A Little Superstitious

In the beginning, before science, there was superstition. Or so we think. That we believe in horoscopes, breaking mirrors, black cats, sneezes and ‘right foot first’ in the age of the Android is closer to the truth. In essence, superstition indicates the limit of science and serves the purpose of understanding forces that lie beyond human control and comprehension. This could be the future, death, disease, natural occurrences or, in many cases, the pretty girl who has been giving you mixed signals.

Over the course of the sessions that we have been holding with all our participants, we have been enlightened of many local superstitions.

From the textile group, Rohini and Farheen (name changed for privacy) have similar tales to tell. Rohini hails from Dhapoli on the Konkan coast. She recounts the time when her son cried regularly everyday from 11.30 p.m. to 12.30 a.m. She was told by locals that it was probably a water deity that was troubling and teasing her son as her house was near the beach. An offering of flowers and haldi kumkum was made to appease the water goddess, thus signalling an end to her son’s crying spells. Farheen’s year old daughter too kept crying every night. A religious doctor divined that a dead girl’s spirit from the house opposite had taken a liking to the daughter and was thus teasing her and playing with her every night. The child was given some holy water and a taveez was tied around her hand. Within days, the girl slept soundly every night.

Both these women had first approached local doctors in the area who could not diagnose the cause and whose prescriptions had not worked. The breakdown of the scientific approach heralded the rise of superstitions. Most of our participants believe that the supernatural world exists alongside the natural world. The women even recount cases in which a taveez has cured malaria or a baba has squeezed jaundice out through a child’s finger nails.

Much superstition is of course attached to the menstrual cycle. The potters from Kumbharwada, Dharavi, believe that if a woman who is menstruating touches clay, then the earthenware made from that clay shall break easily. Mehzabeen, a seamstress, tells us that tying a black thread around your toe can delay your periods.

A couple of them even recount rendezvous with seductive spirits. Rohit Pachrane, a photography enthusiast from Dharavi, swears he saw a woman with long hair, green bangles and a white saree outside his house. This Mohini, a succubus of sorts, is popularly believed to put men into a trance and lure them to their death. Zeenat, from the textile group, remembers how her father, a fisherman, was returning from fishing when he saw a beautifully dressed woman. He wished to speak with her but didn’t do so luckily. He went to a restaurant and on narrating his meeting was told that he had done a wise thing.

Zarina, from the photography group, speaks of the black magic that is prevalent in much of Dharavi. Finding objects of voodoo such as a lime bloodied with kumkum and stuck with pins all over are common findings meant to bring you the worst kind of bad luck. In the event of finding such a voodoo article, one is advised to hit it with a slipper thus annulling its effect. Simple.

The most common reasons for the prevalence of superstition are ignorance and fear. Ignorance, the kind which has nothing to do with how educated you are. Just think of the next time you check your daily horoscope which promises you a promotion.


The Dream Slippers

The Ceramics group of the Dekha Undekha initiative has been helping locals from the potter community at Kumbharwada, Dharavi to make clay artifacts. One of their projects was to translate their dreams onto clay slippers. From dust to dreams!

Past attempts at pottery by the ceramics group. Seen in this photo are Parvati (left) and Daksha.

Daksha making one of her dreams on the slippers - a rose garden!

Mentor Rashi's dream: a traffic-less road. Truly a dream in Mumbai!!

Parvati would love to feed the birds...

...while mentor Neha dreams of climbing the tallest peak.

to fly a kite! Ashwin's dream.

detail of Ashwin's kite. The string is a copper wire. Talk about Ashwin's innovation and resourcefulness.

Mamta, Ashwin's sister and a primary schoolteacher, would so love to run a school of her own someday

Rashi's dream, a cat. Purr!

All this and more on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/sGeZjQ 🙂

Shopping Rhymes


Susie went to Dadar west

Hoping to find the very best

Of all the things that were on sale –

Pots and pans and plates and pails.


Through the busy streets she went

Like a cop on a mission sent

She met a man in a small shop

Who sat like a god on a hill top.


Susie said to the man

“Show me all that you can!”

So he sold some potent stuff

Which she liked very much.


A pickle jar she hunted down

White in colour with a ring of brown

A little kettle, some huge spoons

And massive sieves made of wood

With a frame of shiny steel

She struck a very good deal

At last she threw in a rolling pin

And the man said “It’s win-win.”


The sun was still high when Susie had won

She told herself, “Job well done!”

And to Dharavi she rode away

To tell this tale another day!


To Chor Bazaar Nandita strode

Hoping to find some cheap store

With a glint in her eye and some say

Nandita swore she would have her way.


The shops were many but the prices steep

Antiques aren’t really that cheap

Change of plans, Nandita left

Minutes away, some wares were kept.


Maulana Azad road was rich

With the things that people ditch

Nandita found what she sought

At prices cheap by the lot.


A dusty shelf for a start

A slender door to depart

A cupboard fit for a queen

Were among the things she had seen.


After many a game of sly deception

The men won’t give her the next reception

For the prices went from twos to halves

And Nandita had her way at last.


She drove to SNEHA a happy woman

And there on the roads was a good omen

Old windows lay with no one to care

Now stacked on her cab, free of fare!


To apna Hill Road Priya went

Full of work and totally spent

But she had made her mind up that day

That she would buy some cloth anyway.


Some cloth the women had asked

To finish their happy sewing task

Something bright and something cheery

For of old colours they were weary.


So Priya saw some happy shades

Of all things bright and none too pale

Some greens, some pinks and some yellow

To cheer the women who had gone too mellow.


She was sure Bubbly would like the stripes

So she bought some different types

Of cloth for the women to share

To weave their dreams, if they dare.

I can still taste the hunger sometimes…..

Her voice chokes mid way through the story, the memories still fresh. Zubeida’s* (name changed to protect identity) calm demeanor belies the hardship that she has gone through.  A talented seamstress, she speaks softly and only when required. Her work is her voice.

“I come from a very poor family in Mangalore. We are 9 sisters and 1 brother. We rarely had anything to eat growing up. My father was a fisherman, and was out from morning till late, sustained only by a cup of tea. Making ends meet was impossible. We never had a proper meal. Today, he lies wasted and completely bedridden, the result of his toil for his family.

My mother’s brothers are wealthy. We worked for them for a little bit of money. When I was ten, I worked as help in my mamu’s* house, doing odd jobs, dropping my little cousins off to school. I could see and smell all the delicious food being cooked. Not once were they offered to me, or my sisters, who worked in their house for a pittance.

I always went to school hungry. So did my sisters. On a good day we had some rice gruel. On most days, just a cup of tea. We were hungry, desperate for a few morsels. I can never forget that hunger. I can taste that hunger even today…”

Zubeida was married off at 15. She lives in Mumbai now with her husband, a mechanic, much older than her. He keeps her happy. She is a contented soul, stitching and embroidering and looking after her 11 year old daughter, her only child.

Why I am kicked about my camera

A popular joke making its rounds on facebook is about a photographer who gets invited to a socialite’s party and the socialite remarks, “Your photographs are amazing! You must own a fantastic camera!” To which the photographer replies, “The food is great! You must have a fantastic stove.”

We  live in a time when cameras have become a rage in the list of must-have gizmos. It is, however, a well known myth-buster that owning a Nikon makes you a Nikon owner, not a great photographer. The best devices at a photographer’s disposal are perspective and imagination. Here are two vignettes of our participants of the photography group who do wonders with cellphone cameras.

Rohit Pachrane, a junior college student, has a hairstyle you cannot miss. A tuft of spiked hair tells you he is that odd mix of meticulousness and rebellion. His concern for precision is evident in his photographs as well. Rohit has been clicking away the best and tthe worst of Dharavi for almost a year now. His interest was furthered some months back when he heard of photojournalist Sudharak Olwe and his association with the Dekha Undekha programme. Rohit was excited to know that here was an opportunity to bring to light the many urban health issues in the area of Dharavi where he lives.

One of Rohit's many photos on people and ailments in Dharavi

What Rohit loves about photography is that it has changed his ‘drishtikon’ – his sense of perspective. He has become more aware of himself and has left his boyhood dressing habits (such as shorts) and now only wears full length trousers. He takes photographs of buildings, beaches, people, sunrises and sunsets. When he is photographing, his mind becomes free and everything else disappears except his subject. His friends and their conversations dissolve away.

But his disregarded friends are not upset with his behaviour. In fact, one of his friends is so supportive that he took fifteen snaps from Rohit and used them as screensavers for his computer. His family is equally supportive and his mother plans to buy him a digicam very soon. For now, he has a friend with a cellphone camera, which is enough for him to weave magic with.

Zarina Khan, a petite steely woman of 28, has never been to school. She can’t read a menu card, an address or a name. But give her a camera and she comes alive. For Zarina, the camera has become an instrument of great power by which she can document and disseminate information. She is getting trained as a social worker at the SNEHA centre in Dharavi and photographs are thus of undeniable value. A friend of hers was beaten up by the husband and she was able to capture the fresh wounds on camera, which was of help as evidence for the police.

Zarina took this photo of the very ritualistic manner in which babies are given massages

She says you can threaten any victimiser with the power of photographs and that “Ek camera ke saath himmat hai” (You can be confident with a camera). While her brothers are not supportive of her endeavour, she is personally very happy with the cellphone camera that helps her to reveal so much about Dharavi and her life.

Mrs. Strangelove or How I learned to stop worrying and love the chalk

It has the most poetic genesis really. When Farheen* (32) from our textile group was pregnant with her first child, she and her co-sister went to a garden. There had been a fresh spell of rain and the air was embalmed with the smell of wet earth. Farheen reminisces, “It was the most tempting fragrance. I just reached out and tasted the damp mud.” Many morsels of mud later, her co-sister reprimanded her but also, unwittingly, mentioned to her that chalk is available for a rupee or two at the local channawalla along with peanuts and cornflakes. Farheen went to buy it, ate it and thus Farheen started loving chalk.

The chalk that she covets

Farheen is afflicted with a particular disorder known as pica in which the sufferer consumes non-food items such as soil, chalk or paper. Pica is the Latin word for the magpie, which is well known for its unusual eating habits. It is considered a disease as the victims eat these substances to compensate a mineral deficiency (such as that of calcium, iron or zinc). Pica is generally seen in the lower economic strata, in children and in pregnant women. In young children, soil pica is very common and you will very easily find many children who eat mud from a playground. In these cases, pica gets combined with a variety of other infections caused by parasites and worms found in the soil.

In Farheen’s case, the addiction has lasted well beyond pregnancy and there was even a stage when both she and her son Baba had pica. “While I love chalk, Baba used to eat glass bangles and pencil lead”, Farheen says laughingly. Baba weaned himself off the habit as he grew up but Farheen still persists in spite of unanimous disapproval.

If you go to a channawalla in the city, you will be sure to find these soft grey coloured lumps of limestone that the salesman calls ‘mitti’ (mud). These are sourced from Gujarat. As you buy peanuts for a rupee or two, the same is the case with chalk. Farheen invests a rupee a day in buying two pieces of that coveted item that she nibbles on whenever her heart desires. She shares valuable information: “If you cut into these pieces, then you will notice there are many shades of grey. The light grey area is the tastiest!” She needs to see a doctor and get calcium supplements for herself.

But, for now Farheen does not worry and simply loves chalk.

* Name changed to protect identity

For more information on pica and its side effects, please visit the following links:



Local Lives, Local Colours

It was a return to their nursery years. Their children would have been impressed. At two in the afternoon, the women of the textile group were seen colouring checks and cutting coloured paper.

All these were part of a session conducted to train them in skills of abstraction and thinking out of the box. The session comprised two exercises. In the first, the women coloured a sixteen checked square with colours that they thought best represented Diwali. They were also advised to organize the composition. The participants selected the choicest colours from an array of crayons, pencils and sketch-pens. Most were able to tap into their imagination to fulfil the brief given to them. The bland checks had exploded into brilliant Rangoli patterns and colours representing fire crackers, sweets and pollution.

Kshitija Kanbur, coordinator at Dekha Undekha and an aspiring chef, who conducted the session, hopes that this exercise will sensitize these tailor-women towards a sense of colour. She explains, “This exercise is based on theories of colour and really tests the creative faculty. The participants have been bound by certain restrictions such as sixteen squares and a theme.” Bound by instruction, released by imagination.

The second exercise expected the participants to interrogate that old question named love. Using limited material, the women had to cut out shapes and stick them onto paper and thereby communicate what love meant to them. The women were not very successful at this exercise as most of them made direct representations of things they loved.

The coordinators and the consultants had decided on this session based on feedback from the workshop where it was noticed that the participants faced blocks with abstract thinking. Kshitija Kanbur thinks further sessions will help the women in this direction. Every Art Engagement is a new challenge for every person here!

Shown below are four pieces of artwork from this session:

Mahananda’s square shows the colours arranged in the pattern of a Rangoli. The things she loves best are flowers and tailoring.






Afreen’s checks are an arrangement of colours that represent diyas, firecrackers, red sarees and sweets. She loves to sing, and therefore the mike cutout.






Sumaiya has chosen double shades of colours to show the luminous layers of a flame. And her cutout is a hair straightener! Guess what she loves?






Parveen has left a check blank to show how clean the air is before diwali and how it blackens due to air pollution. She has also chosen a patch of lavender to show how she finds solace in the sea.





Oh yes, they all love flowers!