Yesterday a young girl, maybe 6 years old, was killed on the road a few metres away from where I am staying in JP Nagar, 3rd Phase, Bangalore. Apparently there was an accident involving a lorry and somehow her throat was severed and she bled to death. The roads are crazy here in India, they really are, and there is nowhere to cross them safely. Zebra crossings are painted onto the roads for decoration only it seems as I’ve never seen a drivers stopping for people to cross. When I first came here I would stand on the side of road with my mouth wide open, scared to death, thinking it was impossible to get to the other side. Once I was led across into the onslaught of oncoming vehicles by a little old Indian lady, but now I’m the one guiding all the young Chinese volunteers over the road as they follow behind screaming for their lives. I’ve worked out that what you have to do is step out in front of cars, bikes, rickshaws, buses, and make them stop, almost like playing a game of chicken. The young girl yesterday didn’t get on so well trying to cross the road though.
I was very shocked by the girls death, not that I saw it first hand as I came home late from the Venkatappa Art Gallery where I’d been painting with some of the kids. Most people here have seen death first hand though. Frida is a 24 years old and is very pretty. She’s originally from North India but she ran away to Tamil Nadu when she was young and worked as a maid in a rich persons house. One day a mobile phone went missing from the house and she was blamed. Her ‘owner’ then melted a plastic bottle and poured it over her legs as punishment. She then ran away to live on the streets of Bangalore and was picked up by Jon and the kids at Born Free. She has got her 10th Standard (GCSE’s equivalent) and is a talented photographer, film maker, painter and sculpture and works along-side Jon as a commercial artist. She is a co-owner of Born Free and will eventually take over when Jon gets too old.
Frida told me that she saw a man crushed to death by a train while he was running after it to jump on and got his foot stuck somehow. ‘Splat’ she says arms exploding outwards ‘ It was like this’. She also saw a woman trying to cross the road suddenly trip over and get hit by a car, she said ‘with no scream, just silent’. Accidents happen all the time here. Only 3 weeks ago, while I was in Hampi and just before Gowri left, Frida and Gowri were on a moped and they left the stand down by mistake, fell off the bike and a motorbike wheel ran over Frida’s back and shoulder and then reversed back over her. Road safety really should be more of a priority in India.
Frida has been a good friend to me while I’ve been staying here and has taken me out in the city and showed me around. Her English is really good and she’s been teaching me some Tamil in preparation for my trip to Pondicherry, including how to say to Rickshaw drivers ‘You are hitting my head, simply go’ and ‘If you don’t stop talking I will kick you’. I learned yesterday that when she came to born free she didn’t have any documents, birth certificate, etc, so Jon organized for this, and then she missed out on a trip to Japan to where Mioi lives in Hiroshima, because the authorities wouldn’t issue a passport as they thought it was suspicious that a person had just been created. She was able to make up her own name. In fact Jon has done this for a lot of the kids here and they can name themselves. I was doing some art yesterday with Prem, a new boy at the hostel who’s not yet going to school, and Peter who came along after school, and as we were writing our names in large bubble writing I asked what their last names were and they said they didn’t have them. Normally these two boys are always messing around but while we were painting they were really engrossed in it and seemed to really calm down and become focused. The same thing happened for me actually, and I’d been feeling a bit depressed over the past couple of weeks for various reasons, and I found myself feeling much better after doing my first real piece of art for over 2 months. Peter said it’s the first time he’s painted and he liked it.
Bangalore is such a busy place. It takes such a long time to get anywhere. I finally got all the art supplies and the drawing books that I made together in one place yesterday. I’d been asking for someone to get the books while they are at Jon’s studio as transport is an issue for me and the studio is a long way a way. It hadn’t happened yet so yesterday at 9am I cadged a lift on the back of Mioi’s motorbike down to the studio (a 45 minute drive due to traffic), bought pencils, rubbers, pens and sharpeners, carried the 20 heavy books along the street, asked numerous people where to catch the bus from, asked all the buses that passed if they went to Kasturba Road (they don’t have numbers here), crammed myself onto the packed and sweaty bus, got the ticket man to tell me where to get off, crossed the busiest road EVER (6 or 7 vague lanes of traffic and lots of buses and lorries), asked directions to numerous people, deciphered their replies (normally people point in a random direction so you have a ask a few people and make a decision based on which person you trust most), walked for over half an hour in the heat, car fumes and dust (which in Indian terms is not very far), and arrived at Venkatappa Gallery at 12 noon where Subu, Reshma and Prem were doing English lessons with Nina on the computer and explaining Jon’s artwork to the visitors. When I first got to Bangalore there is no way I would have been able to navigate the buses and the streets on my own. Although I’m glad that I can just get on with things now instead of having to wait for people to give me lifts to places or having to ask what I should be doing.
Prem has recently returned to the school and I’ve been spending time with him today also doing Art and English lessons, as well as Srinivas. Jon told me that he and Srinivas bumped into him on the streets last week and he wasn’t looking so good. They took him for a meal and convinced him to come back to Born Free. He is very intelligent, as are most of the kids here, but after working with him today I realized he is very behind with writing in English, although his speaking is pretty good. He is around 15 years old although I haven’t asked him. Srinivas was helping him a lot with his writing. We decorated our drawing books, did some painting and talked about a theme for the exhibition and decided to call it ‘Inspiration’ and we wrote down all the things that make us happy and inspire us. Prem was struggling a lot with writing simple words like ‘people’ and ‘food’ so I baby stepped him through the spellings and the sounds while Srinivas waited for him to catch up. Prem got quite frustrated and said he isn’t interested in any of this but I managed to convince him he’s doing well and to carry on. They both have quite short attention spans and like to mess around but we did the lesson for an hour and a half nearly which I was really impressed with so I took them out for an egg puff at the bakery afterwards.
I also feel like Ranjita is making a lot of progress. She was really interested in the spirograph kits that I bought and I drew some of these out with her. She actually started to talk with me and I got her to read out the instructions on the packet on which number circles to use and which number hole to put the pen in. Lakshmi and Meena were also very interested in the spirographs. Meena is the same age as Ranjita but is a lot more advanced in her speaking and is not so shy. Meena came to the school just before I came back as Jon met her at some traffic lights desperately trying to sell him roses. Another young girl who was working with Meena should also be joining us today. Lakshmi is around 12 years old and her brother is Marappa who is 14 and also at the hostel. I have got to know her quite well, as well as I can with the language barrier. She often tries to tell me things in her own language but I don’t understand. I found out from Jon that Lakshmi’s dad poured kerosene on her mum and set her alight after she’d fallen in love with another man. Marappa and Lakshmi both saw this when they were young and the dad moved away from where they lived and moved to the streets of Bangalore, where Jon bumped into them.
Although a lot of the kids here have had traumatic lives and haven’t had the opportunities that a lot of other children have had, they don’t seem depressed or bitter about it. In fact they all seem very happy and are excitable most of the time. They have all formed a tight knit family with each other and call each other brother and sister, or ana and aka, and they look out for one another, especially the older boys who have to walk with the girls and us if we want to leave the hostel when it’s dark.
Jon’s next project is a film in which Lakshmi and Subu are the main stars. It is about a street child (Lakshmi) who is found at a rubbish tip by a rich man (Subu) who feels sorry for her and takes her into his care. The child is ill and on her birthday the rich man buys her a huge present. On the man’s birthday the child gives the man a small paper cone with nothing in it and he gets angry and throws it away. The next day the child is very depressed and has become more and more ill, the man asks her what’s wrong and she replied ‘You threw away my gift to you and it contained 1000 kisses that I’d put inside’. Shortly after she dies and the man goes to the bin desperately trying to find the gift, but the rubbish men have been and taken it. So he goes to the rubbish tip where there are a thousand small paper cones which he throws around frantically trying to find the right one. He then realizes that he needed the child and her love as much as she needed him and the film ends on the rubbish tip, where it began.