- Gandhi Is Dead
Slum Tours, says the steel shingle outside my office, and inside in the air conditioning I have brochures that show happy people, freckles standing out like flies on their faces, with a horde of grateful children clinging to their long, pink, khaki-shorted legs. "This could be you!" I tell my prospective customers, who stumble in off the Rajpath, dazed from heat stroke, squinting at shadows after a morning of craning their necks toward the bright sky to take in India Gate, Parliament House, the Flame of the Immortal Jawan and all the other towering monuments. "Look lower," I tell them. "I know of a simple place, a village in the heart of the city, where the houses stand from fortitude alone and the women weave quilts out of nothing but tradition. The people of this village may look wretched to your eyes, but they are the [End Page 81] distillation of all that endures. They await you. They are India's true immortal flame."
I serve the tourists fine white cups of strong tea while they discuss in hushed voices their schedule for the afternoon, and I know when they begin to nod and look guilty that I have them. After they have paid their fee in cash, my peon Dinesh takes them twenty kilometers to the south, to a suburban enclave where department stores and golden arches rise above the cracked pavement. Behind it is a landfill, a swollen mountain range of sewage, cabbages and glass bottles, and cutting through it like a ravine is Kahargapur Pahari. Out of the four million or so slumdwellers in Delhi, the inhabitants here are the most reliable I could have chosen. They have none of the sense of historical entitlement endemic to Old Delhi's Muslim slums or the itinerant unpredictability of the children who throng around the railway station. They are, by and large, reasonable businesspeople who are willing to weave rugs, read palms, and teach visitors how to cook chapattis on a flat iron disc above a fire or how to twist cigarettes into perfect cylinders with professional, gnarled bidi-rollers' fingers. In exchange I provide, for a minimum of bribes, water, sanitation, a few schools and a de facto lease on the city's unwanted land.
I leave this arrangement out of what I tell to my customers, even the occasional Indian one, like the light-skinned girl in a white blouse, her sunglasses pushed up into the glittering crest of her hair that I know would be soft to the fingers, who sits across from me now.
"So you're interested in the Teaching for Today program?" I say. This is one of our most popular packages, allowing visitors to teach whatever they wish, usually the ABCs, for a few hours to an audience of children who have been rounded up beforehand for this purpose.
She opens her eyes slightly, startled. "No, I thought I would just volunteer my time," she says, "not pay to do it. Surely your schools can use a volunteer who speaks Hindi. I can teach the children how to do science experiments, for instance. We can make solar ovens."
"Solar ovens," I say. "Yes." I take off my reading glasses and put aside the half page of stiff white bond paper that compromises her résumé. "Ms. Deshpande, let me make clear where the money you invest in Kahargapur Pahari goes. It is disseminated among the most infirm there, the one- or no-legged, those with milky cataracts on their eyes who cannot even bestir themselves to tan a hide or roll a cigarette. Only a small portion goes to the necessary costs of lighting and air-conditioning this office. You would be [End Page 82] lucky to get so much efficiency from an NGO, let alone an operation like this, which is profitable to everyone."
She nods, biting her lip, and as I do all day long with my tourist customers, who juggle moral scarves while their eyes hunger to be shown the hard truths they promised themselves to find—the sharp edge of the world they had sailed for—I watch her think...