We all wish to lead a simple, resolved life irrespective of our social standards. We struggle every bit for sustaining our existence aware of the truth that not everything in life comes easy. People in the suburbs are so untouched by the strain and hassles the other sectors of our society face. The story I am about to tell is one such compelling quest as experienced by Venkat and Sambit bhai.
When the weekly garbage collection truck stops by our driveway, I see a man with a neon jacket dragging the bins by colours and sticking those to the machine at the rear of the truck and there's the dump noise. To think of it where does this collected rubbish from the neighbourhood end up landing? Honestly, I never cared to know. May be the same for many of us. The reason is blinded ignorance. We close our eyes most of the time to the indispensable realities. They all go to a place called Dump Yard or a Dumping Ground.
What do we expect in any dump yard? As the waste is collected from all around the neighbourhood or town or city. Imagine the mammoth pile!! With waste, comes the overpowering, unendurable mouldering, decaying stench. CPCL Dump-Yard, Tiruvottiyur in Chennai is one such yard that was on Venkat Bhai's daily route, from home to office and back. As the dump yard approached, everyone covered up their nose as their eyes continued to witness the sad reality, often unwillingly. He saw people living in it and slowly developed an eagerness to know about them and thus the journey began.
The winter was withering away, making room for the pleasant Spring, it was that time of the year of 2018 when Venkat bhai started the exploration. In the midst of this landfill, dwelled 50 odd people from all age groups. Old, young, teens and kids. The working population among them depended on their daily livelihood by collecting and separating the rubbish. And education, existence of schools didn't really matter to them! Why? We saw children losing interest in education due to constant bullying and repulsion by the so called higher class in their schools. They were often not even allowed to mix with the rest of the kids in the school. They didn’t like such exclusion, so had dropped out of schools.
So, our team geared up and took up the challenge with the objective to establish dignity & social inclusion. To motivate and encourage kids to join back the schools. To expose them to the world outside, respectfully with dignity.
Flags were raised and the team was determined. Unbelievable but not impossible mission it so appears.
We knew it very well, the rust from minds had to be erased just like the dirt from the body, before we could do anything meaningful.
Venkat bhai and the team started with meetings and meditation with the elderly during the daybreak. The number of participants (including kids) increased gradually breaking the doors of distrust and building a thin screen of faith. From one-day a week to three-days a week, slowly and steadily, we introduced various programs in the next few months like importance and awareness of health and sanitation, eye checkup camps, games, painting, storytelling, computers etc.
Well, conducting these immense tasks and executing them was nothing less than a decisive battle. But as we all know, "WHERE THERE'S A WILL, THERE'S A WAY!!" The soldiers were all set and keen to win this battle of awareness and acceptance.
The Soap Saga:
We all understand, "What a soap is? What it looks like? What it does? How it works?", be it our education or our upbringing. But how to educate these people whose life and livelihood depends on the dump of dirt across the city?
It was clear why the other kids in schools did not mingle with these kids. It wasn't only about the class differences but the basic sense of lack of hygiene. For most of them, bathing and cleaning was a rare experience that happened occasionally during heavy downpours or when it was too hot. Getting clean water and clean clothes were the generic problems for them. We found a tube-well, that the community was dependent on for drinking water and we saw the hope.
The team demonstrated the ways a tiny, flat piece of solid bar transforms into a slippery bar when comes in contact with water, how the soap had to be used and told them about their benefits. How washing hands regularly before eating food and bathing every day could kill the hidden germs. How the soap foams up to a snowy blanket when rubbed against the wet palms and the amazing fragrant clean hands. It was alien to them, but they understood the vital role of "cleanliness". Soaps were distributed as a step towards creating cleaner and tidier individuals. The Soap Saga was accepted well by the oblivious inhabitants. Phase two of our battle was won.
The Healing Art:
Art is an expression; through vibrant colours, weird shapes, through messy hands and soiled clothes. Art is a journey of abstract ideas to beautiful sceneries. Art is a cure for gloomy sad days. The painting and drawing sessions held by us were very well received by the inhabitants. At times, we even saw elders taking part in the exercise. Especially the grannies were proud to draw along with the kids and showcase the paintings of their grandchildren. Our focus continued to encourage everyone to free their souls and scribble whatever they wanted without the fear of good and bad, nice and ugly... as if those are words never existed in the dictionary.
The participants were enjoying their scribbles after a while. The power of expression through paintings slowly resulted in noisy giggles, a chattering discussion and ultimately laughter. The workshop helped people connect deeply and share a common space. Art is the healer. The trophy won to phase two of the battle was innocent laughter. It was also a way for us to engage with them and introduce them to pen, paper and education in a fun-filled way.
The Dance, Drama & Games:
Dance is a form of art, a graceful medium of expression. It's like talking through gestures and not the mouth. Dance is an awakening; a call to the soul. The body becomes free when the mind is set free. The main ingredient is the "sync". With sync follows the sparks of freedom. The dance workshop led the individuals to forget their worries and troubles and just live in that moment. Don't we all need that break from routine stress?
The reward for phase three was the children comprehending the truth that "everyone deserves a break and groove to the beats". Also to ensure giving wings to their imagination, creative self-expression, confidence and above bring in the necessary playfulness into their lives.
The Divine Storytelling:
By now kids had started grooming themselves well, they had gained an increased sense of identity and respect. They enjoyed our company as much as we enjoyed theirs. Although education had already started with them without their knowledge, it was time to enter into new dimensions and expose them to new and limitless possibilities. Hence came storytelling. But this time, it was not in the dump yard but outside of it in other institutions along with other kids so they get a sense of social inclusion along the side.
Stories have been an integral part of our lives like forever. We all enjoy stories regardless of age. We all grew up listening to our granddads and grandmas about the brave prince and princess, the thirsty crow, heroes from our history and their life. Such stories teach us a lot about our life, the values, virtues, aspiration and culture.
We hope, our stories have made a lasting impact on them. We know, the kids enjoyed the cosy story sessions. Who doesn't? and Why not? I surely do. This was the triumph of phase four.
Introduction to Technology:
The current era we live in is wholly ruled and dominated by the modern technology. While the rest of the world was busy adapting to this newness, this particular community back then were untouched by the current society norms. Computers were the new normal and they still are! It certainly was a fresh exposure to these young kids. The joy of typing, while carefully finding the exact letter or/and numbers they wanted to see popping up on the screen, was unforgettable. Its true they couldn't learn much but we were at least pleased that they now knew the greatest invention ever " the computer".
What we achieved in these 150-days?
Every child has the right to education irrespective of anything and everything. Return to school and getting educated was the toughest task ever. The low confidence and the interim gap between the study cycle were the vanquishing factors. But when cast with storytelling, painting, games and computer workshops spell, it was just magic and happiness.
Their days now start, well boosted with energy and enthusiasm. Early morning meditation helped the team establish a connection to their fresh minds. Also kind of healed their ripped souls experiencing acceptance and respect. They were taught how the use of soaps and regular bathing could be rejuvenating and pleasing. They were truly experiencing something better.
It provided this ignored, disregarded sect a feeling of equality, and helped them regain the lost faith that they too are deserving. A sense of belongingness in the society. 4 among the young children happily and optimistically went back to the school. Social inclusion may be difficult but not impossible. All it asks for, is the willingness to start and continue it with lots of patience. Not everyone can do this, but a big heart with selfless love, nurture, and care would surely make the ends meet. The productive 150 days in the CPCL dumping ground was an adventurous escapade that taught us the actual meaning of "struggle for existence".
We had also set up a professional eye check-up camp for the elderly as some of them complained about their deteriorating eyesight.
PS: Sambit bhai says, " It was difficult for me but for the people in the landfill to approve and believe him, he needed to be one of them and not the vice-versa." He stated a very interesting fact that he used to hang the malodorous clothes he wore at the dump yard along with his clean, pressed clothes to be truthful to his cause and also nurture his soul with warmth and compassion for the people around the wastelands.
Writer: Bagmita Tripathy
Volunteer with Ek-Asha Trust