10×10 producer Martha Adams reports from her second pre-production trip to India.
What do we think about the term “pavement dweller?” That’s how they are known here in India. While neither positive nor negative in its connotation, the term’s banality is getting on my nerves.
I’ve now been in Kolkata for 4 days with 10×10 Partner World Vision. (British colonialists, known to hang up signs outside fancy hotels that read “No Dogs or Indians Allowed,” once christened this city “Calcutta.” But in 2001, Indian leaders corrected the long-standing insult by going back to the name’s original pronunciation.) We’re here scouting and shooting for the 10×10 film and campaign. Photographer and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala has also joined us, and together we’re devoting the bulk of our time to a very precocious 11-year-old girl named Ruksana. As I mentioned in my last blog post, Ruksana and her family live alongside a busy Kolkata street. Her story provides us a rare opportunity to witness some of the obstacles Indian girls face in getting an education.
A woman sleeps on the streets of Kolkata. Photo by Martha Adams, 10x10.
When I consider the term “pavement dweller,” a quick game of word association links me to “dwelling” then to “home.” And in fact, Ruksana, in many ways, has a wonderful home. It took me all of two seconds to feel welcomed and at ease inside her family’s tarp shanty. All the comforting signs were there to reassure me: some stacked dishes, a small propped-up mirror, a pile of dirty laundry. Yes, this was indeed a home.
But somehow the term “pavement dweller” paints too rosy of a picture. Ruksana’s tarp shelter swelters in the summer, it’s a bathtub during monsoon and year-round exhaust fills the already stifling air. Traffic whizzes by within two or three inches of the children playing. (Ruksana’s younger siblings have been hit and dragged twice, her mother told us.) Water is a good walk away. Clean water, a myth. Pay-per-use bathrooms are down the block, but the gutter is free. A child with third-degree burn blisters covering her head and neck tugs on my pant leg. This is no home.
I ask Ruksana’s parents what keeps them up at night. Her beautiful 27-year-old mother rattles them off without pause: “Fear of floods, eviction and gangs.”
The fear of violence is so pronounced that Ruksana and her sisters travel to a shelter each night, leaving behind their parents and the two youngest in the family to sleep under the tarp. Sooni and I asked if we could join them on the walk one evening and soon I’m following in the footsteps of Ruksana and two of her sisters. Hand in hand, they walk along crumbling pavement, keeping an eye on mangy dogs, stepping over sleeping rickshaw drivers, past men smoking and playing cards, around mounds of trash and by small stoops serving as makeshift shops where men covered in sweat and grease are repairing cellphone parts. It’s dark. This is no place for three young girls. And yet, this is their daily walk to safety.
Each of the girls must pay two rupees per night to sleep there. They also have to cook and clean for the women who work the night shift. Far from ideal, but it’s the only night-time security these girls have. (By the way, overcrowding in the school system dictates that boys and girls study in shifts. Girls in the morning. Boys in the afternoon. So Ruksana’s day begins at 5 am—and having to cook and clean at the night shelter makes for a debilitating bookend to her day.)
Eviction is another concern for Ruksana’s parents. Why some patches of sidewalk provide real estate to the homeless in this city while others are free and clear of dwellings has everything to do with politics. City politicians bank on the support of the Muslim community (as is the case with Ruksana) and will look the other way if it’s to their benefit. But it’s that tenuous relationship that worries her parents night after night.
When evicted, her father told us, there’s no time to gather up belongings. Fear of getting arrested means they must clear out quickly. He and his wife agreed that if it happens, they would grab the kids’ uniforms, shoes and backpacks. They can lose everything else (and have in years past) but “we can’t afford to lose those.”
Ruksana’s father also spoke of the floods. Ironically, the monsoon rains are Ruksana’s favorite time of year. While their parents must scamper to salvage the family’s meager belongings, the kids play in the endless water. It’s the closest thing to Ruksana’s dream of one day seeing the ocean.
Ruksana, far right. Photo by Martha Adams, 10x10.
But despite these monumental challenges to daily living, Ruksana’s parents have chosen to live on these streets for one simple reason: so their kids can go to school. And that is Ruksana’s greatest security in life. The family knows that it will be Ruksana’s education that will allow her to one-day graduate from the pavement.
Stories like this—fierce commitments to education in the face of unfathomable odds—are what we at 10×10 are committed to telling. We hope you’ll continue listening.