Tag Archives: worli chawls

Misery and hunger in land of plenty

San Francisco Examiner September 25, 1991

Misery and hunger in land of plenty

Dwayne Hunn
Bombay sidewalk hutments.

“Buck sheis de do, shab?  Khanna mangta hai.  Boock laga  hai…” he said, as he tugged my hand.  He stood belt level and I  turned away after glancing at him.  He kept holding and tugging, as  the teeming masses of Indians moved beside us on the sidewalk.

“Boock laga hai, boock laga hai, tora khanna mangta  hai…” he said as he rubbed his stomach and tugged my hand.  I tried  to look  at him as we kept walking in the crowd.  In  training  they had  told us that we would have to decide how to handle  beggars.  In  training, they had told us that 1/2 of India’s  beggars  were purposefully maimed.

“How do they get a statistic like that, does the  government go around and ask, `Did you purposefully maim your kid?'”  I  had skeptically asked.

During  my first five minutes in the streets, I had  trouble starring into the face of this boy whose cheek had a whole in  it the  size  of a Kennedy silver dollar, ringed  with  pus,  sores, exposed  teeth  and ugly gums.   Ahead, curbside on  the  street, were skateboards that American kids careen around on for fun.  In Bombay  they  are used by kids without hands, ankles or  legs  to reach  the  car or taxi at the light, grab its  handle  and  beg, “Paise de do, shab…  Gorib admi, shab..”

The  homeless  and  poor seemed to be  everywhere.   In  the financial district of the city, where piles of garbage were  left to  be picked up early in the morning, I naively asked the  scavenger, searching the piles which the rats always worked,  what he was  doing.   A weak “Khana (food), shab,” was his reply,  as  he continued  slowly  searching the mounds of garbage.  On  a  train trip, I laid on my pack at a village station and watched a family with a pants-less child defecate diarrhea on the train  platform, and use his fingers to lick it.

As  a kid living on the poor side of Cleveland, I  met  only one  beggar, whose cut foot my mother cleaned after  she  brought him  into the house and fed him.  As a Peace Corps  volunteer,  I saw them maimed and crippled and begging all day, everywhere.

Of  course,  I got to see the Taj Mahal, Ajanta  and  Allora Caves and stuff a kid from a working class family would not  have had  the  vacation money to see.  Those tourist  sights  made  me develop  a simplified philosophy of why the India I knew  in  the late-60’s  had the human problems it had, and has.  To build  the palaces for the rich, and naturally cooled, hand carved caves for the  influential religious classes took a tremendous  number  of  manhours and resources.  Energy that was not spent on  irrigation systems, infrastructure and education.

Little  did I realize how some of those experiences  working on Urban Community Development in the slums of Bombay would  prep me  for  today’s America.  My first work site, the  Worli  Chawls slum had  water available for only an hour a day,  usually  with enough pressure to reach the 2nd story of the typical four  story tenements, from about 3:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m.  If you lived on the third  or  fourth story, you bucketed water up to store  in  your water drums.

For  years now I have lived in affluent Marin County,  California,  where in recent years we were limited to 50  gallons  of water per day per person.  The I captured rain water in drums and saved shower water in buckets and bucketed it to some very  basic toiletry  needs.  Homelessness and  begging has become a  growing problem  in  Marin   and a bigger problem in  Big  Brotherly  San Francisco.

On a shrinking planet whose resources are limited and  whose population  is  pushing 5 billion  with an increasing  number  of homeless and hungry, there is little justification in doing  more Taj  Mahals, even if we had powerful S&L financing and  visionary Trumph leadership.  There is obvious justification for increasing irrigation systems, infrastructure and education worldwide.

My  two  years of oversees work reinforced  my  belief  that there is a tremendous need for expanding the Peace Corps overseas and  its  resultant  educational benefits at  home.   Working  on affordable housing and land use problems in the North Bay of  San Francisco for almost 9 years continually exposed me to  opponents of  affordable housing, whose view of the world is  dominated  by preserving what they got and only allowing more palatial  estates to  be built.  How their relatively powerful actions play on  the stage the rest of the world must live on matters not.  They  fail to  see  how the use of our land to support  and  provide  energy efficient transit modes and affordable ownership housing  impacts not only those near their county borders but those oceans away in our  shrinking and ecologically fragile planet.  The NIMBYs  (Not In  My  Backyard)  elect NIMTOs (Not In My Term  of  Office)  who usually produce LULUs (Less than Useful Land Uses) by doing DECME (Density Erasers Causing Million Dollar Estates) projects  rather than meeting the working people’s and the environment’s  housing, transit and community development needs.

The  Maharajas’  produced  Taj Mahals by edict.   We  do  it through  a  more democratic process of meetings that  produces  a veiled but often similar result.  To a Peace Corps volunteer  who has seen and sensed what wasted hours and resources can do, it is hard  to fathom why people would fight to add another 2%  of  Marin’s land to the 88% which is already in open space, agricultural preserve and parks; rather than support a rail oriented development that would provide affordable housing, child care and less car-dependent communities.

Failing  to  comprehend  such logic, I often  fall  back  to thoughts Kishore Thakar, an Indian friend, left me.  Referring to his own caste-and-class riddled society he said, “People need  to walk a mile in other peoples’ sandals to understand the toil  and misery that goes into living the life of those who struggle.  For those  who move about easily,  the blisters developed  from  that walk  remove both the calloused perceptions some have  of  others and the scales that blind their view of what their actions do  to others.  It would do the world good if more people who move about easily  served a few years doing what you Peace Corps are  trying to do.

“Buddhists believe that each life should bring more enlightenment  and less need for selfish desires.    If in this life  we do  not become enlighten over what our actions cause  to  others, then  our reincarnation should be to walk endless miles  in  the sandals of those upon whom our actions stepped most heavily.”

Dwayne Hunn is a Mill Valley free lance writer.


Teacher Tells Peace Corps Experiences

Glendora Press — Sunday, September 28, 1969

 Teacher Tells Peace Corps Experiences

Stark Reality of Life In India Told by Hunn

(Editor’s Note: For two years prior to joining the faculty of Glendora High School, Dwayne Hunn served the US. Government as a member of the Peace Corps. For the next several issues the Glendora Press will carry articles by Mr. Hunn in which he vividly describes the stark reality of life in teeming India and some of his experiences there during his Peace Corps duty.)


Rich escape the raw guts of life

To wine, dine, and be nice.

Poor survive on raw guts in life

To mind,
Perpetuate a crime

And await divine’s sublime?


I don’t know if they can convey

Only in silence

Is the naked strength of poverty retained.

But in remaining silent

Will those tragic and beautiful chains

always remain? ….

Should they be ripped away?

(This year I am trying to be a teacher in mud-riddled California. When I started teaching, I felt I should, felt I’d like to convey some of the feelings and thoughts some of the following experiences ignited. Perhaps I wanted to do so be­cause they might make me stand out. I hope it is not for this reason, but rather because it is my little experience with a reality of life, a reality different, and not necessarily holier, than experiences many go through. It was a reality which was enriching for me, and which, even if only vicariously, I hope can be enriching to, or appreciated by others.)


It took about forty hours. To Beirut it had been all right, but from there I began to feel more and more like a sardine-­in-can.

On the ride from the airport to the hotel, I yelled to the bus driver to watch out for the car he was about to force into the middle ditch. Ira Kaye, our director, said, “Dwayne, if you can’t get used to that, you won’t be here long.”

I shut-up. With the rest of the group, I just stared from the windows at the hutments, pools of water, and masses of skinny brown people.

We settled into our rooms and then went down for lunch. Lunch was to the music of a rock group In the Beatle tradition. Not one of the band members spoke anything but Eng­lish.

I slept for awhile and then went out for a walk. The side­walk was filled with flitting sandals, white shirts, and little brown people. I towered above most of the crowd.

When a hand tugged at mine, I was aware of the pres­ence of children. I looked down and quickly turned away.

I felt—not embarrassed—bit that I shouldn’t look, I shouldn’t gawk, though I wanted to. I looked enough to know that the hole in the side of his mouth was the size of a half dollar. I saw the blackened gums, the rotted teeth—those that were, the ugliness of the hole.

He didn’t stay long. I don’t think I gave him any money; I had decided that I wouldn’t give to beggars. His friends stayed with me for about an hour and on later trips through that part of the city I would see them again.


Two days later, I hoarded a municipal bus for my work site. I served as a parade for the small brown people, for as I walked to the rear they all turned to stare.

Hadn’t they ever seen a white person ride a bus? Proba­bly not, I answered myself. The British had chauffeurs for the buses were too dirty, noisy, and crowded.

I had difficulty adjusting to their constant and intent ob­servance so I started staring back at them to while away the uncomfortable minutes. I did this for many months. Until, it seems, the city’s millions became accustomed to seeing young Americans on crowded buses, crowded trains, and bi­cycles—transportation that bad always been their domain.

I got off at Worli Chawis. It was a tenement area, but other than a feeling of the city’s ugliness that had been with me since deplaning, I noticed little more than some strewn garbage and many dirty, gray buildings with bars on the windows. Only later would I learn that each of the ten rooms (13’x l0’) on each of the four floors of each tenement housed between five and twelve people, that water ran for slightly more than an hour each day, that neighbor wouldn’t talk to neighbor because of class or religion. That was later.


Now I wanted to see where I was to live. I found the Ma­harashtra Labor Welfare Center, and on its second floor I found two or three Indians gesticulating in a bright, yellow painted, chair, new bed, table and sink. They were proud of what they had done to this once-tile closet. They had a spout bucket sitting on a shelf above it. They explained that a bucket of water would be brought to me each morning by the night watchman. Then they showed me my washroom.

It was down the stairs, around the front of the building, through an open passageway along the side of the building, and into the back of a small building which housed the public urinal, the stench from which was stifling. It was a 40-yard dash that I would sprint often in the next nine months. They had even bought a few piece of furniture for the washroom.

The sweeper and his family, who used the stall adjacent to mine, would squat for their relief. I had a throne to sit upon. They showed me the throne with a special zest, glee, pride, or something. They entered and beckoned me to fol­low for a close-hand look at the two toilets and one erratic functioning shower stall, all of which filled a space of less than 40 square feet. I didn’t immediately move in. I was trying to bolster myself.

Over the walls hundreds of large, healthy, brownish-red cockroaches were twitching their feelers and scampering around. My guides didn’t seem to notice them. Humans, I was quickly learning, didn’t constitute this nation’s only pop­ulation problem.

During the next nine months,  after much use of my sandals, the cockroaches, with their twitching feelers, would still rule the roost. As with people, cows, rats, flies, mosqui­toes, and bed bugs, I’d painfully accustom myself to crowds, even in my most private minutes.

During the first six months, there were many days and nights that I’d average 15-20 trips to my throne. Due to the distance, and the crucial seconds it would take to unlock the door, I sometimes was not in time.


Working at an orphanage, trying to establish a chawl library, a kitchen garden, a milk feeding program, teaching at a school for the elite, establishing a work camp for those stu­dents. playing and popularizing basketball, and trying to see and learn, kept me moving around the city. More than any period of my life, I was looking, listening, and trying to learn and understand.

I’d see the blind trodding through crowded trains singing their religious songs and asking for alms. I’d see the blind with their gouged eyes, the blind and the seeing with their pock-marked faces; I’d hear their wail, and I’d try to think.

I’d get of at a train station and move with the crowd through the exit. I’d pass under the bridge and see the beg­gar in his familiar spot. He could see, and so could I. I could see that all the fingers on his left hand were chopped off at the first knuckle. His right hand had three fingers. His right foot had a dirty, perhaps at one time, white, wrap around it. It had a big toe and a little toe. His other foot had only a big toe. Lacerations covered his shins and forearms. His tin cup lay at his side.


Others, like the woman with her two children, sometimes took advantage of the shade of the bridge. She was relatively healthy. Her children, probably both under 2 years, were even clothed, even had a few sheets to lie on. Many babies in Worli, and throughout the city, had no sheets to lie on. They crawled on the pavement as their mothers sold vegetables from burlap sacks to the throngs of passersby. Instead of clothes, their babies had their legs, pelvic areas, and bloated stomachs covered with sores.

Even now, as I write, I question the validity of what I put down. I question the validity when I pass the stories on to interested listeners. Did I really see those things? I have some pictures to remind me. Yet, pictures don’t make it what it was; people respond to them with a “They’re great.”

Pictures can’t tell it like it was, or express how it felt; nor, when I slow down long enough to remember, do I really recall all it was, or how it felt.