peered through the viewfinder. Someone tugged at the bag she kept slung on her hips.
"Didi, meri photo khheencho na." She turned to a girl with messy short hair and dirty clothes. And missing teeth on a happy smile. A disarming smile meant for the young woman. It almost frightened her, she hadn't seen a selfless smile in a long time. A number of children suddenly surrounded the serious young woman and her equipment. They clung to the bottom of her shirt, to her bag. Someone reached for her arm, another grabbed her fingers. The young woman from another world could feel the warmth of their hands burning through her clothes onto her skin. A couple of them began to dance in front of the camera. They began to chant, "Didi, didi, didi, didi!" They were excited to see her. Their faces were glowing, they could not contain their joy. It made her feel unsteady, unsure how to react. She had learned how to react to hostility and condescension, she knew how to handle those things, but what was this?
A smile that almost broke into a laugh awkwardly began writing itself on her mouth.
The young man returned with the woman they were meant to interview. The young woman shushed the children, "shhhhhhh!" The woman seated herself in front of the camera and the interview began. The young woman kept a close watch on the camera's viewfinder and an even closer eye on the children who had crowded around her. She shushed them whenever they squealed, she tapped their little fingers whenever they couldn't bear to not touch the tripod. She even took one little girl aside and asked her to tell one of the shanties nearby to turn down their TV set which was playing old Mohammed Aziz songs.
After the interview, the young woman spent the rest of her time taking shots of the slum. The children followed her wherever she went. She was the pied piper, and she made them dance. She made some young boys on bicycles race past her, and they did. One of the boys yelled in triumph as he sped past her - "yeahhhhhhhh, Didi!!" Some of the children were dangling off of an abandoned autorickshaw near the garbage pile. One of the little girls with the uneven pigtails and the very high-pitched voice grabbed another girl by the hair and shook her head in play and laughed. They all laughed. They were all so poor and they lived in slums, and they treated the young woman as if she was the most important person in the world. The young woman looked around for the young man she had come with. She saw him being lead a way off by a little boy. "Hey, where are you going??" she called out to him. He turned to look at her with a smile and shrugged. The little boy obviously wanted to show his big tough friend something interesting in his life.
At the end of their visit, the young man and the young woman were saying their goodbyes to the woman they had interviewed and her family. "Thank you," the young woman said, the camera and tripod once again slung across her body. They were on their way out. The woman from the slum replied to her. She told her that they should be the ones doing the thanking, that if it weren't for the young man, the young woman, and their NGO, that they would not be able to put their children in school or even acquire their basic forms of identification from the government. They would never know their rights if it had not been for them.
The young woman stood there, half her body wanting to leave, the other half wanting to move in the other direction. She realised that she had suddenly stopped looking at the woman from the slum in the eye. She felt small. It had all been too much. First the children who had flung themselves at her out of affection and trust when they didn't have to, now this woman who spoke so directly that it made the young woman from the outside world feel like everything she had gone through to get to this moment had been worth it. All the good things, especially the bad things, it was alright because it had brought her here, to a woman who said thank you.
She wondered about the rich and beautiful and famous people she had been around the whole year. She remembered the big talk and the small actions. She remembered how after a while the most beautiful and powerful people had started looking unbearably ugly to her. So, so ugly. They were ugly in their behaviour, they were ugly in their words, they were ugly in how they treated the world around them. They were ugly in how they were competitive and not cooperative, ugly in how they wanted to tear down but not build up. The things people do to get on television can anger you. You know what they say about how power and money show the true character of a person? Add putting them on camera to that list. Many times it's not even about the message but about seeing themselves on screen. Many of them are people you wouldn't speak with if you met them elsewhere. But the young woman had seen people at the NGO cringing at seeing themselves in one of their own videos and insisting ad nauseum that the video be edited to put focus on the people, the people, the people. The people they are trying to empower.
The young man stopped by a small shop on their way out. He asked the young woman if she wanted him to buy her some gum. She did, so he bought some for her and for himself. The sun was beginning to set, the smog was beginning to darken. They continued on their way out to the main road. The young woman suddenly realised that the young man had not given her the gum he had promised her himself. She asked him for it, and he then fished it out of his pocket and handed it to her. She had a good laugh over it. "Such a typical politician," she said to him. "You offer me something on your own, then you pretend as if you never did. You make me go out of my way to demand something that I had never wanted in the first place!"
Sometime later, the young woman remembered a time when she was looking for a place to volunteer. She had spoken to a women's organisation over the phone who had turned her down because of the television news channel she had worked at. They had told her that they knew of others from that channel and that, if the young woman was anything like them, then they didn't think that she would be able to handle working with people from the slums.
But I can. I am not like the others.