Slums, Transsexuals, and Human Pyramids
04.09.2007 - 04.09.2007 0 °F
Today started with a visit to a slum, home to 4 lakh (400,000) people, reached its zenith at a support group meeting with 7 gay and transsexual Indian men, and culminated with watching a group of kids build a human pyramid that was nearly 4 stories tall. And I'm still not sure what to make of it all.
Laura and I have scheduled a bunch of meetings for this week with various NGOs in an effort to find children who might be infected with HIV but have been unable to access treatment. Most of the organizations we are meeting with target and work with high-risk groups, such as commercial sex workers or men who have sex with men. Our mission is to find out what they are doing to help the children of their target populations and to help where necessary. This morning we met with a group that works with floating sex workers (based on street corners rather than in brothels) and live almost exclusively in a large slum in the north of Mumbai, which, as previously mentioned, over 400,000 people call home. After a very productive meeting, the head of the NGO took it upon herself to show us their treatment clinic and give us a brief tour of the surrounding slum. The featured sight was the local hospital, which looked to be worse than derelict and would have been fortunate to have been condemned. The whole area managed to exceed my worst expectations of a slum in every category, most noticeably in overall odor.
After our auto-rickshaw tour concluded, we holed up in a cafe to type and submit reports for a few hours until our next meeting. This one was with one of the few organizations for gay men in all of India, and the only one in Mumbai. They work with over 60,000 men; a remarkable figure considering that homosexuality is illegal. Of these, untold thousands are married and have children due to societal pressures. After meeting with the director and planning ways to help them get their spouses and children tested without raising suspicion about their hidden sexual identity, he invited us to sit in on a support group meeting for HIV+ gay and transsexual men. Despite our reticence, owing to the fact that we were entirely unprepared and had no idea how we would communicate with the Hindi and Marathi speaking members, we agreed. The meeting ended up going better than I could have hoped, as two members spoke English and served as translators while we had an incredibly fruitful discussion about how to provide access to HIV testing and treatment to gay men and their families without compromising their identity. There was such enthusiasm from this group, despite their HIV+ status and position in society, about helping children, that I found it positively inspiring.
Finally, on our way home at 8pm (after getting up at 7:30am), we found the horrendous Mumbai traffic to be even more congested than usual. We finally figured out that this was due to the fact that today is Krishna Janmashtami; the day that Hindus celebrate the birth of the Lord Krishna. The festivities are capped by roving mandals, or districts, of children who travel around the city on chartered dump trucks. Seemingly every community sets up a handi, which is a string, garnished with flowers, suspended high in the air, usually between two buildings and around 3 stories tall. These mandals of children in dump trucks go to each handi and make a human pyramid and attempt to break the clay pot suspended on the string. The highest pyramid in each community receives a fairly substantial cash prize. In practice, it amounts to roads being closed and huge crowds of singing and dancing people watching these pyramids go up, one after the other, all night long. What a country, and what a day. And now I'm going to bed.