The Slum Life as I Know it

(Picture: Life in the 'basti')

I just read 'Gang Leader for a Day,' by Sudhir Venkateshand the public housing project that he describes reminded me of my childhood. When my brother and I were kids, we lived in Railway quarters. In fact we spent all our childhood and teen years there. Our apartment was the last in the row and right next to it was a slum -- a big colony of people who encroached government land and made the place their home many years ago. We have grown up playing with the kids from the slum.

The basti near my place was made up of 150 or so make-shift houses that had polythene sheets for roofs. A tiny one room house that would have served as an attic in any decent middle class home, housed at least 8 family members. Forget about clean drinking water, the basti didn't even have domestic water supply. In 15 years, I witnessed at least 5 people die of electric shock trying to steal electricity illegally from the high tension wires to watch a cricket match or a popular movie in an old battered TV. Many more died of adulterated liquor.

Water was the biggest issues in the basti. The families draw water from the Railway wells for all their needs. I remember people in the quarters share drinking water with the less fortunate neighbors who in turn worked in our houses as servant maids. The men sold drugs made illicit liquor in their homes.

We stayed in the 2nd floor of the building so we had a clear birds eye view of the entire basti. We could see the dealers selling drugs and liquor at the regular spots everyday. Police raids were not uncommon. Every time we heard the police siren (which would be a couple of times a month), my brother and I would rush to the balcony to see a bunch of people clear the garbage dump next to our building, quickly arrange the packets of gudumba and opium and cover them with garbage.

When I think of the years I spent in the Railway quarters, I don't remember a single incident of theft or violence. One would expect such a place to be dangerous to live. The rest of the world surely thought so. We did not have any visitors beyond 7 in the evening (at least for the first half of the 15 years we lived there) and newspapers constantly quoted our colony as 'notorious'. For the residents of the Railway quarters, the place was as safe as any other. Probably because we knew people from the basti personally and more importantly, never reported any activity to the police. The residents of the basti were always grateful for that (not sure if this is a good thing or bad but that's how things were back then).

One of the strongest memories I have of my life in the quarters is the time when I was in high school and was attending coaching classes for the engineering entrance. I had to leave home sharp at 4 in the morning to catch the first bus to the other side of the city. For 2 years, young men from the basti took turns every day to escort me from my apartment to the bus stop as the streets would be dark and deserted at that time.

It is tough to call out what is wrong and what is right when the experience is such a complicated mixed bag. Yes, it was a dangerous place for my parents to bring us up. They had no choice and my bother and I turned out OK, just like tens of kids who grew up with us.