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It is in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro that one can find heart, song, soul and poetry

I had never been to the southern hemisphere before. So, when I was invited to speak at a colloquium titled ‘Modes of Being South: Territorialities, Affects, Powers’ in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I decided at once to go, although the flight from Bombay to Rio via Dubai, most of it over the Atlantic Ocean, would take close to 24 hours.

It was the first week of October. The weather in Rio was salubrious. On days when it did not rain, the warm sunshine felt good on the skin. I took part in the session called “Territories” with three other women writers, two from Brazil and one from Africa. I compared myself to a stray dog (a ubiquitous Indian image) who was territorial but who had no territory, as I wrote in English and wasn’t a married, heterosexual family man.

After the seminar, I decided to travel. If I had my way, I would have liked to see all of South America, including countries like Argentina, Chile, Colombo, Uruguay and Peru. I would at least have liked to journey all over Brazil, which is the continent’s largest country, and visit neighbouring Sau Paulo, the capital city. And of course the Amazon forest. But I had limited time and limited money. The best I could do, then, was to explore Rio de Janeiro itself.

Everyone who goes to Rio is told to see the statue of Christ atop a thickly forested mountain. One gets there on a mini train. Then there’s the Botanical Garden with a large variety of very rare trees, some of them brought to Brazil all the way from Portugal, and the imposing Sugar Loaf Mountain that can be seen from anywhere in the city. The cable car ride from the Sugar Loaf Mountain to an adjoining peak is said to afford one of the most breathtaking views in the world. And why not?

My touristic tastes, however, are perverse. About the first thing I noticed as we drove from the airport to my hotel in the heart of the city was the subversive graffiti on the walls and buildings. In Pune, I have been bending over backwards in my attempt to find a graffiti artist who can paint the outside of my apartment with startling images. And here, the city was full of scandalous graffiti. If only I could take some of those artists back home with me on the plane!

But what attracted me most about Rio de Janeiro were its favelas. These are shanties where the poor of the city live, and are comparable to our slums. Because it’s the poor who live in the favelas, (and they also happen to be Black), the favelas have come to be associated with crime. Before I left for Rio, well-meaning friends sent me You Tube videos that portrayed Brazil as a dangerous country where an outsider was sure to be attacked and robbed. Most of these videos were made by paranoid white American and British tourists who had a bad experience on the beach or the subway. “If you are attacked,” the videos warned travellers, “do not resist. Give the buggers all your valuables. Or else they may kill you.”

When I reached Rio, I took several solo walks on its most famous beach, the Copa Cabbana Beach. It is then that I realized that the You Tube videos were xenophobic and exaggerated. No one robbed me. If anything, the people were helpful, giving me detailed directions when I was lost. My friends had an answer to that as well: I was spared, they said, because I was darkskinned like the robbers. Had I been fairskinned, like the decent guys, they would have got me.

Friends in India apart, the xenophobia also extended to my Latin American hosts of European descent as well as to the other European participants at the colloquium. I was dissuaded from venturing out into the favelas. “You may not come back alive,” some of them, fond of black humour, joked. Almost no one at the gig was ready to join me on my visit. They justified their reluctance by facetiously arguing that they did not want to seem like prying, inquisitive foreigners out to exoticize the misery of the poor. The truth was that they were plain scared. Their resistance seemed racist to me.

To my dismay, Dr Alain Pascal Kaly, an African professor whom I met by chance at breakfast at the hotel one morning, sided with the Europeans. He too felt that it was foolish on my part to want to go to the favelas, as the inhabitants there were an angry lot prone to violence. He finally relented by advising me to avoid “the more notorious favelas” and opt for the “safer” ones instead.

It was on the last day of my 10-day stay in Rio that I managed to visit a favela, barely hours before I boarded my return flight to Bombay. The two writers on my panel, including the woman writer from Africa who now lives in Belgium, and the local Brazilian writer who had actually lived in a favela and had friends there, agreed to accompany me. We were the daring three. We took a taxi from our hotel to the favella. As we drove for nearly an hour, I saw the cityscape change from posh and affluent to squalid and shabby. We were clearly approaching Rio’s underbelly.

Most of Rio’s favelas are situated on hill slopes. Though there are narrow winding roads that go up the hill slopes, few taxi drivers are willing to drive on those risky roads. We thus got off our taxi and climbed a flight of stairs that led to the topmost house in the favela, where a slam poetry event was on. Unlike elsewhere in Rio, I saw dirt piled up in corners, and mangy stray dogs nibbling at the dirt. The smell of piss was everywhere. Without exception, the inhabitants of the favela were of African descent. They loitered outside their dimly lit houses where the sunlight did not reach. It is said that when slavery was abolished in the 19th century, the Africans were left to fend for themselves with no state support. That is how they landed in Rio. The favelas were the only cheap housing they could afford. Those who lived here were still better off than the scores of homeless people one saw on the pavements of Rio’s streets.

The scene instantly reminded me of Dharavi in Bombay and the Bronx in New York.

It was quite a strenuous climb through steep steps to the topmost house of the favela. I stopped more than once to catch my breath and take photographs. When we finally got to the top, we saw that the poetry reading was just beginning, and was being videographed. The participants were young Brazilian poets all in their twenties. The only language they spoke was Portuguese. The house belonged to one of them. Their hospitality was legion. Cans of beer were opened. I admired the black T-Shirt of a light-skinned young man that had the word ‘Favela’ printed on it. He, in turn, was impressed by my Che Guevara T-Shirt, picked up in Goa, another Portuguese colony. He asked me if I wore the T-shirt to the show on purpose.

I was fascinated by the recitation of the poets, as well as by the energy of the place. These were young people who were unperturbed by the fact that they lived in a favela and did not know English. The gusto with which the poets spoke, the guttural sounds of Portuguese aiding them, was infectious. I found myself jotting down notes for a poem of my own:

You are Dharavi
And the Bronx rolled into one.
Like me, you love Blacks.

They told me I’d die,
Die, if I visited you.
Piss off, I told them.

I took the metro,
Got off at the train station
Where you darkly stood.

Climbing the hill slopes
Like a foolhardy trekker,
I reached your hovels.

Blacks didn’t shoot me
Or rob me of my wealth. I
Fell in love with one.

The slam poetry fest was on in full swing, to the accompaniment of samba dancing, music, fairy lights and food when my wrist watch told me that it was time to leave, or I would miss my flight. I bid goodbye to everyone. I called a taxi this time to take me to my hotel all the way from the favela. I regretted having to abruptly leave the show. But my bigger regret was that I understood none of the poetry that was recited. Nor was there anyone there who could provide me with rough-andready translations of the poems.

What were the poems about? Were they about the anger that the poets felt at being cut off from mainstream Brazilian society? Were they about their pain at being typecast as criminals? Were they about the anxiety of these youngsters at having no future? Perhaps it was their feelings that the graffiti on the walls depicted. If so, it was more than just graffiti. It was the writing on the wall.

R Raj Rao is a Pune-based writer and professor