The Pavement Dwellers
Well, I'm finally here. Madras, the biggest city in South India, heart of Tamil culture, center of south Indian classical music and dance. You can smell it (Madras) a mile away because of the Cooum River. No less than 10 autorickshaw drivers and honorary autorickshaw drivers (guys who just kind of hang out around the train station hoping to insinuate themselves into some tips) fought over my arrival, though I headed straight for the prepaid stand (where they charge a fixed, government price - 38Rs, or nearly $1.00US).
Whoo hoo. When does the party start? Balloons? Confetti? Nadaswaram combo?
Please excuse me. Having dinner with a couple of teenage glue sniffing addicts will make you cynical. I would say that Vela and Nagamma live on the sidewalk, except that Triplicane really has no sidewalk (called here a "footpath") to speak of. In most places it is crumbling concrete shards, in some places totally just sandy dirt - as though they said, "well if we make a proper sidewalk, MORE people will come and sleep on it so let's just keep it broken up and unwalkable." This has the result of pushing pedestrians out into the path of the constant, kamikazi traffic. Gone are the idyllic wandering cows, leisurely bike rides and gaily painted cycle rickshaws of Brodipet. Triplicane traffic is dirty, fast and relentless.
Vela and Nagamma are two of the Madras Street Kids made semi-famous by my friend (and their sponsor) "MeestaRobbett," who wrote extensively about their lives for five years on this website. Because they live in Triplicane, the backpacker's ghetto (code for neighborhood with cheap hotels) of Madras, they constantly interact with foreigners. We have seen Nagamma and Vela grow up for the past five years. The last time I saw them, Vela (now 18) was experimenting with drugs and Nagamma was attempting to still attend school (she was 14), in between being beaten by her family and sometimes forced to work. The photos on this page are from 3 years ago, till I get the new ones uploaded.
Now, Vela and Nagamma are running partners in their new job: begging money from foreigners for their glue-sniffing habits. The glue is a commercial rubber cement called FeviBond, available for 15Rs (about 35 cents) at any shop. They each use about 4 tubes a day.
I bought them dinner (noodles with scrambled egg bits) at the fast food joint and discussed their situation with them. Vela maintains that she wants to enter drug rehab, but she has always lied in the past. Now she says, "In the past, I lied and stole from MeestaRobbett many times. This was wrong." But she has made such confessions before. Nagamma just kind of goes along with anything Vela says.
Vela and Nagamma look clean; their hair is pulled back with acceptable neatness (and the requisite coconut oil). They wear matching, chipped and faded metallic burnt orange nail lacquer (wonder where they got that?). But the smell of glue from their bodies is at times overpowering.
Tomorrow I will get the phone number for the proposed drug rehab center and see if there is any point in enrolling Vela. I explained to her that it is like a prison, she cannot leave once she enters - and she will get very, very sick while she is there.
A few years ago, they were still kids, and cute enough to elicit sympathy and get more attention. Now they are lanky young ladies, no longer so endearing - they can even be a bit menacing in their begging . I'm afraid that their increasing addiction (and approaching adulthood) will leave them with nothing but prostitution to support their habits.
Later, Vela matter-of-factly showed me razor scars on her arm where she had self-mutilated a few months before.
More, and hopefully photos, tomorrow. -- Why are they running ads for chicken salad on my website? I don't support eating meat and I don't want to advertise this.
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