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.
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.
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.
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.
For 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.
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.
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.