While life is not picture perfect in the USA, one thing America can justly pride itself on is the idea of the “American Dream.” No matter your initial socio-economic status, hard work and ambition can provide you a ticket to a better life. I have a friend from high school that grew up in a drug-infested, poverty stricken neighborhood in Chicago. He worked hard and obtained a scholarship first to Phillips Academy Andover and then to Harvard. He is now a star trader at Goldman Sachs and his prospects are unlimited. In India, such a rise to the top from an underprivileged background is virtually impossible. The country revolves around an elite 1% of the population that owns the other 99%, with family businesses that extend for generations controlling the lot of it. The poorest are so poor that there is little hope to rise unless some sort of viable standard of living is obtained. India is a nation of about 1.15 billion people, and the amount of untapped potential that lay in the slums and in the countryside is staggering. Without the basic necessities of life, how can these children even begin to dream? What would they even dream of?
Bombay exhibits a phenomenon my roommates and I often label, so cleverly, “Inside/Outside India.” Bombay is a city with swanky shopping malls and posh hotels, where men are Dubai oil tycoons and the women Miss World. But then there is the other Bombay, with slums spread all through the city, staring you in the face every day. The most elite nightclub in the city (with drinks priced at USD $20) is at the end of a long road lined with shacks and people sleeping on the pavement. My roommates and I were accosted on the street by a swarm of hungry and dirty children on the way to an art gallery opening. As soon we walked past the slum and into the gallery however, we were greeted by the “Inside India” world. The striking space was white washed and sleek, with an international crowd in designer suits, drinking wine and discussing beauty. It’s a visual and emotional disorientation that I am not yet used to, and I’m not sure I will ever get used to. There are people that go from their bungalows to their cars and straight to the next “Inside India” destination. But that’s not where the beauty of this city lies. I think the magnificence in Bombay is its dynamic nature, and it’s the everyday people and their stories that give the city its life.
Akanksha is the first foundation I found here that offers slum children any semblance of the “American Dream.” Akanksha members pull these children directly out of the slums and into their centers, and they teach these children how to dream. They have a separate program for children that they deem extremely talented or motivated, and they spend extra hours and weekends cultivating their minds and exposing these children to what could be. I became friends with someone on the social work team who visits the families of the children in the slums a few times a week. He checks in on the children that missed the last class, he ensures the support of the family, and he makes sure that the kids are safe. He took me on a visit to the Worli slums a few days ago, and he was treated like a local hero. He knew everyone, and people invited us into their homes. They had little, but they offered us a cold drink or a snack, whatever they could conjure. I was surprised to learn that he himself grew up in that same slum and went through the Akanksha Foundation. He is now part of the social work team during the week and he takes engineering classes at a local university on the weekends. His prospects are still relatively limited, but at least he has prospects.
Not all children are as lucky however. He told me about a boy that lived next to him in the slum. The father was an alcoholic who left the family, leaving the mother to raise his 5 younger brother and sisters on her own. This 15 year-old boy remained the sole breadwinner of the entire family. Rationally, if the boy was able to attend school and obtain a reasonable job, he could eventually make a semi-decent living for the family. Education, however, was not even an option. If he did not work and earn for the family, they would starve. Even though child labor is technically illegal in India, sometimes it is simply necessary, as my friend explained, in the slum, “food comes before the law.”