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Walking the Slum Side of Bangalore (AUDIO)

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BANGALORE -- Brinda Adige, a self-starting social activist, in yellow sari, is our guide to the slum side of Bangalore and the virtual canyon between the public squalor and private affluence that are both hallmarks of the New India.

We're in Lakshman Rau Nagar, one of several Bangalore slum districts that sprouted in the shrubbery alongside the info-tech boom two decades ago. Starting from a bridge over a vast open cesspool of human wastes, Brinda is making our path through what feel like opposites: tight-knit anarchy, foul stenches, brilliant rainbows of paint and fabric, acres of rubble next to dense clusters of shanties next to hand-crafted houses being rewired and gaudily repainted and redecorated, as we pass, by the artisan-squatters who live here.

Perhaps 10,000 families of high-tech service workers call this home: barbers, maids, drivers, baby-tenders, security guards, prostitutes, boot-leggers of all kinds, with of course their aged parents and dependent kids who are everywhere on the street, among the dead rats and live goats. The social atmosphere feels relaxed and, to the extent we visitors are noticed at all, welcoming. Most people seem absorbed in their individual projects, house-painting, baby-nursing, cookery or bicycle repair. Here as elsewhere you notice that in India stark borders of wealth and social class are crossed without fear, as they wouldn't be in America or perhaps most societies. We are greeted with "what is your name?" but never "what are you doing here?"

Brinda Adige, daughter of an Air Force officer and wife of a businessman, entered Lakshman Rau Nagar two years ago with the traditional Indian mat of "panchayat," or local justice, when nobody else would address a flagrant case of wife-beating. More than a score of witnesses turned out to confirm the charge and enforce a separation. Many added, on their own, "But all our husbands beat us." Brinda stayed on to open "the Office" as a permanent sort of clubhouse in the slum.

I think when I came here in the beginning, they thought I might have lost my way. Now they understand that I am no-nonsense. They also know that I am not afraid of anybody, whether it is the police or the local gangsters, or anybody who claims to be very powerful... When you ask me where's the power, it's the people, but they are not yet awakened. They are not yet informed, but they are ready. There is a silent revolution happening, and I'm happy to be part of it...

They call the Office the place where, if you have a problem, it will get sorted out. There will be a solution that we can find for it... but you have to be responsible for it... It's only when the women come here that they realize that the question, the answer, the problem, the solution lies within them... If you put up with nonsense, you get nonsense all the time. If you put up with somebody subjugating you, well, then you continue to be subjugated...

We talk about everything under the sun... Why did you fall in love? What do you think about marrying? Why do you continue? What do you mean by being faithful? What do you decide when your husband is not faithful? Why did you vote for a certain politician? ... The whole issue here is we learn from other people. You have something, she has something, she has shaped something... You cannot just come with a problem... You will take a vow to be part of the solution. So if you can do that, then you are part officially of this group.
Brinda Adige with Chris Lydon in the slum district 'Lakshman Rau Nagar' in Bangalore, July 2010.

"First I hit.  And if he still has his senses, then we talk."

This is Kamakshi speaking, in front of a gleaming stand of fresh vegetables in front of her house in the Bangalore slum. She's another of the local characters we won't forget -- not least because she embodies a sort of puzzle.

Among the immutable rules of Indian life seem to be that no public authority will take much responsibility for basic services -- schools, utilities, safety, healthcare -- for slum dwellers; and more narrowly that police will not concern themselves with what looks like strictly domestic violence. This, as Brinda Adige recounts, is where Kamakshi has found her role as the first and sometimes last guarantor of a woman's right not to be abused -- of a wife's right not to be beaten. A recent example: There is a man who is beating up the lady of the house every day, and everybody knows it.  One day, he hits the woman hard, with an onion to the face. Kamakshi tells him: next time you go to the police, but first, you deal with me.  So she beats him up, and tells him to sit all day in disgrace in front of her vegetables. And he does.  "Let's call it substantive justice," Brinda summed up our visit with Kamakshi. "She is not afraid of anyone.    Kamakshi goes to get justice.  She doesn't leave till justice is done."

Visitors like us can't easily judge whether Kamakshi embodies vitality and hard-core decency in the outward disarray of an impoverished community.  Or is Kamakshi's story really about the disarray itself and spectacular public neglect all around her?