Category Archives: Social Development

Embracing Kasba Peth: Embracing Community

This blog has been produced in collaboration with Deborah Clearwater of Embraced Photography. She is a professional photographer from New Zealand living in Pune, India. 

We have started to have great adventures together. Exploring the streets of Pune, in particular the city centre. Through her pictures, I have an opportunity to explore the beauty of this city in a way that the hustle and bustle of street life doesn’t always give you time to appreciate.

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Recently, we went on an inspiring walk through Kasba Peth. Kasba Peth is the oldest community in the city, dating back to the 5th century. Most of the housing however dates back to the time of the Peshwars who ruled Pune prior to British colonialism. The 16th century housing is not subject to protection orders; there is no money to invest in its maintenance. As you read this blog, buildings may be tumbling down taking their very many occupants with them.

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Life is on the streets: a wire recycler – stripping the copper out of old electrical wires

The streets are narrow and circuitous – paths developed over thousands of years of occupation. Some wide enough for a car (a slow moving car), others for a motorbike or perhaps a rickshaw, others again for only a bicycle but most can only be seen on foot.

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Kasba Peth: where the young and old live together harmoniously 

Life slows down on these streets. People loiter in the doorways talking to their neighbours or the women wash their clothes communally in a the washing areas – nattering and gossiping as can only happen when a group of women get together. Children run from house to house, no house really their particular home – all houses feel like home. They just happen to sleep in one particular place! All tenderly rub the children’s hair as they run by or scold them when they’ve been naughty. Bloodlines run thick through these streets but bloodlines do not seem to define family – love and care defines the family and no shared blood is needed for this.

As an outsider such communities can feel intimidating. You don’t know how they work, you don’t know how easily you could cause offence or intrude. Chalo Heritage Walks however have taken what in our minds is quite a unique slant on how to walk through these communities. Rashid and his (Irish) wife Jan have developed over the years a close relationship with the community in Kasba Peth.

They have watched the children grow up and celebrated their achievements and advised when necessary. On first going to the area, they took the time to sit with the locals: pass the time with them, talk seriously with them and laugh with them. As a consequence, it appears to both of us from the two walks that we have now done with them, the community engage with them and don’t see the foreign tourists they bring to the area as intruders but love the fact that they are interested in their little community.

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This fruit seller insisted that Deborah take her picture. Proud of her community and her role in it. 

Deborah has always had a strong interest in people but I think for me the more I live in India they more I realise that I am an ‘anthropologist’ at heart. I want to be able to understand what makes people tick; and how people live. This interests me far more than the history of a palace or a visit to a temple. These places do not reflect the lives of the ordinary people. They only reflect the lives of those lucky enough to achieve high status or indeed were born into privilege. City tours therefore can sometimes fill me with dread. The idea of traipsing from one monument to the next and one historic building to the next is unutterably boring. To wander through the same streets but stop and look down little alley ways; to try and speak to the locals; to simply stop and sit and observe – that to me is a tour worth doing.

Neither Deborah or myself will be paid by Chalo Heritage Walks for writing this blog but rather this is a reflection of what we have gained from them that we feel we couldn’t necessarily get from anybody else.

The biggest lesson for us from these tours has been the power of community. In the west we seem to have largely forgotten that a community that supports and loves each other, that provides peer pressure as a means of maintaining positive attitudes and behaviour makes us all stronger and more able to deal with problems as they arise. Yes, there are drawbacks but the drawback of not having a community to fall back on is surely far, far worse.

Reading the newspapers here or indeed following Indian religion and politics from abroad you could be forgiven for thinking that there is a huge animosity between the Hindu and Muslim communities in India. Indeed at times there is. What Kasba Peth made us realise however is that this animosity is not driven by the realities of daily life but rather political manipulation by Hindu nationalists (BJP etc) of sections of society who lack the life experience and education to understand they are being manipulated.

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Vivek in his community. Notice the narrow streets and the children happily playing. 

Along our route on the last tour we did, we met a lovely young man, Vivek – in his early twenties, total Bollywood guy: hair styled, clothes sharp but this guy didn’t lack brains, rather he is studying an MBa in Finance. He grew up in poverty, living in conditions rarely seen now in the west – yet he finished school, finished a degree and now is completing an MBa.

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‘Is it safe to come out Vivek?’

While chatting to us and while of course Deborah was taking many photographs of this highly photogenic young guy, we noticed out of the corner of our eye, this little, little girl – perhaps 18 months old peeking out through some doors at us and this man.
The young man upon spotting her put out his hand and beckoned her to come out and see us. It was so clear from the look on the young man’s face and that of the little girl that they knew each other and trusted each other. She remained however too nervous to venture any further than her peek hole by the door.

So how does this interaction relate to the question of Hindu and Muslim animosity – well this little girl is Muslim and this young man is Hindu. Is this an anomaly? Not in this community. Wandering through the streets you see women in full hijab laughing with Hindu women – hanging out on the door steps. You see the meat market where in order to make sure both Hindu and Muslim clients can buy all the meat – the muslims butcher all the animals making sure the meat is Halal. Muslim and Hindu butchers share a small space. In order to cause no offence to either side, the Muslims have never sold beef (although it is now illegal in Maharashtra anyhow!) and the Hindus do not sell pork.  They could have chosen to have separate butcheries and have Muslims buy the halal meat and Hindus their pork. However they have chosen not to render division in the community, rather for centuries they have a sought a way to work together in peace.

A tour of temples and historical monuments would fail to bring across this great harmonious relationship. Certainly, at times, a fragile relationship but one that is ultimately built on trust. As you wander through the streets you notice that Muslims will say, ‘namaste or namaskar’ to Hindus while Hindus will say, ‘As-Salaam-Alaikum’ to a Muslim. Why? It is a traditional way of trying to accommodate yourself to others while they try and accommodate themselves to your way. There is perhaps a lesson there to learn in relation to the current world refugee crisis.

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Notice the black mark on this boy’s face: his parents warding off evil that may take his life while he is young

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Kasba Peth is an area that experiences severe hardships. There is a daily struggle for the very basics: water, food and money to educate the children. The children’s toys are old and often broken – yet they still find as much joy in them as they would something brand new. The younger children are often marked with black spots (they look like growths to the outsider) intended to ward away evil. Children die young in India and many are not even named until they are a few months old – to ease the pain if they are to die.

You are not however met with a grimace but rather an open welcoming smile. You can be certain that this community would give you the last of their food if they felt that would make you more welcome. They stop and give you the time from their busy lives to chat and share stories.

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This lady may be recovering from a major operation but that doesn’t stop her being the heart of the community

As my Hindi improves, this becomes an ever more enlightening experience. There is the lady who has had a triple heart by-pass but who proudly stands at her door and tells you just how well she is doing, while her husband is at his printing press next door that only prints lines for exercise books.

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Peek a boo works in any language!

There was the little boy we met – his mother an itinerant builder. Kasba Peth was only her home for a few weeks. This is a woman who lives at a level of poverty even more extreme than that of her temporary neighbours. Yet this woman still took the time to stop and enjoy the sight of her little son playing peek-a-boo with Deborah.

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There was the extended family of two grandmothers, their daughters and their daughters’ children. One grandmother took the time to explain who everyone was, how long they have lived in the area. All to a woman with dodgy Hindi while Deborah was busy taking their photographs.

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The youngest grandchild and his caring sister / cousin

It is a two-way street however. Rashid and Jan make sure that their guests take as many pictures of the people as they can. Their guests then send the pictures to them, they print them and then distribute them when they next do a tour.

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They were clear from the beginning that they did not want the relationship to be financially based. They wanted the community to get something from the visitors but not to depend on them. We met a little boy that said he was collecting foreign coins – on the last visit Rashid had given him some. However, he told the boy that he wanted to see his collection. If he genuinely was interested, then he would encourage his visitors to donate foreign coins if they had them. He insisted however that it be a genuine hobby and not just something he would take and do nothing with.

Jan, who has become a friend, recently forwarded me an article about a woman in Kolkata who has started a project of taking pictures of the poor and distributing them. She said she was struck by how many adults said they had a picture of themselves but when they produced it, it was simply their ID photo. She was also struck by the fact that many parents had no pictures of their children. Something we all love to have, to reflect on as our kids as they grow older.

In India however a lack of photos can have a dark side. What happens if your child gets lost or worse again is kidnapped and trafficked? How can the police and various agencies help you if you can’t even give them a picture of their child? Suddenly, upon reading the article, the work that Jan and Rashid do in the area became even more important.

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This woman is so incredibly beautiful and her saree is just perfect for her. She look so old despite her beauty but when I asked, she is only 50. Life ages you when life is not easy. 

To walk through the streets of Kasba Peth has to be my very favourite thing to do. The over-powering sense of community; the beauty of the women’s sarees; the smiles on people’s faces despite the hardships they endure; and the higgledy-piggledy nature of the streets is uplifting while at the same time reinforcing just how lucky I am to live where I am and to be free of all of those struggles that the inhabitants of Kasba Peth experience daily.

So my friend Gillian (mentioned in my last blog) arrives tomorrow for two weeks and both Deborah and I will once again do the Chalo Heritage Walk tour. I can’t wait to see what I will experience this time round.

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Find Deborah Clearwater on Facebook through Embraced Photography and Embracing India pages: Embracing India (India portfolio) and Embraced Photography (general portfolio)

Chalo Heritage Walks website: Chalo Heritage Walks

The Village

From high above in my nest, I gaze down on the ant-like, model railway-like world below me. The wind wafts my skirts, billowing me in a cool breeze, releasing me from the inferno like heat below.

The contrast between my world and theirs is outstanding. I have little or no comprehension of the lives of those that I watch daily. Yes, I have begun to understand the rhythm of their day. The ebb and flow of human movement but I have not learnt to understand their life. They are like an oil-painting of a distant scene. Present but yet still so illusive.

I have learnt from my perch that these people are resilient, are determined and face daily struggles that I would fear to face for even the briefest of times. Today, I complained to building management that a hose in one of my six bathrooms was leaking. Today, I saw person after person from this 500 person village enter and leave one of just 15 toilets. Women however never enter. One can only assume they have found a hidden corner of their village where they are safe from the preying eyes of the men.

View from our apartment. Our lives a sharp contrast to those of the village below us.
View from our apartment. Our lives a sharp contrast to those of the village below us.

In a village, one imagines a certain level of permanency, evidence of development over-time. A building that has been there since the eldest person in the village was a child. One imagines a new building that perhaps was welcomed warmly or perhaps was received amidst great controversy.

This is not a village that I have ever seen before. This is not how I imagined people lived in the modern world. Well perhaps that is the point – for these villagers, yes their very existence is dependent upon the modern world and all the development that this brings but it seems from high up in my perch that they are also very much living in a world that is of a past. A world of which I have heard stories and which my parents also only heard stories of.

One of many building sites near our apartment. A scene replicated hundreds of times all over the city.
One of many building sites near our apartment. A scene replicated hundreds of times all over the city.

Their village is not a village of stone and wood: something recognisable as a permanent structure for there is nothing permanent about this village. This village exists only to allow the Indian Tiger to roar. When you look around at all the shiny glass and marble flooring of modern India, they have been built on the backs of this village. My apartment may well have been built on the backs of the very people I stare down at.

For this village is home to the itinerant builders who travel from building site to building site to build modern India. They are not just conclaves of men but of their wives and the very many young children who run higgledy piggledy over the sand piles and sand bags and building materials of all kinds.

There is the child whose legs are just that little bit too short to ride his father’s bike but day after day, he rides up and down the road in front of the village. There is the little girl who chases after him (perhaps his sister) and sometimes but only sometimes gets to ride on the carrier.

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Note how low the water level is and water was delivered no more than 5 hours ago.

The heart of the village it appears is the water tank. A large rectangular concrete container that provides all the water for the village. Men give themselves bucket baths, morning and evening: dressed only in their underwear. Young boys wash next, then sometimes but only rarely the girls but never the women. Again, one can only assume they have found a hidden place to wash unseen by the men.

For the women, the water tank seems to be where they come to talk and gossip and sometimes even to sing or rather chant. The water tank is where they come to wash clothes in a way that cannot possibly have changed for hundreds of years. Buckets of water are heaved out of the tank and then they are washed and then repeatedly banged against special rocks, over and over again. These women only use two sides of the rectangular tank, the men use all sides. Whether this is so they can be closer to talk or whether it is clearly understood that the other side is for the men and men only – this is not clear.

At the end of every session at the tank, man, woman or child – it doesn’t matter, a bucket of water if not two are always carried back to their home. Again one can assume for cooking, cleaning and of course for the women and older girls to wash.

Of course, now that Pune is faced with severe water shortages, another contrast has thrown itself into my face. While I have 100% water, no reduction in flow – nothing. Their water delivery is no longer daily. By the end of the first day, you can see just how much the water level has dropped and it leaves you pondering on just how they will get by until the next water tanker arrives. A reality only too common amongst the poor of Pune.

Four other locations seem to provide secondary nuclei in the village.

IMG_0105For the children, it is the daily building they go to for education run by a charity called Tara Mobile Creche.  Every day about 9, the children of all ages, some carried by their mothers, stream into this long brick building. Some through one door and some through another with no obvious division based on age or gender. Throughout the day they appear periodically and play in small numbers outside or go to the water tank provided for this building alone. At 1 they stream home and at 2 they return, filled with lunch of some form one not only assumes but also hopes.

The children then stay on until 6 or even 7 o’clock when their parents return to work. These are the lucky children, most construction villages do not have any form of educational facility and so these children are doomed to more likely than not grow up illiterate with significantly reduced chances in life.

Two of the other locations seem equally functional – they are what can only be assumed are shops. Tin shacks that look like kiosks. Morning and evening, people in small numbers huddle around these buildings. The little children sent on errands, jump up to the counter then dangle their little legs while waiting for whatever it is they have ordered. From my perch, I cannot see inside. These shops can sell little more than the basics and perhaps the odd treat for a day when a family has a little bit of cash left over.

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Men streaming home for lunch at 1, walking by the area they hang out in when not working.

The final location is not functional at all – it is a pile of building materials. Morning and evening the men gather in groups to have, I can only imagine if i eavesdropped, the male equivalent of washing day gossip! Men drift towards and away from this group continuously while some march purposefully there, eager to join their friends. At some point, they all disperse to work or to home but with confidence that shortly they will regroup.

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The village celebrates the moving of their Ganesh idol to be immersed in the river as part of the annual Ganpatti festival.
A chance for the men to sing and dance and take a break from their everyday hardships.
A chance for the men to sing and dance and take a break from their everyday hardships.

Ganpatti Music! The men of the village sing and dance! Click on link to watch (more listen!)

Home is in itself an interesting term. Home is where the heart is, is an old British saying. But can your heart be in a corrugated metal shack in the midst of a building site with limited electricity and no running water; where your very existence and house is dependent upon the whims of the economy or the whims of a building foreman. I suspect that most refer to their houses (tin shacks) as ‘home’ just like I might say I’m going ‘home’ if I was returning to my hotel while on holidays. It is a throw away phrase that really means little more than ‘the place I am currently staying in’.

I suspect for those in my village below me, their emotional ‘home’ is of far greater attachment. Perhaps it is a small village on the other side of India which necessity drew them away from. Perhaps, it is a farm where they grew up working in the fields and looking after the animals. Perhaps they have no sense of ‘home’ at all. Perhaps they were born in such a village as they live in now. Perhaps they have never even had a fleeting sense of permanency; a sense of a place they could one day return to. Perhaps.

Pune is a building site, there is no angle you can look anywhere where there is not a building going up or at the best, isn’t a green field slated for development. My tree top view is therefore nothing unique. Thousands of people within this city alone live like this on a daily basis. Building homes for the rich that they can never dream of ever stepping into again once the final flagstone is laid. Most will never even get to see the homes they worked on for so long completed for they are not the skilled labourers who do the final fit. Most will therefore have no real understanding of what they have created often with their bare hands.

Voyeurism is a difficult thing to deal with it. I am intrigued by what I see below me. It is mesmerising to see how a world so different to mine works. I would love to wander into the camp (for really that is what it is) and see for myself how things work but why? Why would I do that other than to satisfy my own desires? What good would it bring to the people of the village? How indeed would I feel if I saw some foreign tourist wandering around my apartment complex uninvited? How would I feel if a stranger peeped their head in my front door just so they could see what my life was like? How would I feel if that person was also far, far wealthier than I was – and the main reason they wished to see my world was purely because they couldn’t imagine living in such hardship? How would I feel? Violated. Simple as that.

So, no from my perch I will continue to watch and continue to try and learn from a distance how this world below me works. Time will come when I am in a position to actually volunteer and try and help perhaps the children of these families to at least have more life choices in the future. To allow them the chance to decide what they want to do with their life – how they want their children to grow up.  In the meantime, I am ever more grateful for the chance I currently have to live a life without any hardship, without fear of how to feed my family, with the knowledge that I have multiple places I can return to and call home, places in which I can stay.