Photo feature

Without Walls: A photo exhibition explores the lives of homeless women in Mumbai

Meet five women for whom home has only meant pavements of the city.

Mumbai’s slums – symbols of the financial capital’s stark inequalities – have been the subject of innumerable books, films, research studies and art projects. Far more under-represented, but just as ubiquitous, are Mumbai’s homeless: thousands of men, women and children living on pavements, with not even a slum room to call their own and no government shelter to turn to when the summers are too hot or the rains too heavy.

An art exhibition at the Studio-X urban cultural centre is now turning the spotlight on the lives and struggles of homeless families, particularly women, living on Mumbai streets. Titled “Without Walls”, the multi-media exhibition has been curated by Studio-X and Megapolis, an urban laboratory, along with non-profit Pehchan and photography collective Bind. It features photographs, audio stories and spatial mapping of pavement use to explore the world of this vulnerable population.

“The homeless are the lowest rung of residents in Mumbai, but there hasn’t been as much research into their conditions as there has been for slum-dwellers,” said Carlin Carr, urban researcher and co-curator of the exhibition.

Spending lives on the streets

A popular misconception about the homeless, says Carr, is that they are transient migrants who live on the streets temporarily, till they either find a place to live or return to their native villages. But a 2011 study by the Bombay Urban Industrial League for Development found that 96% of Mumbai’s homeless families have lived on the streets for more than 5 years, while 58% have been homeless for more than 20 years. “We met families who have lived on the streets for 40-50 years at a stretch, with nowhere else to go,” said Carr. “They no longer have connections with their villages and consider Mumbai their home.”

Among the south Mumbai street-dwellers interviewed for the exhibition, most men worked as daily wage labourers, while women worked as domestic help, toilet cleaners or traders of old clothes. Few children went to school, and almost no one had any official identity cards to grant them legitimacy as citizens.

Living on footpaths with minimal resources is an exercise in jugaad or innovation, right from sourcing tarpaulin sheets to making the best use of trees, fences and scrap materials. “People tend to settle in places where infrastructure like nullahs and drains are available, and there is a lot of community organisation between the tents that they set up,” said Rajeev Thakker, co-curator of the exhibition and director of Studio-X.

Risk of abuse

For the women and children, living on pavements also means being constantly at risk of sexual abuse. According to 32-year-old Sangeeta, one of the homeless women profiled in the exhibition, night time is often about staying up late to ward off drunk men roaming the streets. “You can’t trust these drunkards. He’ll come next to you and sleep,” said Sangeeta, in an interview recorded by the curators. “That’s why we have to stay awake till 2 or 3 am.”

A 2010 Supreme Court judgement makes it mandatory for civic authorities to build shelters for the urban homeless, but Mumbai has virtually no shelters except for a handful intended for street children. “It is the government’s responsibility to build shelters that can house homeless families, not just homeless men, women and children separately,” said Brijesh Arya, founder of Pehchan, an organisation working with homeless families in the city. “Hopefully this exhibition will help raise more awareness about the homeless.”

“Without Walls” will be exhibited at Studio-X, Fort, Mumbai, from Aprill 22 to May 14. Here are some stories of women featured in the exhibition:

Radha: 55 years old, living near Charni Road for 50+ years

Photo: BIND Collective
Photo: BIND Collective

  “Our paternal grandfather stayed there for many years. He didn’t know anything about what a ration card was. They didn’t know how to get one. They used to make garlands, do their work, and continue that way. Then those taxi stand people tried and got permission, and chased us from there. We all got very scattered and separated after being chased from there. Then our mother and us came here...We used to keep thinking, ‘Where will we stay? Wait till the shops close, and then sleep over there. Tie up all our belongings and keep them.’ Then my mother said, ‘Let’s go to Charni Road, no one will bother us there; the public won’t stop us from sitting.’ So we were here a few days, but as it became night, we used to get very frightened. There were no people around. For the first few days, we somehow managed to force ourselves to sleep, scared. Then, after time passed, we thought we would continue to stay here itself. We turned old, staying here.”  

Meera: 36 years old, living near Mumbai Central for 22 years

Photo: BIND Collective
Photo: BIND Collective

“If we’re born here, where will we go, even if you chase us away? Whose support will we live on? If you understand our situation and sorrows, then we can’t find a solution to it. We don’t like to stay on the footpath! Where our parents birthed us, that’s where we’ve stayed and grown up, that’s where we birthed our children too, and they’ve grown up, too. Where else should we go?”

Naseem: 35 years old, living near JJ Hospital for the last 35 years

Photo: BIND Collective
Photo: BIND Collective

“I do house work. It is either that, or when there is a wedding, I go wash vessels for them, afterwards…Doing the clothes, cleaning up the house, washing vessels…I make about 500 rupees a month. If I do small works here and there, maybe an extra 40 rupees, 30 rupees, 50 rupees… If I do the sweeping and mopping, and washing the vessels, I get 500 a month. If I wash clothes as well, someone will give me maybe 800 rupees…. See, if there’s something remaining, 2 rupees or so, we put it in the bank, little by little. We have to…”

Sangeeta: 32 years old, living near Mumbai Central station for 32 years

Photo: BIND Collective
Photo: BIND Collective

“I get fits [seizures]. I got a fit while cooking food, and got burned. So my marriage hasn’t happened. I get those attacks sometimes, but now I’m taking medicine for it. Even to get the medicine, it’s very expensive. What are we to do, there’s a debt on our heads as well. See, I have seizures. And with seizures, you can’t do much. You can’t go outside; you can get them anywhere, at any time. That’s why I don’t go out much. Even if I go out, I always keep my younger sister with me.”

Anita: 21 years old, living near Mumbai Central station for 21 years

Photo: BIND Collective
Photo: BIND Collective

“My younger sister has a daughter. That girl, ever since she was in her mother’s belly, I have been looking after her. I’m the one who has raised her, she’s two years old, I raised her. I want to make her better. I want to give her a life. I don’t want her to be the way I am. I’ll teach her good English, I’ll make her something good. I’ll do anything, vessels, I’ll make garlands, flowers, I’ll do work for someone, even if I get 20 rupees, I’ll save it up. But I’ll make her life better. Tomorrow, she won’t say, “My mausi left me an illiterate.” It should be, “She was illiterate, but she didn’t let me be that.”

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