Fifty years ago, one could stand on the banks of the Sabarmati River and see trees extending far into the Ahmedabad horizon, Dharmaji’s father recalls. Today, the landscape is less green, overflowing with rickshaws and motorbikes, brightly lit hotel signs, and acres and acres of slums.
In just the past two decades, the number of slum-dwellers in the city has doubled. Rural Indians, like Dharmaji’s parents, moved here in search of work and opportunity, both of which had grown stale and uncommon in their villages.
Though the family lives in Shankar Bhuvan, a slum in the heart of the Ahmedabad metropolis, their home bears certain vestiges of village life. Dharmaji’s mother wears a dozen plastic bangles on each of her arms, with heavy jewelry weighing down her earlobes. The smell of burning coals lingers from their recently cooked dinner, and a goat rests under the cot on which Dharmaji sits with his father, who is sedated and wordless from his evening liquor. Four of Dharmaji’s sisters squat in a dimly lit corner, exchanging words in their coarse, local Gujarati.
The family owns six donkeys, which they use to transport building materials to construction sites. Dharmaji contributes to the work in his free time. Though he finds it laborious and repetitive, it has allowed his uneducated parents to sustain their household.
The after-dinner conversation shifts to the topic of Dharmaji’s approaching wedding. He and his soon-to-be wife, Mamta, will be married after Diwali, at which point the couple will meet for the first time.
“It’s our tradition,” explains his mother, referring to the child marriage. But one can’t help but wonder how Dharmaji, boyish and absent-minded, will assume the role of a husband.
Dharmaji laughs at his own jokes, regardless of who is listening. He has a habit of losing his train of thought in mid-sentence, smacking his forehead in frustration. Though his school records say he is 17-years old, this is merely a guess, as no one ever bothered to record his actual date of birth. It’s unlikely he is a day over 15.
He acts childish, but Dharmaji’s expressions and manner are rough, weathered by the uncouth elements he has faced while growing up in the streets of Shankar Bhuvan. Dharmaji explains how his parents and older sisters often hit him and insult him, using foul language that is sadly, the norm in their community.
“When they say so many gal (insults), I leave the house,” he says. “I don’t know how to respond when they treat me like that.”
Dharmaji admits that his habits used to be equally poor. He would counter his sisters’ insults with foul language of his own, and paid little attention to his schoolwork. Although Dharmaji completed the 7th standard this spring, he has yet to learn how to read and write Gujarati.
He was an unexpected selection for EKATVA, excelling neither as a dancer nor as a student. But Dharmaji showed the potential to shine with support and guidance, and to emerge from the bad habits he was exposed to at home. Though he still carries himself with the attitude of a street child, raw and often coarse with his words, Dharmaji’s behavior with others, including his peers and family, has assumed a sincerity and compassion aftering joining EKATVA.
“In EKATVA, I like that we do everything together,” he says, referring to the 15 boys and girls that have become like a family to him during this journey.
“We tell each other off if someone does something wrong, but we treat everyone with respect.” Dharmaji demonstrates a striking understanding of oneness, despite the abrasive qualities that shape his family life at home.
“We are all brothers and sisters.”