Three weeks in India burned images into my mind I am not likely to ever forget. In Mumbai (formerly Bombay), we saw signs of the well-known slums. Squatters build shacks that bump up against each other, row after row. Most are not more than 8- x 10-feet in size, yet each one houses about six people. Somehow they have electricity, and satellite dishes for television pop up all over this self-contained community of people whose way of life is poverty.
At the other extreme were places like the Taj Mahal Palace, the hotel terrorists attacked in 2008.
I understand why they chose it. Built in 1905 in the British colonial style, it is the most opulent place I have ever seen. The hotel sits on the Arabian Ocean and lacks for nothing. The terrorists sailed down from Pakistan, hijacked small fishing boats, came ashore in a fishing village near the hotel, entered the hotel, and began killing people.
And then there are the lavish structures built by today’s wealthy. The CEO of the Reliance Group has a house that cost two billion dollars. There are 650 full-time staff, yet only five people actually live there.
Everyone in India seems to accept the waste and disparity. But I don’t understand it.
We also visited a preschool. Shala, our friend who lives in Memphis but whose family lives in Mumbai, helped the school get started. A couple in their 50s opened the school less than a year ago to serve 120 children. The families, Hindus and Muslims, all live in the slums. The parents wash clothes, drive rickshaws, and serve the wealthy.
The children were waiting for us when we arrived. They looked so much like the beautiful children of Perea, the preschool the Church Health Center operates in a Memphis public school. They sang and danced for us, just the way the Perea children do at Christmas. They all wanted their pictures taken. The boys were messing around and the girls were serious.
A banner on the wall said, “Memphis—Mumbai Connection.” I am so hoping we can connect Perea to this school.
The principal talked with us about how the school works. They focus on teaching English, knowing English improves the children’s ability to go to better schools as they get older. Some of the parents told us their hopes for their children—to be policemen, nurses, even one doctor. It costs $200 a year per child. My mouth fell open when I heard that. The cost is so low because the teachers are paid very little. Everyone who works like this is paid very little. For $20,000 a year, they could start a new school. In Memphis, it would take a million dollars a year.
The disparity is so hard to process.
When we walked near our hotel, women holding their babies and begging lined the street. I had been told not to give them anything. There are places they can go for help. We say the same thing about panhandling in Memphis. I know that is true in Memphis in some ways. I was not sure it’s true in Mumbai.
This was the end of our trip. We had one last dinner. The fixed price menu was 6,000 rupees for a buffet.
I wasn’t all that hungry.