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Blessings and Challenges in a Chennai Slum

July 7, 2009

My occasional visits to a slum near Egmore railway station in Chennai give me ideas for settings and characters in the second part of my novel. On Sunday afternoon, I travelled to Chennai to confirm some impressions gathered during my previous visit there last weekend.

Last week, I spoke with a man named Ganesh who lives in a small, one-room home with his wife, two children and his mother. Ganesh, his wife and his mother cook meals that they sell to earn money. Ganesh’s brother lives with his family in a one-room home next door. Last week, Ganesh asked me to give him anything to help improve his business. I saw that he was using a rather small knife to clean and cut fish, and to cut beef, so I thought he might appreciate a larger kitchen knife.

Upon arriving in Chennai, I went directly to a store that sells kitchenware and purchased an 8-inch chef’s knife. Next, I proceeded to Egmore to search for a lodge to spend the night. Unfortunately, Bachelor Mansion, where I stayed last week, was full, as were many of the other lodges in the area. With the help of a local man who was determined to assist me, I got a room in JMJ Guest House. The guest house is run by a man from Kerala. From the amount of Christian iconography decorating the walls, I immediately guessed that JMJ stands for Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The manager told me that I was correct. My room at JMJ Guest House, at $8/night, was exceptionally clean and comfortable.

Monday morning, I woke at 6:30 and arrived at the slum before 7. Ganesh was still inside his home, but many women were already outside, cleaning cooking vessels and preparing breakfast items that they sell for income.

While I was waiting for Ganesh, a group of schoolgirls passed, escorted by two nuns, Sister Expedith and Sister Hycinth. The sisters stopped when I greeted them and we started talking. With one other nun, named Sister Rose, they run the Bishop Aelen Home for Children. The home accommodates forty five girls who come from poor families around the slum. The sisters invited me to visit the home, just three doors down the lane.

Sister Hycinth with girls at Bishop Aelen Home

Sister Hycinth with girls at Bishop Aelen Home

The home is severely crowded, but probably provides a far better environment for the girls than what they had before they moved there. Sister Hycinth explained that many of the girls had been living with their families on the platforms at Egmore railway station. The sisters provide the girls with a meal in the morning, and send them to school. The schools provide lunch. The sisters very kindly invited me to breakfast. While eating, we discussed the predicament of families in the slum. They confirmed my impression that the slum’s residents find it nearly impossible to move to better neighborhoods because of numerous barriers to upward mobility. I found this particularly disturbing because many of the people are clearly very industrious and entrepreneurial. Apparently, hard work isn’t enough to improve one’s life.

The Bishop Aelen Home for Children

The Bishop Aelen Home for Children

I expect that child welfare experts will argue that placing children in a group-home is not in the children’s best interest. But one must remember that many of these children are not orphans, and have not been given up for adoption. Their homeless parents live in the neighborhood. The girls have been taken into an environment that shelters them from dangers they are likely to face if living on the streets, while the home also places the girls in schools.

After breakfast, I thanked the sisters and returned to the home of Ganesh. He and his wife were cleaning fish while his mother was starting a fire. I presented the knife to Ganesh, and then asked him several questions about his life.

Ganesh cleaning fish with his wife and mother

Ganesh cleaning fish with his wife and mother

He told me that he was born in Chennai, and that his family is chronically indebted to local money lenders. One of the greatest obstacles to moving out of the slum is the steep security deposit demanded by landlords in Chennai. Ganesh finds it impossible to accumulate the $750-$1,000 advance asked by most landlords as a security deposit, in addition to the $40 – $60/month rent.

The homes of Ganesh's family and his brother's family

The homes of Ganesh's family and his brother's family

It’s awkward doing fieldwork in the slum, because the lanes are extensions of each family’s living room, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, all combined. Visitors are invading each family’s living space. But I’ve come to love visiting the neighborhood because the children wear such wonderful smiles, and are so charming when they wake up, step outside and start their day. And learning about the work of Sisters Hycinth, Expedith and Rose was an unexpected blessing. I wish that scumbags like Bernard Maddoff or Ramalinga Raju would pay off some of their bad karma by building a larger, nicer facility for the residents of the Bishop Aelen Home.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2009 2:47 am

    Brooks, so interesting! Did you get a sense how often the girls see their families? That is such a tough call in some ways. Removing the girls from the families must be emotionally hard for them all, but at the same time, what other factors are they up against? Being sold for vital $$ to feed the rest of the family? Or, as you said, the other dangers of living on the street, which I am sure are worse than I can imagine. And what about the opportunities being with the sisters offers? Food, healthier living conditions, an education? If the girls love there, why don’t they get more than one meal?

    How did Ganesh react to your gift of a knife? Hi situation sounds similar to the plight of indentured servants in this country a couple hundred years ago (working off a debt), but those contracts were overseen by the courts. What kind of interest do they pay, do you know?

    Sorry, lots of questions!! Keep writing!

    I wonder if you can visit the sisters again and see if they have info on where the girls go and what they do when they are old enough to leave them? Do you know?



    • Brooks Anderson permalink*
      July 7, 2009 9:14 am

      Hi Sara,

      I just printed and framed the photo of Sister Hycinth with the girls. I’ll take it to her and try to get answers to some of your questions. I also printed the pic of Ganesh with his wife and mother.

      Ganesh liked the knive, but it’s too big for cleaning fish. I think it’s more appropriate for cutting beef.

      I don’t have any reason to believe that the girls are sold to the Sisters for $$. But I do want to find out how often the girls get to see their parents after the girls move to the Home.


    • Brooks Anderson permalink*
      July 7, 2009 9:43 am

      Hi Sara,

      The Sisters keep the girls until 12th grade. If the girls score well in school, the Sisters said they try to get the girls admitted for nursing.

      The girls I met at the home were between 3rd grade and 8th grade.


  2. Dr.Karnam permalink
    July 7, 2009 6:39 am

    Wonderful to see someone writing about things that people have ignored often. Good work Brooks. I know the plight that Ganesh undergoes from the time he wakes up, its a hard world. The Nuns would be able to give more meals to the children if they were given more donations. They often stretch their purse’s to mend strings. Its all happening since a long long time, and the world is just getting smaller and smaller.
    Lovely writing Brooks.

  3. Wes Johnson permalink
    July 7, 2009 3:46 pm


    One of the many fascinating things about this article is the cruel economics of moving out of the slum. By my calculation, the security deposit requested by the landlords ranges up to 2500% of the monthly rent.

    It seems irrational for landlords to want that much security deposit, since anyone with that much cash could probably afford more rent. To put it another way, a landlord who requested a lower security deposit could probably demand much higher rent. Why the seemingly irrational behavior?

    Security deposits in the US are 100%-200% of the monthly rent. Why the disparity?

    My theories:

    1) Landlords face enourmous liabilities for the actions of their tenants, necessitating huge security deposits.

    2)The rent is held artificially low by law, but there is no restriction on security deposits so they are sky high. Landlords hope to keep their hands on as much of the deposit as possible since that is the only way to be profitable.

    3)Landlords charge what they have done traditionally and social pressure prevents landlords from rocking the boat, even though it would be profitable.

    4)The only reason security deposits in the US are not 2500% of rent is laws protecting tenants that limit security deposits.

    5) 2500% isn’t the security deposit for everyone, just the rate for folks coming out of the slums.

    5) Ganesh doesn’t know what he is talking about – he’s never really tried to rent a place out of the slums, just assumes or maybe has heard that security deposits are that high.

    What do you think?

    Great stuff, Brooks, I look forward to reading more.


    • Brooks Anderson permalink*
      July 8, 2009 1:47 am

      Hi Wes,

      Thanks for your comment and questions.

      Security deposits are outrageously high in India, and this is especially the case in a city like Chennai which has grown phenomenally over the past decade because of the increase in back office (call center) and software development activity.

      Real estate is a seller’s market. Land prices have skyrocketed beyond belief. A couple of years ago, somebody told me that Chennai needed to increase the number of new apartments by 400,000 that year alone to cope with the influx of new workers in the growing sectors.

      Another thing to keep in mind is that the pace of construction is incredibly slow because most people who know how to mix sand with cement left long ago for jobs in the Middle East, or Australia, or any other foreign destination. Construction of the Dubai Metro alone employed 30,000 people, many of whom are from India. India has been absolutely devastated by brain drain as well as by brawn drain.So construction can’t keep up with the demand for housing.

      Also keep in mind that construction here is pretty much still in the stone age. Very little is prefabricated. Almost everything has to be designed and produced from scratch.

      After watching how quickly casinos were constructed in Atlantic City, I can’t get over the pace of construction in India. It takes so many years to construct a medium sized building here. I remember watching the construction of the Golden Nugget from the window of my Latin classroom in ACHS. I think the place opened for business a week after they slapped the windows on. In India, a building that large wouldn’t have been completed within my lifetime.

      There has been talk that India will import construction workers from the Philippines or China.

      I hope this has helped to demystify the situation a bit.


      • Arun permalink
        July 20, 2009 12:52 pm

        Hi Brooks
        For a legal house or apartment the security deposit is ten months rent. It is high compared to other cities in India ( In Delhi its 2 months) but everything is documented and the house owner returns the base amount ( but not the interest) on vacating the rented house.
        Taking 10% as interest rates effectively your paying 10% extra over monthly rental rate!!!
        Also i disagree on mode of construction. Yes it is still labour oriented( since cost of labour is cheaper compared to automation) but buildings are completed in a years time( which is pretty decent time).
        And the chennai real estate rates have crashed due to recession. In most urban cities including Chennai prices have dropped 30% year on year. (And yes indeed is also facing a mortage crisis but as not a bad one as compared to US).
        Construction workers are now primarily from BIMARU states of North India( cheap uneducated labor) and not from China(except for some gas pipeline projects due to a skill shortage).

  4. Brooks permalink*
    July 21, 2009 4:41 am

    Hi Arun,

    I’m not aware of any building that has been constructed in a year.

    My comment about the slow pace of construction is based largely on the time it takes to construct hotels in Pondicherry. Many hotels are under construction for several years, with very little evidence of activity on the construction sites on a day to day basis.

    Even then, after many years of work, the quality of the output is often dismal. For example, you can read on review sites the comments of visitors who have stayed at the Promenade hotel in Pondy. The building was under construction for many years, but when it opened the quality of the plumbing in the hotel’s bathrooms was terrible.

    Construction here is a striking contrast to the construction that I’ve seen in Manila, or Dubai. In Manila, workers filled construction sites, and there was a great deal of evidence of progress on a daily basis. The same goes for Dubai.

    I’ve worked a great deal with construction here. Many of the construction labourers that I got were entirely unqualified. One “mason” that my contractor hired is a good example. I told him to produce cantilevers, and gave him the design specifications. When I checked on his work, he was using a mix of concrete made of one part sand, one part stone aggregate and eight parts cement powder. He had absolutely no idea how proper concrete should be made.

    Of the several masons I’ve worked with, only one had any real knowledge of how to properly use the materials. In other words, only one was competent.

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