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Musings

India Grit: Dharavi Slum

Megan Harrod

I've been asked to share stories of India grit. The sounds, smells, pace...real India. That must mean my stories are too smiley and idyllic and not what you'd quite expect, huh?! Well, I'm smiley and idyllic and not what you'd expect, so it kind of goes with the territory, right?! Okay, you asked for it, so here we are. But before I begin, let me preface this all by saying this is India through MY eyes. Everyone experiences places in their own unique way, and I think - though there are consistent experiences among travelers - much of what we experience depends on what kind of energy we approach situations with.  

The Plastic Yard at the Dharavi Slum

The Plastic Yard at the Dharavi Slum

So, let's first travel to the Dharavi slum: Asia's largest slum, and home to a staggering 1 million residents and thousands of industries. The slum - with an industrial side and a residential side - lives on a plot of land 1/2 the size of New York City's Central Park. Dharavi is 20x more dense than Mumbai, and Mumbai is pretty dense, folks. 50% of the Mumbai population lives in slums. The average household houses 4.5 people and 48% of the houses are less than 10m2.

In this bustling industrial hub, industries such as plastic and aluminum recycling, leather, pottery, garments, baking, and more account for an annual turnover of over 665 million USD. It also happens to be one of the most fascinating places I've ever encountered. 

80% of Mumbai's plastic recycling goes to Dharavi. Photo Credit: Reality Tours

80% of Mumbai's plastic recycling goes to Dharavi. Photo Credit: Reality Tours

I visited Dharavi with an organization called Reality Tours, whose goal is to break down stereotypes through sharing the stories of the people and allowing tourists to see the reality for themselves. You see, the movie "Slumdog Millionaire" was based on life in the Dharavi slum, though the people of Dharavi were not too stoked about the way their home was depicted. These are a proud, industrious people. There is zero begging and zero prostitution in this slum. And these people - like most Indians I've encountered - are damn hard workers. Impressively so. They make us Americans look like spoon-fed, AC-consuming, desk-bound whiny little bitches. I'm sorry, it's the truth. You asked for grit. Grit you will receive. Quite often when you travel you realize what's wrong with your own culture, rather than the reverse. That's reality. 

Cardboard recycling in Dharavi. PC: Reality Tours

Cardboard recycling in Dharavi. PC: Reality Tours

I don't feel sorry for the people of Dharavi. Rather, I'm fascinated by them and admiring of them. They don't want you to feel sorry for them. Sure, there might be better living and working conditions from the perspective of a westerner, but this is their way of life and the the last thing they need is for westerners to tell them they'd be more civilized people if they shit in a toilet. To them, we might be more civilized people if we spent more time with our families and less time pent up in track housing cubicle land, spending all of our money on fancy cars and other new toys, right?! Perspective. 

 

All in a Dharavi day's work. PC: Reality Tours

All in a Dharavi day's work. PC: Reality Tours

About 50% of the residential population of Dharavi is Muslim, 40-45% Hindu and 5-10% a mashup of other. For the most part, Muslims and Hindus live in peace. That's not to say there haven't been issues, because there have. And, if a Hindu boy meets a Muslim girl, you better believe there would be a war waged between the families. That's the reality. 

When I returned to Mumbai, monsoon season had just begin, so Arushi had fully prepared me for the wrath of the monsoon in the Dharavi slum. Jelly shoes, umbrella, raincover for my backpack...I was as ready as I could be. In order to maintain the trust and privacy of the people of Dharavi, photography was not allowed, apart from on the rooftop, otherwise I'd have grabbed GoPro footage of the monsoon craziness...because when it started, there was no end in sight. It started just as we entered the ultra-narrow alleyways.

The narrow alleyways of Dharavi. If you recall, Slumdog Millionaire was filmed in these allies.  PC: Reality Tours

The narrow alleyways of Dharavi. If you recall, Slumdog Millionaire was filmed in these allies.  PC: Reality Tours

Mothers in their ornate saris smiled as we passed by, drenched, probably thinking we were crazy white people to be touring the slum in the monsoon. Children seemed unaware of their surroundings - not knowing a life any different - as they shrieked with excitement when their friends dumped water over their shampooed heads. And they ALL wanted to share the English they knew with us yelling "HI!" to us while giving us high fives and giggling contagiously. I see India through the children's eyes. It's bright and full of hope. As we rounded a corner, a little girl grabbed my arm and was in awe of my mehndi, smiling wide and giving me praise. A tuk-tuk driver told me yesterday mehndi is like the passport to India. I like that. 

 

The children of Dharavi. PC: Reality Tours

The children of Dharavi. PC: Reality Tours

We were nearly finished with the tour - good thing, too, because the New York couple was growing quite impatient - when we approached a section with water up to our knees. The monsoon has a way of flooding the streets of Mumbai, but you can imagine how messy it gets when it rains this much in a slum. With my jelly shoes, I wasn't entirely bothered by the rain, though can't say the same for "The Big Apple" - as we'll lovingly refer to the NYC chick. Just before that, as we waited under an awning, a little boy dropped his pants and went to the bathroom in an open space full of trash, then wiped his butt with water from a bottle, and his hand. "The Big Apple" says in disgust, "OH MY GAWD! Did he just shit?! He's not even bothered that we're here?!" Bahahaha. I laughed out loud. No, woman, he does not give a shit - pun intended - that you're there. This is his life. With 700 public restrooms for 1 million people, this is his reality. 

Dharavi community. PC: Reality Tours

Dharavi community. PC: Reality Tours

Reality Tours works with Reality Gives to provide educational opportunities to the children of the slum. Many of the workers take the train in from other villages to work in Dharavi, or sleep in their factory. Residents of the slum own their properties and have fought against the government to come in and set up high-rise housing, fearing it will break their community ties. The community is strong and fights together. They are proud. They are hard-working. Not quite what you would have expected, perhaps?! Traveling opens your eyes and heart. I recommend it, in all it's grit and glory.