The sewers of Mumbai

mosaic river

We often tell our kids that money doesn’t buy happiness, and then break a cold sweat as we open the Visa bill.

I was thinking about parenting, money and happiness when a story I heard came back to my mind.  I was at a social gathering where I ran into a man, a colleague of my wife’s, and he had this strange energy.  This was the sort of guy you see periodically, make small talk and move on, but he spontaneously started to tell me about a recent trip to India—it was the opposite of small talk, he had been transformed and clearly had to tell me about it.

He had been in Mumbai, and of course was struck by the vastness of the poverty.  Being somewhat intrepid and adventuresome, he had arranged for a more extreme taste of the legendary deprivation that existed below the streets.  Someone who knew someone took him to meet a family of beggars that literally lived in the sewer.  The American was lead into the stinking sewers at night (the beggars worked the streets by day), snaking his way through the labyrinth until they came to a family gathered around a fire.  They were eating a dinner of the scraps of food they had found discarded on the streets.  There were children and their parents, a family who had nothing to do with reading, or school—only with survival on a day-by-day basis. 

It was unspeakably bleak, and yet my friend was thunderstruck by something:  this family appeared happy.  They welcomed him, and through a translator spoke with him.  He gave them some money, but they didn’t seem terribly focused on the money, nor were they apparently distraught about their situation.  They were laughing, telling stories and living life, much the way you might expect an idealized happy family living in comfortable circumstances to behave.

As this man relayed his experience I could see that his eyes were strangely hollow, sort of the way I imagined Kurtz’s eyes at the end of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” as he mumbles, “the horror, the horror”—only my shaken acquaintance’s shock was at, “the happiness, the happiness.”  He was shaken to the very core of his being and he said as much.  He felt that he couldn’t go back to his life as it had been; he felt both acutely aware of how much he had, and how much many of those around him had… and also about how much less happy he felt than this family in the sewer of Mumbai.  His paradigm for what makes for a good life, and what for a dreadful life had been blown apart.

Eventually he re-acclimated to life in Los Angeles and did return to working and living his own life, but that raw and ripped-open moment stayed with me—make of it what we like.


One dilemma we face as parents is how to find a balance between giving everything we can to our kids and at the same time not spoiling them.  While it requires the experience of not having in order to fully appreciate having, we are generally loath to deny our children things in order to heighten their appreciation for the gifts that have been dropped in their laps.

When money is tight, we tend to feel bad that our kids can’t have everything other kids get, from electronics to trips; and, conversely, in families where there is a lot of money, it’s often time that is in scarce supply with kids sometimes being raised more by nannies than parents.  Sometimes this leads to guilt-driven dispensation of cash and gifts that are soon hollow and merely expected, leaving them with little appreciation for the things others might envy, and hobbling them from self-motivation to earn, achieve or contribute.

Another wrinkle on this is parents with plenty, who still have a poverty or scarcity mentality (maybe passed on down to them from depression era thinking in their own parents, or from simply feeling insecure in love and thus placing too much trust in money). 

Given that my first line of assistance with regard to kids is to support their parents to feel secure and happy, it serves us to look at our own attitudes and feelings about money as a way to get our own heads and hearts in order, so that we might represent a healthy example to our children.

While most people, no matter how much they have (at least in America), seem to be fairly preoccupied with money; meanwhile true happiness seems in rather short supply.  Perhaps we might carefully consider whether the missing ingredient from our happiness, or that of our children, really has much to do with money, or whether it is our attitude of worry, insecurity and deprivation that blocks a better experience?

I was surprised to learn that a family living in a sewer could appear happy, but if that is possible then I suggest that we dedicate today to gratitude for how much we have (rather than bemoaning what we might think we are missing)—and to place this gratitude in the honor and service of all our collective children, from our own communities to those all across our fast shrinking world.

Namaste, Bruce


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2 Responses to “The sewers of Mumbai”

  1. BRIAN Says:

    Wow. Incredibly powerful story (and an excellent analysis of it from a parenting point-of-view). Thank you SO MUCH for sharing this. It really puts things in perspective. I can’t wait to share this blog post with my wife! Again, thanks!

  2. Must read | Raleigh Daddy 3.0 Says:

    […] story is entitled The Sewars of Mumbai and I hope you will take a minute to check it out. This is the most powerful tale I’ve read […]

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