Mumbai Mobile Creches is an NGO that caters to people who, because they are migrant workers, are invisible to both their home goverment and to Mumbai’s. The basic premise of MMC’s work is to provide facilities to the children of those working on construction sites, so that babies don’t languish in the sun and so that kids can attend school.
MMC sets up centres that are baby nurseries, preschools and schools all at once, often all in one room. The type of space varies, because it’s space donated by the builder, whose interests are not completely aligned with those of the workers.
Once crossing over piles of rebar, shredded rock and clay and concrete wet with rain, one can reach the door of the Veera Desai centre, near Jogeshwari station in Andheri. This space for children is an unfinished concrete basement in an unfinished building, the one that the children’s parents are building.
There, kids of different ages and colours and castes and creeds are scattered over a concrete ground, playing with brightly coloured plastic toys. Even a foreigner like myself can tell that these children are not from the same place: some are as dark as night, some pale and brown haired. There is a range of dark to lighter hair, curls and pinstraight strands, different types of earrings and fake jewellery and religious ornaments. It is a meeting of representatives from nearly every state of India: kids who follow the tide with their parents, moving to wherever work can be found.
Because they’re the kids of migrant workers, they come from all over: as far as Assam and Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and as close as other localities in the state of Maharashtra. As a result, some of the kids don’t speak the local languages Marathi or Hindi, but only their regional languages, and begin their learning by learning how to communicate.
In a corner are the babies and small toddlers. Little ones sit on a mat, wearing checkered green and white smocks which are property of MMC. They play slowly with blocks and other toys designed for stimulating young minds, trying to coordinate their unpracticed fingers.
Two infants sleep in slings, a row of them tied between two iron rods. Others crawls off of the mat onto the concrete, and I notice how unfair it is that something as soft and perfect as a baby should ever come in contact with such a substance as concrete, so rough and contrary.
There is virtually nothing for a child to do on a construction site, and many, many things for them not to do. What to do though, if they’re born in these spaces, and only ever live on these sites? These kids, instead of playing with stones and dangerous materials, come to the centre every day, where they learn and play and eat. They’re proud to use the bathroom in their schoolroom with dignity: where they live, on the same compound, there is no latrine at all, just a designated area for human waste.
One of the babies in the slings rouses, little arms stirring the air. She begins to mew, like a kitten. I lift her out, and we sit on the mat together until her mother arrives.
The girl who has arrived to take her daughter is 16 years old, and from Kolkata, West Bengal. She was married in a brief ceremony to a man who was older than her. She conceived a child, and the baby was born nine months later. Because she had given birth to a girl, the husband left his 15 year old bride with her family.
The girl had named her child Khushi, which means happiness. Khushi, despite bringing only shame upon the young girl, now an unmarried teenager with a baby. While I was there, Khushi ate a piece of peanut chikki like the other toddlers, with her 7 month old gums only. The young mom explained to me that Khushi already ate solid food because she couldn’t be breastfed all day.
“I work, outside of the compound. I clean houses for other families. So I can only offer milk to her in the morning and evening, and during the night.” she spoke quietly in Hindi. Not because it was her first language, but because it was the only language we could communicate in. This young girl who was a woman, I guess, covered her chest with a dupatta and looked at the ground as she spoke to me… daring to look up and smile when I smiled at her. She was thin: her body was only keeping what it needed to feed the baby and to wash dishes every day. When she left with the baby, she walked with her shoulders hunched, ignoring the leering eyes of the construction workers that surround the area.
Another tiny kid crawled over me and tried to stand. Hassya is only 6 months old, and the size of a Canadian newborn, except brown. She asserts herself in a way of an older child; smiles and laughs as though she didn’t live in dirt and dust with a family patched together from scraps of humanity, just a group of people who need each other. Hassya means laughter.
Khushi and Hassya: in a place where there should be none, there they are.