I have some friends I like to hang out with on the weekends. They live on the pavement outside my apartment in 5x3 plastic-and-tin houses. They're the friendliest people I've ever met. They're more accepting and more open minded than anyone I know, and some of them more intelligent and wittier than any friends I've made before. And I don't even speak the same first language as they do.
Talking about this kind of thing is always an awkward affair, because people look at poor people as 'the other', 'them', 'the ones who are not us'. And there's a haa-hoo about 'inter-class mingling', it's charity, it's something great, it's something only Mother Teresa and NGOs do, hey let's cue some heartrending slow piano music -- all this, if you ask me, is bullshit, and just sustains classisim alongside other demons like racism and casteism. They are just people. The only difference between these kids and me is that when it comes to money - because life is random - they got the bad end of the stick.
It did start out as charity. It was a winter evening and a friend and I thought why don't we go and share some coffee from the canteen with these kids who lived across the street. So it became a ritual, and a bunch of us went there and started teaching them what little we knew. Some of us went home feeling better about ourselves, because we'd 'done a good deed', we'd 'given to the needy'.
But it's been almost a year since then and it's gotten a lot more personal than that. Now it's just about spending time with some people I love to spend time with. On my bad days, when I feel like punching someone in the face, and I really want to go back home - Meenu and Bandhana jump up and down from across the road and scream at me when I'm walking to university, they're grinning and laughing and waving and shouting 'Dhidhi!' (big sister). And that helps.
There's free hugs and huge grins. There's the occasional tantrum as with any kid. There's the 'are you hungry? I'll share my lunch with you's and the 'how is your leg today?' when they see my friend's bandage. There is always unconditional love, the kind I have never seen before. And for what? All we do is teach them to draw triangles and cats, and add 4 plus 8, and how to sing about a star that twinkle twinkles. If there's any charity going on here, the teachers are on the receiving end.
The policeman on behalf of the oh so glorious Indian government came along today on his bike, looking for a bribe, telling them it's illegal to set up homes on the side of the road. Where else are they supposed to go? I asked him angrily. The government was asking them to leave, but not giving them a place to leave to. In short, it was the government's way of reminding them that it did not give a shit. As another teacher and friend reasoned things out with the policeman, I was thinking, what are we doing? I don't know anything about politics or economics or land-ownership or governance. We're university undergraduates in an Arts faculty. It's probably not our job to interfere in this kind of stuff. But then, I wondered, if it's not our job, whose is it?