Salaam Bombay (2008): Children of Bombay

77. Salaam Bombay! — Specifically, “the souls of the dead children of Bombay”. A kind colleague had borrowed Mira Nair’s first feature-length film from a university library for me upon learning of my interest in the award-winner. For that, I am grateful. For the depressing narrative turn (albeit I’m reversing chronology here) this film takes, I am pained and aghast, though ultimately resigned.

How is it that the same city I’ve seen with my own eyes (but perhaps not with acute perspicacity) can look so horrifying, dismaying, and vampiric through the camera lens? Even Born into Brothels didn’t seem so dire. Oh, vicious cycle and belief in fate, what have you done? The children are so bony, so hopeless, so alive, so drained, so very much swept away in the floods of bedeviled humanity that seethe within the sewers of concupiscence.

Before I went to Mumbai (i.e. Bombay), I was told about an ex-colleague’s shock at witnessing the squalor that the very poorest had to live in. Mistaking an overhead view of the slums for construction work, he’d been reduced to silent rumination when he realised the makeshift quality of the roofs were homes, not commercial ventures. I wondered then at exactly what he saw; I couldn’t imagine what it would be like.

When I got to Mumbai, and watched the slums trudge by within the cocoon of a private car, and within the rusty cage of a public bus, I didn’t feel shock or horror. Was I desensitised by expectation? (I carried with me the knowledge that the slums account for a hefty percentage of the city’s GDP.) Or was it selective perceptivity?

I remember these thoughts: (1) Even among slums, there is a distinct scale of prosperity, from gleaming zinc roofs to broken tents. (2) Thoroughfares are remarkably clean; lanes and alleys are not. (3) I just saw a woman bathing her toddler at the corner of an interjection. It was only (3) that gave me a jolt. (Apart from the heady rush I got from crossing roads and expressways.)

Should I conclude that no one can be helped who does not want to be? Maybe not happily. If we take Bhutan’s model of pegging the country’s well-being to Gross Domestic Happiness to Gross Domestic Product, how do we account for a gross discrepancy in happiness across the world, a continent, a country, a city? Or is there only a discrepancy when we see money as the quantifying quality of happiness?

Still, there must be a minimum level below which continuous scavenging can never yield a harvest, when there are no seeds to be had or soil to plant roots in, in the first place. The children depicted in the film have nothing beyond their toddler years, when they would not have known any better. When they become aware and can retain and retrieve, they have only misery to work with.

Today I heard on the news that clothes sold by Gap have been discovered by the BBC to be manufactured by child workers in India. Gap is reportedly “shocked” (which part of it is?), and will destroy the offending articles. Great, now those numbing, terrifying, dreary hours of blood, sweat and tears will go to waste. Why not ship those clothes back to clothe the backs of the affected kiddos instead?

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