It’s a January morning in Jaipur. The early fog has not yet lifted and whilst it may be warm later, it certainly isn’t now, as we bump down the unmade road into the Garidharipura Slum. The lanes are comparatively empty, just a couple of cyclists and women carrying water. The smoke from breakfast fires mingles with the mist, though many here will go hungry for breakfast, they will all drink tea and the fires provide warmth.
My friend, film maker and photographer Lee Cantelon, and I are going to shoot an interview clip with one of our graduates, Nandu, for the short documentary we are making on the rough-and-ready school that is valiantly trying to educate some 350 kids from slums and squatter camps close by. I’ve been here over a week and my heart is full for these people and their struggles. The School seems an oasis of love in a desert of emptiness and scant hope. Life is very hard for these rag pickers and balloon sellers, these casual day-labourers and sometime beggars and their families. Their Caste and lack of education draw in their horizons and put a limit on dreams. Nandu is a success story in the making. Bright, handsome and personable, he is hoping for a career in the Navy. No one else in his family has ever graduated from any kind of school.
When we reach their home, set in a rubble strewn dip that must run with water in the monsoon, the whole family are waiting, wreathed in smiles. They have pulled a bed frame out into the space in front of the house so that we have something to sit on – they own no other furniture and do not want us to see inside their windowless shack.
Nandu’s mother, Bhuri, wrapped in a vivid pink blanket against the cold, squats by a shallow pit filled with glowing coals, warming both herself and a little girl who can’t be more than 3 years old. Nandu’s father, in a wooly hat and scarf, offers us piping hot chai. Sisters and aunts hover shyly in the background. You can see your breath. Despite this, they are proud we have come to their home, proud of Nandu and his education.
The chai is good, and as Lee films the interview sequence – Nandu talking about all that his education means to him and his family and how God has done a marvelous thing in his life – I draw mother and toddler crouched in the smoke. I am struck again by how these people, who have nothing, want to share their homes, their food and drink with strangers. How quick they are to smile with so little, apparently, to smile about. Bhuri has a smile that could melt a glacier, I catch it in a sly photograph.
And then we are done. Back into the small battered van before too many curious onlookers see our white faces and the cameras. We quickly leave this poverty behind. How blessed we are, with our full bellies, and comfortable homes to think of, and memories of these kind people to take back with us. In a few days I will be back in Canada, safe and secure, feeling the guilt of privilege.
Two weeks later, the email comes. Bhuri is dead, felled by a sudden heart attack. I look at my photographs of her, feel overwhelmingly sorry for her family and the boy, Nandu, who is my friend and immediately begin to paint that smile, what else can I do? When it is done I take it to the post office and mail it with love.
Later, in December, Nandu greets me with open arms, his father is with him, they have both come to the small basement church some of the children from the School and their families attend despite opposition from their neighbours. They have brought my portrait of Bhuri with them so we can share it together. Lee takes the photograph you see here of a proud son with his smiling mother. It fills me up, to be here to see it and I’m freshly reminded why painting portraits can be such a great joy.