Tag Archives: Dharavi

Mumbai — Dharavi

Image00006 Dharavi

“Slum tourism is a polarizing subject,” concludes the Lonely Planet* sidebar on Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai (and, reportedly, Asia).  And this is true: I met many travelers who rattle off Dharavi as just another bullet point on their Mumbai itinerary, while I met others who, on hearing the name, frowned and said, “I don’t like slum tourism.”

I do understand the squeamishness.  “Slum tourism” conjures up the image of a busload of fat white tourists trundling through Third World shantytowns, cameras poised, ready to capture a sighting of the rare and elusive Impoverished Child trundling through the gutter in rags.  Cringe.

On the other hand, what’s the alternative?  Should rich people then avoid seeing where poor people live — avert their eyes and stay away?  No, I don’t really believe in that.  Besides, would I feel weird if a limo pulled up to my old house in the not-so-shiny neighborhood of Petworth and a few well-dressed people started taking pictures?  Not really.  I’d just be curious what the story was.

Besides, my bottom line is that I like to explore and see new things.  I wanted to see Dharavi, so I went there.  I didn’t spend a lot of time fretting about the moral implications of going to say hello to Mumbaikers who live in a slum.

Dharavi is not like any other slum I’ve seen before.  It’s much cleaner and more organized, with central roads, food shops, and fruit stalls just like most other Indian towns.  It’s more like a city within a city, a cluster of ramshackle buildings on unplanned streets that are nonetheless not significantly dirtier than your average street in, say, Old Delhi.  The word “slum” conjures up images of raw sewage plopping into rivers, and we did indeed see that on our way into Dharavi.

But “slum” rarely invokes the image of factories, industry, and massive economic output.  That, however, is what we saw much more of in Dharavi.

Image00009 Dharavi sewing

It turns out Dharavi is packed with mini-factories working on a huge range of industries: recycling old candy wrappers, stitching jean pockets, and baking pastries.  Economic activity in Dharavi is estimated to turn around as much as $650 million a year.

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One of my new friends on a street in Dharavi

One of my new friends on a street in Dharavi

And how did Dharavians themselves feel about us?  Well, they were definitely curious about us — lots of staring as we walked by.  But again, not more staring than you’d experience in Old Delhi (or New Delhi, or Agra, or Kolkata, or virtually anywhere in north India).  Faces sometimes broke into smiles when I greeted them with “Namaste”; the smiles turned into laughs of surprise if I went further with, “Aap log kaise hain?” (“How are all of you doing?”)  If no one was exactly rolling out the welcome mat — because they were too busy working — no one was giving us the stink eye and telling us to get lost.

The strangest thing we saw in Dharavi, actually, was on Blue Dog Street.  This name is not a euphemism.  There are two dogs who live on this street who have been at the wrong end of a dye plant somewhere in Dharavi.

Image00016 blue dogs Image00018 blue dog

Super bizarre.

I only saw a tiny corner of Dharavi — over 1 million people live there — so I can’t say what life is like for everyone who lives there.  The people I saw, however, mostly seemed to be your average lower-middle class Indians: hard-working, busy at their jobs, enjoy tea breaks and paan (chewing tobacco), etc.

On the other hand.  I don’t want to glorify or romanticize poverty.  Everyone lives and works in very tiny spaces and the hygiene — hundreds of people reportedly sometimes share a single toilet — is appalling.  I started reading a book written by some rich Indians called Poor Little Rich Slum that I had to put down because it was just endless pablum about how wonderful and hard-working people in Dharavi are, and how their lack of material possessions didn’t prevent them from being rich in spirit, blah blah blah.  I notice the authors didn’t rush to quit their lucrative office jobs to move to a Dharavi shanty.  I’ve met a lot of poor people in India, and while it’s true that a person really doesn’t need about half of what your average American owns, most poor people live about one illness or natural disaster away from total bankruptcy.  I haven’t met anyone yet who enjoys that feeling.

* Fellow backpackers: I am sorry to report that the most recent edition of the Lonely Planet guide to India, which is so popular that travelers of all nationalities jokingly refer to it as “the Bible,” has let me down on multiple occasions.  For example, it cheerfully directed me to a hotel in Kolkata that was so infested with bedbugs that after leaving, I spent an hour picking them out of my luggage.  Shudder.  Use Trip Advisor.

Mumbai: A Photo Tour

Let’s all be honest here: I like cities.  I like nature, too, and there was much I loved about living at JV — the birdsong every morning at sunrise, the flitting butterflies, the delicious fresh mangoes, the clean air, the lush greenery.

But on the requisite “What Did You Learn” list from this summer’s adventure, “I am definitely a city person” is near the top.  I could lie and tell you that when I got to Mumbai, I was bothered by the hustle and bustle and honking and hawking and the one million insane drivers all attempting to kill you every time you crossed the street.

But I’d be lying.

Image00041 mumbai chowpatty

 

I loved Mumbai.  I loved that it was bustling.  I loved the hustle.  I loved that there were restaurants everywhere, from cheap Indian cafeterias to Lebanese eateries to a shiny doughnut bakery.  I loved Colaba, the tourist end of town, packed with vendors selling fruits, jewelry, glasses, key chains, etc. etc. etc.  I loved going to the beach.  I loved that there was a lot to see, do, eat, explore.   I loved that you could walk along Marine Drive for hours buying snacks and watching Indians hold hands, walk dogs, scold children.  I loved how easy it was to meet other foreigners.

And, yes, I loved that it was clean (relatively), that there was electricity (continuously), and that I could go to a cafe and drink a beer and eat chocolate cake.

If this makes a hopeless expat, then sue me.

And besides, I did go to a Bollywood movie while I was there.

An overview in photos:

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The enormous Taj Mahal hotel, one of the fanciest (and most expensive) hotels in India.  Ever since the Mumbai bombings a few years ago, security here (and frankly throughout Mumbai) is tight is a drum.

Image00007 Dharavi garbageThe sewers dumping into a river behind Mumbai’s Dharavi slum — the largest slum in Asia, occupied by about 1 million people.  In spite of the fact that Slumdog Millionaire was partly filed here, Dharavi was actually defied a lot of slum stereotypes.  It was filled, for example, with small micro-factories — Dharavi has a GDP of something like $650 million.  It was very interesting.

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Mumbai’s Victoria Terminal — its enormous central train station, a frosted Victorian era wedding cake of a building.  Many buildings in central Mumbai look like they were cut and pasted into the subtropical surroundings straight from London.  …mostly because they more or less were.Image00028 tank

 

 

Banganga Tank, an artificial lake/holy bathing pool ringed by temples and filled with koi and ducks.  A beautiful oasis of calm in the middle of Mumbai’s posh Malabar Hill.

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One of my new Swiss friends, Denise, and I outside the movie theater where we saw Bhaag Milkha Bhaag — an experience that proved you don’t have to know the language to follow the plot of most movies.


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A view of the Taj hotel alongside the overwrought Gateway to India, also built during the British Raj.

Image00060 elephanta guideOur guide at Elephanta Island, about an hour’s boat ride away from Mumbai, where we saw a cave full of Shiva carvings dating from 800 AD.

Image00083 mumbai fruit vendor

A Mumbai fruit vendor at night.  There were some very good selections.  I ate my first custard apple in Mumbai.  Really delicious.  Sweet, soft, melts in your mouth.

Image00078 leopold's

The infamous Leopold’s.  I know you’re supposed to hate Leopold’s, but I loved that place too.  You can order draft beer by the pitcher and have French chocolate cake that could actually be French.  Plus it was a great place to meet other foreigners.  (For those of you who read about Leopold’s in Shantaram, they were actually selling copies of Shantram there.  I heard a rumor the author himself stops in on weekends occasionally, when he’s in the country.)

Image00082 mumbai streetMumbai at night.  Shiny, tropical, humid, busy.  All elements of the spell Mumbai cast over me.