Our heart as a team is to gather photo stories as we travel. These will be collections of photos, documenting everyday life, that are used to communicate a person’s story. We want these stories to teach us more about the home-lives of refugees, of the homeless and of those who have been displaced. In Kolkata my team were located in an Eastern region known for hosting many Bangladeshi refugees following the Partition of India. I, Bethan Uitterdijk, had the privilege of meeting people who lived within a majority-Bangladeshi slum community, doing my photo-story on this. Here are a few of my photos, as well as a short written piece about life in this slum.
At Tangra slum, a predominately Muslim slum located in East Kolkata, life rolls on. These communities have been established for decades, 50-60 to be precise, as generations are born into homes that they likely will live in for the rest of their life. Although the sanitation and sewage system of Tangra bears much to be improved (perhaps an area which the slum is most lacking), there is access to clean, running water for those who live there. Houses precariously built out of brick, tile, wood or tin (or, sometimes, all of the above) huddle alongside each other with occasional thin dividing alleys further leading to more houses and to a network of canals, laced with litter. Overcrowding is a dictating feature of slum life and in Tangra it is common for families of 4-6 (or more) to live in a one-room home together. The tightly packed living arrangements mean that the routines of life are forced onto the slum streets as people will wash there, mothers will cook and do dishes there, and children will play there. It breathes a rich sense of community.
A family of four welcomed me into their home. Hindi newspapers have become this family’s wallpaper, and the double bed dominates the room and covers resourcefully stacked storage underneath. The mother is a second-generation refugee, her parents coming over from Bangladesh as a result of the war of independence in 1971. In fact her entire family, who are Hindu, came over as a result of this war. She shared that this was a life or death decision; saving their lives for her family meant leaving their home country. Although she represents the first generation of her family to be born in India, she has no desire to visit or return to Bangladesh, saying that there is nothing there for her anymore.
A young Bangladeshi woman, who now lives within Tangra slum, walked me around her community and explained the hardships of life in this area. These hardships, however, are paired with the dwellers’ enduring capability to survive and persevere with what seems to me to be an unfairly difficult version of life. Tangra slum, like many others in Kolkata, hosts a predominant Bangladeshi community. The partition of India led to an influx of Bangladeshis who, once realizing that their transition wasn’t going to be aided by the newly instated Indian government, sought out vacant lands and initiated a new wave of slum establishments. In Tangra it is possible for land to be purchased, but it is more common for the small homes to be rented for a monthly fee. With the latter arrangements, a lack of paperwork can make those who rent their land vulnerable to losing their land, their property and the place that they live, bearing no rights to dispute such a decision. Although life seems to be hard for those who live in Tangra slum, there doesn’t seem to be an undercurrent of ambition for the people there to leave. The low cost of living (due to no demand to pay tax) means that the jump from paying to live in Tangra slum to paying for an apartment outside of the slum is a steep financial difference, one most won’t have the opportunity to choose. Thus, it does seem, if you’re born in Tangra slum, you may well live there for your life in its entirety.