Although I have been out of Mumbai, the Maximum City, for almost a month now, I need to give it one last nod in this blog before moving on to my next adventures. It was a whirlwind of a place to meet India for the first time, but its fantastic collage of people, lifestyles, and cultures gave me a rapid overview of the diversity and dichotomy that is this country. Right before I left, I met one last girls’ team who took the concept to sports to new heights. Oh, puns!
Hands Up for Handi
In Mumbai, to celebrate the birth of the god Krishna, hundreds of team of kids and teenagers take to the streets and build human towers in the streets. Dozens of outstretched hands at the base act as safety nets. Bare feet are stabilized on shoulders with the help of towels draped around the neck and shoulders. The child selected to be on the very top is often no more than five years old, and wears a strangely mature, trance-like expression when they finally reach the peak of the precarious human pyramid. For a month leading up to the actual day of the celebration, I caught glimpses of these Handi practices everywhere I went: in school yards, behind temples, near the market. I always stopped to watch a few minutes, amused and deeply impressed by the commitment of Mumbai kids to this festival tradition. Neighborhood teams practice for weeks in advance, and are usually coached by a more experienced adult wielding a whistle. These towers can get up to eleven persons high.
While attending a Goal session one day, I found out that one of the young teenage netball coaches was a part of an all-girls Handi team that practiced at 9:00 pm every night. I asked if I could come to one of their practices to meet the group.
After the necessary cell-phone-directions miscommunication and circular wandering, I met up with Harshada near her slum neighborhood. Even though I was late, I was immediately ushered into her home to meet her entire extended family and receive the humbling hospitality that’s showered upon guests of Indian homes. After I downed my painfully sweet glass of Thums Up (An Indian cola drink), convinced her mother that I didn’t need any dinner, and got over the shock of meeting Harshada’s identical twin sister, we circled around to the slum’s open common space. It looked like a smaller, slightly less muddy version of Dharavi’s football field.
Harshada’s neighborhood Handi team is made up of about fifteen girls, who gather for an hour and a half every night for a month out of each year to prepare for the festival. My plan to quietly observe their practice was immediately thrown out the window. The girls, who treated me like a celebrity in their midst, insisted that I—at the very least—join them by acting as part of the human safety net at the bottom of the tower. So I stood near the base and kept my hands pointed skyward. Over the course of several rounds of Handis building, the girls told me that they absolutely love these annual practices and look forward to them throughout the year. The physical challenge was fun, but it seemed to be the social aspect that really brought them to life. When asked what they did during the evenings the rest of the year—when they didn’t have Handis practice every night—they shrugged, and mentioned homework, chores, and television.
After attending Harshada’s practice, I was still more or less enchanted with the novelty of large-scale people pyramids. As the day of the festival grew closer, I followed the Handis-related gossip in local media and used Handis as my go-to topic for small conversation around the city. I found an article in the Hindustan Times, a national Indian newspaper, which profiled the presence of an exclusively girls Handis teams. The article described the city-wide push for greater safety precautions, including health insurance, for participating girls. These precautions were especially important for girls, it claimed, because falling from the pyramids could threaten their future ability to maintain a household and have children.
It’s nonchalant statements like that one, casually slipped into a cosmopolitan paper, that reveal the existence of gendered expectations for girls. In Mumbai, I often found myself forgetting about the gender issues that affect and define the lives of many of the girls I met through Yuwa and Goal. I won’t forget the day I found out that one of the teenage players on Dharavi’s football team had dropped out of school four years ago because her dad thought she’d be more useful at home. She’s getting married this December to a man she’s never met. She doesn’t want to get married. Hearing this was like a slap to the face; I’d been speaking with this girl everyday for a month, had sipped orange soda and eaten biscuits with her family in their home, and teased her about her attachment to her cell phone. I had had no idea that this was her situation.
Sadly, this post doesn’t end with me standing in awe of the craziness of the Handis festival and sharing some jaw-dropping photos, as I had hoped it would. In a classic Indian miscommunication, I booked my train ticket out of Mumbai for the afternoon of the festival. I thoughtthat Harshada told me the Handi celebrations would all take place in the morning. Wrong. In hindsight, I should have just cancelled and rescheduled my ticket. Instead, I felt lazy and confused and ended up on a train to Goa as the kids of Mumbai set to the streets to defy gravity. Here today, Goa tomorrow. Despite being a little sad for missing the Big Day, I’m grateful I took the time to spy on so many Handis practices. If you’d like to check out some photos of the Handis of Mumbai, check out this photo album.
It was bittersweet leaving Mumbai, and I hope to see the friends I made there again. A thousand thanks for the warmth and generosity I received from the staff of Reality Gives and Goal, the patience and unabashed curiosity of the football and netball girls, the many hours of quality frisbee I shared with the Storm Chasers, the unexpected kindness of strangers who look the time to help a lost foreigner navigate a big city, and the fresh and chewy bagels of the Bagelwalas.