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In the belly of iniquity

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By Velly Thevar visits Garib Nagar, the Slumdog Millionaire slum in Mumbai that's in the headlines again - and concludes that its residents would do just about anything to have a roof over their heads
  • Published 26.04.09

The first thing that strikes you about 26-year old Najma is her eyes. They are bright yet wear a tired, worn look. She looks gaunt and frail and has tied her hair in a bun. Her “home” is a 7 by 7 feet tin sheet enclosure without a roof, “My husband left me when I was pregnant with my son Ibaad and these days I am so depressed about not being able to make ends meet that I want to commit suicide,” says Najma.

Welcome to Garib Nagar, the slum abutting platform No. 7 near the queen of Mumbai’s suburbs, Bandra.

Like Najma, all its denizens live amidst shocking poverty and squalor. But Garib Nagar seems to have developed a habit of staying in the news. After the phenomenal success of Slumdog Millionaire catapulted it to worldwide attention — child actors Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Ismail come from this slum — last week, Garib Nagar was back in the public glare. The News of the World, The UK tabloid, carried out a sting operation and scooped that Rubina’s father had tried to sell her for Rs. 1.4 crore.

Though a shocking revelation, a visit to Garib Nagar can go some way in explaining why Rubina’s father was tempted to commit such an unnatural act.

Compared to Garib Nagar, Asia’s largest slum Dharavi is an abode of prosperity. The story of Garib Nagar is much more sordid. Its residents would just about do anything to have a roof over their heads. Perhaps sell their daughters too.

Unlike other slum colonies where you have some space to walk and some measure of cleanliness, filth is all pervasive in Garib Nagar. To reach Rubina’s house, for instance, you need to walk over garbage and cross a gutter that is still with open sewage. The homes are pitch dark and dingy and so small that they would not hold a six feet by four feet cast iron bed. There are a maze of electrical wires overhead. But most days the place goes without electricity.

In fact, Azhar lives in a place where there is no electricity at all. He belongs to a family of squatters who have settled on someone else’s property. Twice a year, their homes are razed. Right now they have got a reprieve because of the elections. But they know only too well that once the elections are over, the demolition squad will arrive and they will be homeless again.

“The children suffer the most. Perhaps that is why we were upset that despite the millions made by Slumdog Millionaire, nothing filtered down to us. We were paid only Rs 50 or Rs 300 a day and forgotten,” says Sayeda Ramzan Sheikh whose sons Salman and Arbaaz played the role of lame beggars in the movie. In fact, half of Garib Nagar’s slum children featured in Slumdog Millionaire.

Most of the residents of Garib Nagar are Muslims and they are so poor that many of them work as domestic helps in a neighbouring slum called Behrampada where people are somewhat better off.

Women form the core of Garib Nagar families. Most have been abandoned by their husbands. Azhar, who played little Jamaal, has an aunt called Mariambi who is again a single woman. Mariambi’s seven-year-old grandson Feroze Ahmed Sheikh was also a part of Slumdog Millionaire. Mariambi’s daughter, Feroze’s mother, is deaf and dumb and has been abandoned by her husband.

Twenty-six-year-old Khurshid, Rubina’s mother, much reviled in the media for having abandoned her children, also appears to be a victim of circumstances. Khurshid came to live in Garib Nagar after she was married to Rubina’s father, Rafiq at the age of 12. “By 13, I was pregnant with my first child. Rubina’s father kicked me during a fight and I drank poison. I lost my first baby,” recalls Khurshid.

Three children later, (Sanaa, Rubina and Abbas) Khurshid was tired of the beatings, the gambling and womanising by her husband. “He even had a second wife,” she says. “So I took the children and walked out.”

Khurshid was 21 when she left home with the children and went to live in another slum. The July 26 deluge in 2005 inundated her house so her mother-in-law took the children away. “I thought, let her take care of the children, she will find out what it entails,” she says.

Today Khurshid insists that she cared for her children all along and hasn’t just turned up in their lives after Rubina’s Slumdog fame. “I was there with Rubina during the shooting of the film. I was always a part of the children’s lives. But now after Slumdog Millionaire, I seem to have become a pariah.” Rubina’s sister Sanaa has left the family to stay with her mother.

Khurshid says she tried to take Rubina with her too, but that the girl did not want that. “Rubina hit me when I hauled up her father over the News of the World story. I have decided to let her be. All I wanted as a mother was that she should not suffer the same fate as me. I know that she will simply be used by her father. That man is no good.”

Khurshid is now married to a 22-year old Hindu man called Monish who works in a call centre. Monish fell in love with Khurshid while she was working in their house as a servant in Navi Mumbai. “The residents of Garib Nagar call me names because I refused to get beaten and abused. I hit back when my husband hit me. The people here are not happy with me because I have another man in my life now. But the same standards do not apply to Rafiq who is now on to his third marriage.”

As if all their troubles were not enough, the women of Garib Nagar also have to feed their large brood of children. Sayeda, 30, who does odd jobs has five children (one of them featured in Slumdog). Another woman, Fakrunnisa, who was also a part of Slumdog Millionaire’s poor lot, has seven children.

In a hovel close to Azhar’s home, one comes across little Mehazabeen. She wants to become a doctor. Her father is a rickshaw driver; so they are comparitively better off. But her parents have five children to feed.

Mehazabeen knows that her dream of becoming a doctor may always remain that — a hopeless dream.