August 04, 2005

Only knee high

"The rain on July 26?" asks Mohammed Umar. "Arre, that wasn't such a problem at all. We only had paani aur kichad [water and mud] up to here," he says, holding his hand at knee level.

Knee-level water and mud, and Mohammed doesn't think it's a problem. Yes, I suppose in relation to what happened elsewhere in this city -- the levels the water reached, the landslides elsewhere in this city -- that's no big deal. But to me that sounds like a pretty big deal all right. Especially when I consider, looking at all that lies around me, what knee-high might mean.

I'll return to that.

Mandala, where we are, was a huge slum area till last January. Then the demolition men arrived. By the time they left, 10,000 destroyed homes later, they had turned Mandala into a moonscape of mounds of rubble. For over six months, it remained that way.

Until, at the very end of July, the people whose homes were destroyed decided to return. They are building homes again as you read this, and in no small numbers either. There must be hundreds, thousands, of huts being erected here, on 12 by 15 plots that have been marked and staked out. Poles stick up all over the site, others lie horizontally on the vertical ones getting ready to make roofs, men sit on those horizontal poles ten feet high to put more in place, there's a constant sound of hammering, men stagger past carrying more poles.

Not far away, one plot is largely occupied by a bright red jeep without a roof, painted as if for a circus, only it says "Elegant Driving School" in ornate curlicue on the side. Poles all around it, almost as if this will be a garage for the vehicle.

An hour later, the jeep has vanished. How it got here, and how it has driven out, I can't figure.

Mohammed tells me that when people first came here twenty years ago, this was a large marsh. They set up little homes, over the years brought in truckloads of mud to fill the land. They began with plastic and tarp shacks, moved up to tin. Eventually many homes -- his included -- were made of brick. "Pucca" homes, the brick evidence of which lies about everywhere; Mohammed also shows me the remnant of one of his walls. All in all, he spent Rs 80,000 on his house.

Early this year, all that turned to rubble. After accomplishing that, the Municipality put guards on the site to prevent people returning. And where did the guards come from? "From right here in Mandala, in those huts over there", says Mohammed, pointing to the intact section of the slum.

Which may explain how people did return.

Now that Mohammed is building again, he expects to spend about Rs 5000 to make a minimally livable abode: poles with plastic sheeting.

And then I ask Mohammed about the rain, and he tells me knee-high was no problem. Which has me looking around again.

Little streams run through the area, some permanent, some clearly just runoff from the recent rains. No need to tell you, which I am doing, that they are generally noisome. Here's a great patch of trash, any number of small round stuffed plastic bags. There's another great patch of trash, a dog eating from a large pile of cooked rice. Flies? By the myriad. Just a few steps from where I stand talking to Mohammed, several young girls walk down to the stream and begin washing their legs in the grey water.

Trash and rice, dirty streams and slush. Yeah, no big deal.

Against the overcast grey sky, a stately large plane is on its way to a landing. As it happens, Air India.

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