by Imtiaz Dharker
I was working on a project, filming for Unicef in Dharavi, a huge colony of migrants in Mumbai, India. These migrants come from villages all over India, hoping to make a better life in the city. The city is unable or unwilling to cope with their needs, but they make the most of whatever little they have. Working with the people who lived there, especially the children, I often felt I saw more goodness and human kindness in the slum than I had found in temples, mosques and churches.
One day in May, one of the hottest, driest months, the mains water pipe burst. It was a moment of pure joy for the people in the slum, because it gave them access to water that was normally rationed or controlled. The water was like an unexpected gift.
What I try to do in the poem is suggest first of all how dry it is, using hard sounds and short factual sentences like, ‘The skin cracks like a pod’. The people living in the slum can only ‘imagine the drip of (water)’ as if it were ‘the voice of a kindly god.’ The god here is deliberately written with a small ‘g’ because the kindly god could be from any religion. People in need don’t ask where kindness comes from.
‘The municipal pipe bursts’. I use the word ‘municipal’ to signal the bureaucracy that rations water to migrants. In contrast to this, when the pipe bursts, they are all united by the blessing of water, as if the slum has become a holy place. The imagined ‘small splash echo in a tin mug’ becomes a rush of fortune. The people rushing out of the huts become ‘a congregation’.
There is another layer of imagery, ‘silver crashes to the ground’ because the water arriving is like currency to them, and also because that is how water looks in the sunlight.
There are different income levels even in a slum, suggested by ‘pots, brass, copper, aluminium, plastic buckets, frantic hands’ but here they come together democratically, united by their urgency.
In Indian villages there is often a caste distinction where some people are not allowed to use the same well as others because they are supposedly ‘lower caste’. In the city these distinctions can be forgotten, especially in a joyful moment like this.
Most of all, the blessing is for the children. The water turns to ‘liquid sun’, the light catches the sharp angles of their bodies, ‘their highlights polished to perfection’. The sound changes through the poem from hard to liquid to suggest the rush of water. The lines become longer and more breathless, then slow down at the end, almost as if a piece of film has gone into slow-motion to let the children play and scream for joy in the water a little longer.
At the end I wanted to suggest the tenderness of the ‘kindly god’ towards the children, ‘the blessing sings’, but there is also the awareness of how fragile these human beings are, with ‘their small bones’. The poem describes a happy uplifting moment, but there are some indications that this ‘blessing’ is temporary.