Babulel comes from a small village in Rajasthan in the Indian desert. He's a handsome man, with a mop of thick, wavy dark hair, an enormous smile, and a dancer's grace. That last part comes naturally: Babulel is a member of a family of performers that goes back generations. He is also an artist, making the puppets he often performs with, and hand-sewing elaborate tribal and ceremonial garments that are worn at the weddings and parties and civic events where he appears. In 2002, Babulel was part of a delegation of Indian performers invited to demonstrate their art on the mall in Washington, DC. His face lit up as he described the moment, how it felt to dance on American soil with the Washington Monument looming behind him. We were having this conversation while sitting cross-legged on a woven mat on the floor. A photo album was open in front of us, filled with snapshots of Babulel's performances. The Governor of Delhi smiles from one photo; shots of prominent Bollywood movie stars are scattered throughout the album. I'm thinking, Babulel is clearly some sort of big deal in the arts here. Strange then, that the floor we're sitting on is in a room with only one wall, in one of the three worst places on earth. Babulel, the dancer and artist and cultural ambassador, the man who performs for leaders and stars, lives in Sadipur, a government slum in Delhi.
Sadipur is a legal slum, meaning the people there aren't squatters and won't typically be threatened or rousted by the police. But their situation is precarious nonetheless, as the government can sell the land beneath them to a developer at any time. When that happens, it's common for the developer to evict the slum dwellers by fire. Hired thugs come in during the night, douse some of the structures with petrol or kerosene, and throw a match. It takes so little to create an inferno out of what is essentially garbage and kindling to begin with. Some of the people do manage to escape; some are severely burned; and many, many die. It's just the way it goes and everyone knows it. Of course, nothing can ever be proven -- these things happen sometimes, don't they? One day there's a slum, and then there's a terrible fire, and then there's a high rise. That's progress, and no sense getting all worked up and making trouble because the dead were poor and nameless and easily stripped of their humanity.
Babulel left his home in Rajasthan because performing may be his passion, but it was impossible to feed his children on what little he could earn as a dancer. And there were no jobs at home in his village, no industry, no prospects. What farming there is depends entirely on the rains, and Rajasthan, already desert, is crippled by drought. Babulel brought his family to Delhi. Like the other residents of Sadipur, he's unemployed, at least in the sense of having a regular job with a predictable income. He does what he can, which for a male in Sadipur usually means shining shoes on the streets of the tourist and business districts. He's not a "sifter" -- one who picks through mounds of garbage in the hopes of finding something that might be useful for trading or sale. Sifting is the work of women and children. But Babulel the artist is also an entrepreneur, and together with his sons, has found a way to bring some of the crafts he learned at home to a most improbable classroom.
When World Vision entered Sadipur perhaps a year ago, one of Babulel's sons, Ravi, became a World Vision community volunteer. Although there is as yet no child sponsorship program in Sadipur, World Vision has opened what is called a non-formal coaching center. Ravi, has completed 10th grade -- a very high level of education given his circumstances -- and serves as a tutor at the center. He has 35 children in his care, in different "batches" to use his words. He helps prepare those children, ages 5-10, for formal school, on the outside chance they might actually be able to attend. The odds of making it to school are poor, though, as most of these children are unregistered, meaning without birth certificates, and therefore ineligible for public school. Some private schools accept unregistered children, but the cheapest of those costs 130 rupees per month (less than $1.50 at current exchange rates). Which sounds like a bargain till you realize that the most a parent might earn shining shoes or sifting garbage is 15-20 rupees per day. That's less than 50 cents. Subtract the cost of food and cooking fuel and it's barely possible to feed a family one meal per day, much less send the children to school.
In addition to the academic coaching, Ravi and Babulel are also teaching the children at the center how to make traditional Rajasthani dolls and puppets, along with toy elephants and camels. The day we visited, there was a pile of elephant forms, each about 8 inches tall, made of layers and layers of wrapped and woven twine. Those forms are then covered with scraps of bright fabric and bits of cord, here and there a sequin or two sewn on for decoration. The end result is a wonderful handmade keepsake or toy, which can then be sold on the street. In Rajasthan, one of those little fabric dolls might sell for a few pennies. In Delhi, with a bit of luck, that same doll might fetch 50 cents or more.
Tony and I asked Babulel's if we could purchase some of his dolls. I can't wait to give them to my daughters, and tell them the story behind their creation. That they're not just little trinkets; that they represent something lasting and true. They speak to the importance of place, heritage and tradition, to the power of creativity, and to the nearly unbelievable flowering of hope in a hopeless place.