Yesterday should have left me completely devastated. I came out of the experience exhausted, but not nearly as sad as I’d expected; I felt encouraged and refreshed. As part of our research, we were assigned to investigate something that intrigued us about Udaipur. We were told to dig deeper into an issue and find out what lies beneath. I chose to investigate life in the slums of Udaipur.
I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to research. I was just excited to use the opportunity to talk to people that live in a completely opposite manner from my own. Meenal and I drove to four slum areas around Udaipur, which I should mention is a city renown for its beauty and tranquility (Travel + Leisure rated it the “World’s Best City” in 2009). This isn’t a place where people go when they want to experience down and dirty India. They can go to Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore for that. Yet, even beautiful Udaipur has several slums. We only needed to drive a few minutes from my school to find some of them.
The areas we visited ranged from 15 to 500 inhabitants, and the structures people lived in were anything from tents to concrete structures. In all cases, people’s homes were just one big room that all the family members lived and slept in. Families ranged from four to 12 members. We asked people about how long their family had lived in the slum, and shockingly, every time we asked, people told us that they had been living here for two generations or more. This place is all they know.
People I spoke with did not seem dissatisfied so much with where they lived as much as how they lived. People told me that the water supply was not satisfactory and that their kids couldn’t go to school because it was too far away. They didn’t complain about the fact that they lived in shacks the size of my bedroom at home or that the highway was within spitting distance from their front door. To me, they were normal people with genuine complaints, and their dismal conditions didn’t consume them.
They talked about normal things: kids, work, and leisure activities. I started asking them about TVs. In the slums that had electricity, every household I spoke with had one. Dirt floors, five or more people sleeping in the same room, and a TV: it doesn’t add up to me, but it’s the way they live. And from our conversations, it’s really the only way they can think of living. I asked people if they thought a TV was a necessity. They said yes. I pressed further, “like food and water?” Of course, Meenal did the translation into Hindi. Their answer: well, not quite like food and water, but close.
People told me that they spent between 6,000 to 20,000 Rs ($110-372) for their TVs. Everyone had to save for several months or years before buying it, and many are paying off the cost in installments of a few dollars every month. I asked why several families don’t group together and split the cost of one TV between all of them. People told me that they like having their own. After work, everyone goes home, eats dinner and watches TV with their families. It’s their sole form of leisure in a life totally devoid of other comforts. And most importantly, TVs mean family time.
What my visit to the slums showed me was not how destitute people can be, but how proud and happy they can be with so little. For the people I spoke with, poverty is not all consuming. Rather it’s a facet of their lives, just like anyone’s socio-economic status is. They make money. They save it. They make decisions about how to spend it. As it turns out, many of them choose to buy TVs. And the underlying motive behind the purchase: time together as a family. It was a surprising day on many fronts, but with revelations like that, how could you help but feel happy?