Forget the pied piper of Hamelin. Nothing lures a crowd of homeless children faster than an American with an iPhone.
Whenever we walk into town, we pass through a neighborhood of several blocks of improvised dwellings. This is where the poorer people of Visnagar live; the not-quite-homeless. The structures are not really houses, either, just lattices of wooden sticks, with tarps or blankets stretched over them to provide some shade against the sun. They're at least semi-permanent structures, and families live there year-round. We see women doing laundry in basins in their yards behind the lashed-stick fences. Despite the poverty, they're all genuinely friendly. The adults smile and wave at us; the kids stare and smile and follow us like puppies. These aren't beggar children living off tourists and wanting Western money. They're just normal kids wanting attention from the only non-Indians they've ever seen; they look at us like movie stars.
Michael takes his iPhone with him, snapping photos of everything and everyone. The kids (and adults) see, and want their pictures taken too. All the people are delighted to see their picture on an iPhone. The kids run up to us, wanting us to take their picture with them and show it on the digital screen. They're aware the technology exists (cell phones are plentiful), but it's a novelty to pose with a westerner. Apple iPhones are in kind of a gray-market status in this country. Jailbroken phones work for voice (albeit unsupported) with a local Vodafone SIM card, though not the data connection.
The attention is fine, even cute, for the first couple kids. But once the crowd gets to be over a dozen it's unmanageable. The children all followed us as we continued walking through their neighborhood. Even the kids we had photographed didn't stop, they just kept following, and called to their friends to come running out to join them. There must have been fifty or sixty kids, or maybe more. We ended up running out of the block and into town. They didn't follow us across the busy road into Visnagar proper.
We probably can't post many more of the pictures, since so many people are missing clothing. It's not just the kids. One woman insisted we take her family's picture, and only afterward remembered to pull up her choli. More problematic are the children who run around bottomless or completely without clothes. And there are lots of those kids. The ones who do wear clothes might never have seen Americans, or even met anyone who traveled there, but many wear American castoffs from "Boys and Girls Club of the Monroe Area" or similar giveaway items. It could indicate real abject poverty, since textiles are so inexpensive in India. But it's also possible the kids enjoy wearing shirts with English words on them; certainly most of the college students do. It's probably some of both. But these kids aren't beggars like Slumdog Millionaire
; they're living with their families. They didn't look malnutritioned. And none
of these children asked us for money. One kid even bicycled up to us and wanted to give us
a rupee coin (we refused). What a change from Delhi!
I don't know how many of these kids are in school. Friday was a national holiday (Gandhi's birthday), and the schools were closed. India reportedly offers free primary-school education through age 14, though I don't know how widely it's enforced or effective; it is a developing country. Most of the college's faculty send their upper-middle-class kids to "English medium" private schools. Whenever we ask the ages of the professors' kids, the answer is always given in their "standard" (grade level), not their age in years. That may also reflect the academics' bias toward schooling.
We didn't know it, but our driver's rental-car business is right downtown. So we ran right by the little shop where our driver, Alkesh, does business. His father was minding the desk, and he sent Alkesh after us. They invited us in and treated us to some cold Thums-Up
[sic], a popular cola here. Alkesh has a little house that belonged to his grandfather. The front room has his black-and-white photo in his policeman's uniform, next to a half-dozen large, elaborate portraits of the goddess Lakshmi. The whole house sits behind a little front office with a rope bed/bench and a desk with a Gujarat map and mileage chart. His whole business office is about half the size of my cubicle at work.
In addition to Alkesh's father, we met his wife and their children, two seven-year-old twins (a son and daughter). Alkesh's kids are learning English at school, and they said hello to us. Mostly they were shy and hid behind their mother.
Alkesh's wife is a mechanical engineer by training and housewife by choice. These days her mechanical devices are limited to her treadle-powered sewing machine (for private use, not like the many men in the tailor shops). She invited me to try it; they were surprised that I knew how to operate it. She doesn't know English. She learned ME in the Gujarati language. She chose to stay home and raise the kids and teach them good values. Visnagar is a small town with a very low cost of living, even by Indian standards, and single-income households are the norm here. I get the impression that dual-income couples are considered one of those things that city people have to do to afford living, but it's strongly preferred to have the wife stay home and raise the kids properly. And here, running a household is a lot like running a full-time business. The wives manage the servants, and do all the shopping and cooking and cleaning for their households, which often are large families spanning multiple generations.
Housing is not very expensive, but that doesn't mean everyone has a proper house. Some of the college students choose to pay $20 per month and rent a whole house, instead of staying in the college hostels (dormitories). One of the professors, driving us around in our first week, pointed out what he called the slum areas. Those have enormous trash heaps and big stinky cesspools next to shacks constructed of whatever was handy at the time. It's common there to build a temple in front of the illegal houses that don't meet building codes. The temple blocks people from trying to tear down the building. Apparently there are between ten and twelve thousand homeless people in Visnagar, and hundreds of temples. The town's total population is about 50 or 60 thousand, a small town by Indian standards. That professor is of the opinion that people who want work can find it, and people who are homeless are probably that way by choice. I don't know if our stick-house neighbors are included in the "homeless" figure, but I would expect so. They probably don't consider themselves homeless; they're with their families.
We have seen the truly homeless. There's a family of at least three adults and several kids, who all sleep on the sidewalk right outside the gate to the college. We've stepped over them several times or walked around them when we go walking at nights. ( Click to read the rest of this entry; it's disgusting. )