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A Tale of Two Cities

In Mumbai, I flitted in and out of the two Indias. One is on the streets, right up front – the beggars, the pavement dwellers, the slums, the street children, the tiny laborers who pick through the litter for recyclables when they should be laughing on a playground. It’s noisy, in your face, assaulting you.

The other India is cocooned behind all this, tucked away from it. This India is one of quiet, air conditioning, service, amenities, middle and upper class people living their lives much as the wealthier live their lives anywhere. Doctors, professors, engineers, computer programmers. They live in beautiful gated homes or modern flats and spend evenings in premier restaurants and hip, trendy nightclubs with loud techno music and drinks that cost what they would in New York or London.

Mostly, the two Indias exist separately from each other, as if each half is unaware of the other side’s existence. Sometimes, however, they clash – happening more and more every day – in social upheaval that demands change, reform, equality. And there are those who move between the two Indias, quietly and diligently working to make that change happen – particularly in the area most likely to impact long-lasting changes in the social fabric of the next generation: children.

The difference that an education, literacy and competence in English makes in the future of a child cannot be overestimated, believes an organization called Akanksha. I met with Tina, a financial director and program administrator, at the Akanksha program center at the Nehru Planetarium. Tina is clearly from the other India, having lived with her husband in London and Hong Kong, only settling in Mumbai within the last decade. But she is one of those who moves between the two worlds, using her world to empower another.

Tina and I at the Nehru Akanksha Center

As we walked into the center, teachers were working with two groups of children from the nearby slum, who sat in orderly circles intently listening and participating in the lessons. These children come for two and a half hours of additional schooling each day, particularly in English, after their regular government-run school, which Tina says is horribly ineffective. Less than 2% of students make it to the 10th standard, according to Tina – and of those who do, many are still illiterate.

These children are clearly eager to learn. They linger after class is over, chatting with their teachers or me, in no hurry to leave. I meet Ravi, a 17-year-old who is extremely bright and articulate for his years; he carries himself with the confidence of an adult who knows where he is going in the world. Ravi is full of brilliant ideas and has plans to be a social worker. I also talk with Raju, an artist, who smiles modestly, with coaxing, when I ask for his photo with one of his drawings.

Raju poses with his artwork

As I leave Akanksha, Tina walks with me fifty paces from the Nehru Planetarium to point out the slum across a small canal where the students come from. It is family living on top of family in squalor. The sturdier homes have sheets of tin held down with rocks as roofs, while others have simply sheets of plastic. There is no running water. The canal is a rancid, stagnant, brackish water filled with trash and sewage. All of this within a hundred yards of the pristine Nehru Planetarium and the modern 20-story office building shaped like a cylinder rising up beside it, surrounded by lush landscaping and acres of emerald green grass. The sprinklers are blithely running in the middle of the hot day. I wonder what the slum residents must think when they look across the canal, separating them as if by eons, at the precious water being poured so diligently into the ground.

For more information about Akanksha, click here to visit their website.

Later that day I travel to another world – the other India, to see how the other half lives in Mumbai. I travel north to the exclusive enclave of Juhu Beach for an interview with the Heroes Project, co-founded by Richard Gere to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS in India. The interview is being held at the posh JW Marriott Hotel because Karnika, the Executive Director, has been at a photo shoot there for UNAIDS, and we are to meet afterwards. Juhu Beach is one of the most desirable addresses in the city – newlyweds Elizabeth Hurley and Arun Nayar have been in the newspapers all week after returning to India, and a Juhu Beach soiree, after their London nuptuals. Security is tight at the hotel, and once inside it is one of the nicest hotels to be found anywhere in the world. At the entrance guests are greeted with half a dozen staff opening door, offering refreshing drinks and draping floral garlands around necks. The huge two story marble lobby and lounge areas overlook an incredible pool and garden area perched at the edge of an amazing view of the Arabian Sea.

Karnika and I sit amidst the wealthy and powerful, with this incredible view below us, and discuss the AIDS crisis in India – particularly the impact it is having on families and children. 1 out of every 3 people who are HIV-infected in India are women, and of those fully 80% of them are housewives. Mothers, wives, who will leave devastation in their wake when they succumb to AIDS. The stigma that is still attached is hard to overcome, says Karnika. “Nobody talks about HIV-positive children, but it would mobilize the entire population” if they knew.

The sumptuous, luxurious JW Marriott Hotel at Juhu Beach might as well be a million miles away from the slums I’ve just come from.

For more information about Heroes Project, click here to visit their website.