Dharavi, the ‘slum’ tour
At 8am the next morning, I met my very young guide and even younger driver – and we headed off on the tour. On the way we drove through Mumbai’s central red light district. This being the morning the only red lights to be seen were the traffic lights, and the colour of peoples eyes. Plump women combed their hair in doorways, many had a sallow, jaded look about them, a void and emptiness. I don’t know if this was pure imagination, putting my own thoughts and feelings on to others. But to me there is clearly some truth in Oscar Wilde’s picture of Dorian Gray. It was a strange every day scene, filled with normality, but at the same time filled with sadness. As we pulled away in the traffic, I saw a young quite beautiful woman in a faded red sari, singing softly and gently rocking a small infant. It was incredibly poignant. I couldn’t help but feel sad.
We then hit the much fabled but not yet experienced Mumbai rush hour traffic, and inched forward at a pace, slower than an unslimed snail. Seconds were ticked inexorably by, marked only by the non-stop tooting of vehicle horns. We stopped for a brief look at Mahalaxhmi Dohbi Ghat where over 5000 men and women wash Mumbai’s clothes (by hand) in mini-concrete troughs. Over a metric ton of clothes are apparently washed and air dried here every single day. A western film crew were shooting a movie scene down below and a gawping crowd had gathered to – well gawp. So we jumped back in the car and headed for Dharavi and the ‘slum’.
After driving for another 30 minutes we reached a highway bridge, and pulled over to the side of the road. I was desperate for a leak, so like a pindoo relieved myself at the roadside, hidden by a parked truck. Unknowingly (and inappropriately) filmed on my tour guides mobile phone, much to his amusement. I expect his video will be some kind of viral Internet hit and I will be seen world wide sometime soon.
Prior to my visit, my imagination had painted a picture of an impossibly crowded refugee camp scene. Ramshackle shacks covered in blue tarpaulin and corrugated tin roofs; barefoot children with malnourished distended bellies, and the associated human filth and squalor. What lay before me was undoubtedly crammed and crowded, and could certainly have been much cleaner. Granted it was poor, but the terraced buildings were two or three storeyed concrete affairs. The alley ways were narrow and winding. Their edges lined with open drainage pipes. But it was probably little different than a run down southern Italian medieval town. The level of dirt/hygiene was still Indian, as were the decrepit buildings.
It was noon so what light streamed through the snake eyed space between the roofs was harsh and cast short sharp shadows on faces and highlighted streams of dust motes in the stifled air. A photograph (which I wasn’t allowed to take) may have captured a menacing image, but (in general) the people were friendly, smiling when smiled at, and welcoming when greeted.
Rather than being a place of squalor and unwanted or enforced leisure, Dharavi was a hive of activity. Each building housed busy workers, boxes were stacked floor to ceiling. Thin, dark, sweaty hands busily bashed, carried, threaded, tweaked and twisted metal, plastic, cloth and throbbing machines. Machine heat wafted from all sides, the smell of industry, of plastic and metal filled the air. I glimpsed a mere slice of life in this multi-million strong unregulated populace, and it came as a surprise to find out that Dharavis annual GDP (the wealth it generated per year) is estimated at $650m, and that it and other slums housed over 50% of Mumbai’s population.
We journeyed deeper into the heart of Dharavi, the lanes narrowed until only one person could move comfortably through. We walked slowly in the dim light, and began to pass through purely residential areas. The terraced buildings were sometimes no more than six to eight feet wide on no more than two floors. The guide told me whole (occasionally extended) families lived in each, belongings and all. Just think, ten to eighteen people squeezed into a space two or three times larger than your average bathroom, and you’ll have a good ideas as to the living conditions. The total floor space could not have been more than 400-600 square feet. The residents would sleep, bathe, watch tv, cook, clean, expunge, exfoliate, screw and even die in these houses. No wonder Indians have a completely unique sense of personal space compared with us pampered westerners.
We continued walking until we reached a wide thoroughfare, basically a big shopping street. I bought some biscuits and a drink for the guide and myself, from a shop which would not have looked out of place in busy Southall. Before I got too comfortable with the scene, a huge Elephant lumbered past, sending scooters, cars, pedestrians to the very edges of the street. I marvelled at the sight, and stroked it’s tree trunk sized bristled legs as it passed. That wasn’t the only giant animal I passed, I’d been warned about giant rats the size of cats (but thankfully didn’t see any), instead I did see absolutely huge goats.
The ‘slum’ was a great leveller. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, ‘Untouchables’ and others lived cheek by jowel, which necessitated an incredible tolerance for ‘others’. Any trouble between groups here would end badly for all. So it was by and large a peaceful place. The one God people could agree on here was that of money, which like ‘Saurons mythical ring’ bound them all together.
A few twisted corners later the guide covered his mouth for the first time, and told me to hurry. I’d already seen a lot in Dharavi, and became concerned about the scene which lay ahead. Was it a giant cesspit or mortuary, what possible olfactory horrors lay in front? When we got there all I could see were piles of (freshly cut) goat pelts, these guys were either skinning or tanning. It smelt, but to my indelicate nostrils not significantly worse than elsewhere. I decided to have fun with my young guide, his eyes widened as I stopped in front of the recently shaggy coated goats, and plonked myself down to chat with the owner, happily munching on biscuits, whilst he remained at a safe 30 meter distance, urging me away with his eyes. When I finally rejoined, he had a new found respect for me!
He took me to meet his ‘girlfriend’. Which I quickly deduced meant a girl who would talk to him. She worked as a teacher in a local junior school. It was a typical scene, the shrieking and shouts as kids played. The chorus of hellos, hi’s, and shy looks when we arrived. These kids had sweet, round, and happy faces. Some energetically pulled at my shirt sleeves and tried to talk to me in Marathi (their native tongue). I imagined the conversation went something like this…
Child: “Hello, my name is Chetan, I am five and a half, this is my best friend Babu (tugs on shy child hiding behind him), we like kites, do you like kites? I like goats and kites, and sometimes my little brother. Why don’t you speak Marathi, are you stupid? Have you any sweets, let’s play outside, COME ON…”
[All the above at the breakneck chattering speed of your average 5 year old]
The young guide got a touch jealous and strange when I started chatting to the teachers, and so I decided to make a graceful exit. There was some kind of materials rubbish dump directly outside the school playground which we had to clamber over to get out. All the while children were frantically waving and yelling bye and ta-ta. One sweet tiny thing kept waving even when we’d turned the corner, (I know because I went back to check), waving back just for her, ahhh.
We took a quick tour of a fabric dyeing shack, having already seen a oil drum recycling shack, plastics recycling facility and temple deity wooden stand manufacturer. Amazingly I was told that 50-60% of all plastics are recycled in India. All of the recycled products here looked brand new, although the hazardous nature of some of the materials clearly relegated personal safety low on the scale, well below money. That was one thing I was impressed with, everything get’s reused, unlike the west very little is simply thrown away.
This marked the end of the Dharavi ‘slum’ tour. I’m uncomfortable using the word slum as it comes fully loaded with prejudice. Yes conditions weren’t so great, yes the (workers) were poor (the owners lived outside the slum, Marx would have had a fit). But these were peoples lives and livelihoods. They were much more than pejorative descriptive terms or stymied sclerotic attitudes. They deserved respect. They represented the best and worst of India. An economic powerhouse, able to lift the lowliest from poverty, showcasing tolerance, happiness, as well as back breakingly hard work in dangerous and dirty living/working conditions, squalor and exploitation. But this may just be the price of progress. Not for the country, but for the people. This is their choice, and it works for them. Who are we with our comfortable lives to look down upon them with pity or upturned noses?
When we returned to Colaba I mooched about the various museums and art galleries, putting on my best Hindi accent to pay the cheaper Indian entry fee, which I was thankful for as some of the galleries (such as the modern art one) had atrocious exhibits.
The next day I ventured to a bigger and more expensive mall (and still bought nothing), ate a 12″ subway and the best Italian gelato ice cream ever! In the afternoon I walked along marine drive for a long walk along the sea wall towards Chowpatty beach.
Marine drive is a great place to see the monetary magnetism of Mumbai. Stretched along the horizon are multi-million dollar towering glass offices, in between are two-three storey homes and shops, punctuated by olde worlde ex-British colonial buildings. Looking towards Malabar hill one can see the greenery of various parks and the hanging gardens, and glimpse into the expensive gated residences of the Parsi community.
At sunset I finally reached the legendary Chowpatty beach. I watched the sun sink slowly over the hazy sea, behind luxury condominiums. Long shadows cast over the sea breaches, silhouetted sun worshipping old couples sat together, but alone, with tenderness in their silence. Confused toddlers were dragged around in small toy cars for 5 rupees whilst cooing parents stood by. Teenage couples stole forbidden moments together in the gathering darkness. The occasional cries of puri sellers and beach masseurs piercing the background music of popular Hindi movies.
I started to feel lonely surrounded as I was by all these romancing couples, and herding extended families, so I left to snack on bhel puris at the beach corner. Giant bill boards advertised Indian ‘eatables’ of all persuasions. I bought a puri for 15 rupees, and happily munched whilst watching a particularly pasty faced ginger topped family from the North of England negotiate the restaurant touts, and take 10 minutes to order two dishes. I left the twigh-lit beach and crossed the busy six lane highway to buy another gelato ice cream (I spotted the store on the way in). It cost a fortune but it tasted like heaven.
I jumped on a number 25 bus, the traffic was heavy, cars and buses jostled for space amongst scooters, rickshaws, marauding marutis, ubiquitous asian cars and an ostentatious Bentley (filled with two men who looked like the ate fois grois morning, noon and night). In the distance I could hear the blast of trumpets, answered by Indian clarinets, with a syncopated background of dhol drums – altogether it was an upbeat cacophony. We edged closer, and I marvelled at a group of majestic white tents, draped in layers of silk, lit with violet, gold and pure white light. Plush red scarlet seats, within ivory white chairs in parallel lines filled the green ‘grass’. It was a tented Indian wedding! At the centre of this commotion an ashen faced groom atop a decorated white horse as it clip clopped slowly towards the entrance. Crazed relatives tried (badly) to out dance each other and declare their obvious superiority over the brides family. I only caught a glimpse, but I wished I’d got off that bus and gate crashed, I think I would have had the time of my life.
On my last day in Mumbai I paid a visit to Mani Bhavan. The building Mahatma Gandhi would stay in when visiting Mumbai, now converted into a museum. Photographs of Gandhi and historic events in both his and India’s young life lined the walls. I sat quietly in the small library to let an elderly American tour group pass through. A few nuggets of Gandhi wisdom were beautifully hand painted onto green frosted glass and surrounded the room.
Those who know me well know that there are three men whose writings and lives I admire; Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Albert Einstein. None of these men were perfect, nor did they pretend or try to be, and they led courageous lives. But most of all I admire them for their writing. In three or four sentences they captured life’s truths, and imparted priceless wisdom. Go ahead, google Einstein, Lincoln or Gandhi quotes and you’ll see what I mean.
The Gandhi museum sat on three floors, the second had photos chronicling Gandhi’s life, and included letters to Hitler and Eisenhower, which were heartfelt and astute. The letter to Eisenhower was particularly clever, respectfully requesting support for Indian Independence, and gently admonishing the president for the ‘Apartheid’ of coloureds which existed in the ‘free’ United States of America at that time. The third floor displayed Gandhi’s few meagre possessions. A food bowl, spoon, spinning wheel, and some writing paper. The next room had an engrossing if rather shabby childlike diorama of key events in India’s history. The partition exhibit was very moving. I purchased a book of writings, and left a large tip, proud to be of Indian heritage and full of heart.
Back in the guesthouse I got ready for my early morning flight. Mumbai is far from perfect, but it’s a living, breathing city of life, where a man with everything, and a man with nothing can share the same road, gaze into each others eyes, both thinking that the other is truly blessed.
In the early morning, I caught a cab for the 45 minute ride to the airport, ignoring the cabbies incessant chatter, I watched the sprawling metropolis roll by, wondering what lives were being lived. I liked Mumbai and was sad to be leaving. The need to move on had won out, and I was heading north, to the land of kings, to the city of Jaipur in Rajasthan.
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