Q & A with Sr. Jayanthi Simon

by Lissy Maruthanakuzhy


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Sr. Jayanthi Simon, a medical nurse, was surprised when she received a call to work in a slum parish of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. She accepted it, she says, without a second thought, although she had no clue what awaited her in Dharavi, one of Asia’s biggest shanty towns.

Eight years later, the 44-year-old nun says she has no regrets, as the experience in the slums has helped her understand and appreciate fellow humans and social realities much better. This would not have been possible if she had remained inside the convent looking after the sick and aged in a community of 40 Daughters of St Paul.

Simon shared what she encountered in the slums and how people there have helped her mature spiritually and gain a new holistic outlook on life.

How and why did you choose to work in a slum parish?

Fr. Allwyn D’Silva, a social activist and a pastor, requested our congregation for help to cater to thousands of Tamil-speaking Catholics living in his St. Anthony’s Parish in Dharavi. The invitation came on April 4, 2007. He wanted one of the sisters to do weekend pastoral work among these people. According to him, our main work would be animating Small Christian Communities (SCC), Legion of Mary and youth groups.

Sr. Antonette Jesumani, another Tamil-speaking sister, and I began with the SCC. We chose SCC because we wanted to meet people directly and talk with them, pray with them, share the life-giving Word of God with them. This opened an avenue for discussions on many issues that affected the people. Such discussions, we were sure, would help them live as better Christians and humans.

Now it is going to be eight years since I am closely associated with the people of Dharavi. I have enjoyed visiting the families as it was a tool to build communion with the people and allow it to grow.

How did you prepare for the work in the slums?

I was not trained to work in a slum but that did not deter me from accepting the challenge. I am giving my best for the growth of the slum people. This is possible mainly because my more than 25 years in the congregation, especially the training years, have prepared me to serve others. In the parish, more than bringing external changes, we focus on internal changes in the people – changes in thinking, behavior and feelings.

The past eight years have convinced me that what is required is not special training, but a heart to feel with people and care for them and love them the way they can understand. I feel God has blessed me with this special requirement.

I owe this trait to my family. I am one of seven children from a Catholic family in the Kolar gold mine fields of Karnataka [southern India]. My father worked in the mines. I grew up tasting the value of hard work and hard life. The family atmosphere was conducive for us children to imbibe the value of sharing and caring with the little we had.

What did you encounter in the slum? Who are the people living there?

People who have never ventured into Dharavi may dismiss it as a wasteland of tent-like temporary structures, crowded with undernourished people who are disconnected from the rest of the world, surviving on charity. They see only a sea of corrugated tin roofs as they are about to land in the Mumbai airport.

However, beneath those roofs, the reality is far different. Dharavi is a highly developed urban area composed of distinct neighborhoods that bustle with economic activity.

I ventured into my mission with many pleasant and unpleasant images of slums in my mind. But surprisingly, I soon found out that not all that I had heard about slums was true.

No doubt, the place is overcrowded. Dharavi is one of the world's largest slums, with 800,000 to a million people occupying its 1-square-mile area. News reports say it is 11 times as dense as Mumbai, one of the most densely populated cities in the world. It is 10 times denser than the most densely populated area of London.

Dharavi was once a remote settlement on the outskirts of Mumbai, formerly Bombay, which comprised seven islands. It was a marshy terrain inhabited by Koli, a traditional fishing community. As the British connected the islands by reclamation, migrants from all over India came to settle down in Dharavi.

Potters from Gujarat, tanners from Tamil Nadu and embroidery workers from Uttar Pradesh were among those who settled in Dharavi beginning in the 19th century. Dharavi offered them work, affordable housing and cheap living.

As Mumbai expanded rapidly northward, Dharavi became strategically located between the city’s two main suburban railway lines and close to the Bandra-Kurla Complex, the new financial and commercial center.

Now, the area lacks hygiene and all civic amenities. Yet people are living a good life. Many are educated in English medium schools. Some families have one of the parents working overseas. Most people have houses and land in their native places.

As Dharavi is self-sufficient, people find everything necessary for living there. They are comfortable living in a 100-square-foot room with a family of 10 people. Many of them have not seen a better place to live.

They have the facility to bathe in their tiny house. A Dharavi resident manages living in a place where 1,440 people share one toilet. They live in places where they can hardly stretch their legs. The lucky ones have a loft. Here people adjust to a lack of privacy, lack of hygiene, lack of progress.

I really admire their ability to adjust to any type of inconveniences.

However, the house has all that they need – television, refrigerator and computer, among other features.

Dharavi accommodates people of all walks of life and different religions. Christians, Hindus and Muslims live together in harmony. They speak Tamil, Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati and other languages, but have no problem in communication.

Dharavi is composed of almost 100 distinct neighborhoods that form a mosaic of regional, linguistic, religious, caste and class identities. Its largest communities are Tamil and Maharashtrian, each comprising about a third of the population.

What do these people do for a living?

Dharavi is a cauldron bubbling with enterprise. It has a never-say-die attitude. The area has many small industries. There is a printing press in almost every other building.

Anyone can find a job and an accommodation in this place. We have noticed migrants from different states in India finding jobs here. They live, work and eat in the same place.

Availability of jobs and cheap rent make Dharavi a mega-hub of micro enterprise. The smart ones come up in life. The businessman is blind to the toll on human life. He is not bothered how others live or work. The businessmen are the rich. But, the majority are the middle class.

Why is it said that Dharavi feeds the Mumbai underworld? Have you faced any problem?

I too have heard that Dharavi feeds the Mumbai underworld, but I have not faced any problem so far. It is also said that many of the small industries here are owned by rich business people. Prostitution also is a thriving business here, but I have no proper idea about it nor do I work with those involved. I reach out only to the women of St. Anthony’s Church, Dharavi.

What do you do in the parish?

Initially the parish posed a big challenge for us. We found the Catholics, most of them Tamil, divided along the caste lines. We followed St. Paul’s advice and tried to reach out to all sections of the people. We mingled with everyone.

For the five initial years, we used SCC as a platform to reach out to the people. We were assigned to six communities, and on Saturdays we visit one of them from 4 to 8 in the evening. We reflect on the theme of that month, given by either the parish priest or the parish team. At the meeting, we read the Gospel and share our reflections. People participate in these meetings irrespective of their caste or religions. This has helped us to get to know everyone closely.

We also use PowerPoint presentations and clippings from popular films to explain and emphasise the theme. After the meeting we visit families, talk with their members and inquire about their wellbeing. A few times we have helped financially some who were in dire need.

We pray together in the families. We stress the importance of regular family prayer and Bible reading to strengthen the family life. We reassure them of our prayers and support.

We have managed to convince people that the caste system among them hinders their unity and common worship. We realized that our main mission was to unite the warring groups. We have achieved a lot in these past eight years. However, we know we have to constantly assist them to maintain this unity.

What is the church’s role in those slums? When did the church enter Dharavi?

The church has been present in the Dharavi slums for the past 75 years, although initially the place had only a chapel. Now, it is recognized as a parish under the archdiocese of Bombay. It has more than 3,000 Catholics. The place also has some 1,000 Christians with their small prayer service halls in every nook and corner of Dharavi.

The church stands as a firm pillar of faith in an area dominated by underworld, prostitutes and gangs. It invites people to repent and come to join the people of God. The church stands as witness to forgiveness and unity. Above all, it wants to embrace all people with love and care.

What have you learned from the people here?

I have learned many things about life during the past eight years. The first lesson is to be contented with what I have. The people have taught me to be generous. I now know how to live with plenty as well as very little. I can now adjust to difficult situations and tough people. Dharavi has helped me appreciate many little things I used to ignore.

I have no difficulty in dealing with the Dharavi people, since they are friendly, simple and approachable. Most people are loving and caring. They get easily convinced and have no pretensions. Occasionally we meet some who are rough and tough. But I have not faced any difficulty or problems because I go to them in the Spirit of St. Paul who said, ‘I have become all to all in preaching Christ.’

Does your community support you? Do your companions understand your mission?

We two represent my congregation and the community, and so we get full support and understanding from the sisters. They also support us with their prayers. Each member of the community gets an hour and a half daily to spend with Jesus, before the Eucharist. This is the source of my strength.

My day begins at 4:30 a.m. After tending to the sick, I do my morning prayers and meditation before Mass. Then my day starts. My community members are aware of what I do, and there are times I share my experiences with them individually or in group. The Dharavi mission is part of our mission to spread the Good News through our publications and audiovisual productions.

How do you manage the two tasks, attending the sick sisters and the slum work?

Being a nurse, I do take care of my sisters who are sick and aging. Every Saturday evening I am at Dharavi to carry out the mission entrusted to me. When I am away someone looks after the sisters.

Do you have a message for the religious?

Whatever you do or say, do it for the Lord, and miracles do happen. Do your best and leave the rest in the hands of God. The more you give, the more you receive. Always remember the Lord’s assurances: ‘My grace is sufficient for you,” and ‘Do not be afraid, I am with you always.’

With God all things are possible. Be positive in thinking and doing. Expect no reward for your works. If we follow these principles we will be happy and contented.

[Lissy Maruthanakuzhy is a member of the worldwide Congregation of the Daughters of St. Paul in India and a correspondent for Matters India. This article is part of an ongoing collaboration between GSR and Matters India, a news portal that focus on religious and social issues.]