Posted March 21, 2012 by in Adventure

The Heart of the Slums

The scruffy, young beggar banged on my window. “Sir, money! Money!” I tried to ignore him but it was futile; we were stuck in Mumbai’s gridlock traffic, and he wasn’t going anywhere. “Sir!” I had no small bills. I considered appeasing him with some of my sanitizer gel, but realized that his festering hands would probably burst into flames.

The traffic moved and our cab rattled past him, past crumbling cement buildings, past goats wandering through the honking traffic, past garbage piled up on the busy sidewalks like small snow banks. We were driving through a nightmare, open-air dumpster-ghetto that made Compton look like Versailles.

Suddenly the cab pulled over and parked next to a wooden footbridge spanning Mahim Creek (not actually a creek, but a flowing septic tank of garbage and human waste). On the other side of the bridge, the notorious Dharavi slums rose up as far as the eye could see: a jostling sprawl of corrugated tin shanty houses, purportedly the largest slum in all of Asia.

“Okay, get out,” barked our Gujurati cab driver, and Lee, Zuzana, Gary, and I nervously opened our doors.  “I come back here. Thirty minutes, okay!” He stammered, before peeling away, leaving us standing ankle-deep in garbage, next to the river of poo, looking confused, and terrified, and very out of place. I wanted to strangle the deluded Australian girl who sent us here.

“It’s amazing, you have to go,” she prattled, “It’s like you’re in a movie!”

The movie she was referring to is 8 Mile.

She had visited Dharavi on a guided tour—an expensive guided tour, which I told her I couldn’t afford. “Suit yourself,” she said, “But you haven’t seen Mumbai until you’ve been to Dharavi.”

And considering that 55% of Mumbai lives in urban slums, her statement had some truth. Dharavi is the largest of Mumbai’s slums (and the setting for Slumdog Millionaire), with over one million impoverished Indians crammed into one square-mile of abutting shanty homes, litter, mice, deplorable sanitation, and diseases.

I never even considering going, until Gary, Lee, and Zuzana (whom I had befriended at the Bollywood movie set) invited me to join them on their ‘self-guided tour.’

“We’re just gonna take a cab there and see what’s up,” mentioned Gary, as if it were as simple as stopping by the grocery store. I knew this was a patently shady idea, but I was intrigued, so I decided to come along. In my mind, exploring Dharavi without a guide would be fascinating and adventurous.

Crossing the footbridge over the fecal canyon of Mahim Creek, however, things started to seem a bit differently.

The bridge deposited us in a gloomy, claustrophobic labyrinth of alleyways, no more than three feet wide. High overhead, a thin slit of Bombay sky squeezed between the rooftops, slanting dusty shafts of light into the otherwise dark and dismal lanes. On either side were rows of rudimentary, abutting shanties, and between their doors were grimy ladders that led up to an upper-level of even more shanties. We timidly entered the slum, as open doorways revealed squalid, one-room homes. In each of the homes, heads turned and faces stared back at us, watching us inquisitively as we moved. We passed a man leaning in his doorway, brushing his teeth with a stick. We saw a naked little girl lying at her mother’s feet, as the mother stood over a steaming pot of fragrant dahl, which wafted out into the alleyway, mingling in the air with the odors of incense and urine.

I was in Slumdog Millionaire. I held my breath, waiting for Dev Patel and his gang of infantile thugs to come racing around the corner, to rob us of our wallets and passports while M.I.A. blares from nowhere.

Instead, we emerged into a bustling, breezy square, packed with sizzling street stalls, women carrying bags, and children roughhousing in blue school uniforms. Colorful sails of laundry flapped overhead, shading old men as they sat on battered wooden boxes, sipping chai in a makeshift street café. As we made our way through the crowds, everyone seemed to stop and stare. A group of teenagers waved.

We were about to head back into the alleyways when we heard a woman scream, “Sir! Sir! Chai!” A smiling group of women in colorful saris sat on the street in front of a run-down shanty, holding plastic trays of garbage on their laps. Next to them, a mattress had been laid out on the sidewalk, upon which a sickly-looking grandmother slept. “Masala chai! Come, sir!” grinned the biggest, most boisterous woman, brandishing a steaming, chipped teacup. It was for me.

Zuzana shot me a look of uncertainty. The woman waved the teacup.

I looked back to Zuzana, then the tea cup, then Zuzana, and then with a shrug, I marched over to the women and plopped down beside them, to a fanfare of claps and salutations. As my travel companions followed suit, two of the older women sprang into action, pouring hot cups of chai and placing down tiny wooden stools for us, demonstrating the hospitality one always receives when entering an Indian home—even when that home is made of corrugated tin.

Hello, friends!” belted the big woman, grinning from ear to ear. A crowd slowly formed around us, as neighbors and passersby jostled to behold us drinking tea.

“Hello, friends,” we chuckled back.

“How are you!” she boomed.

“I’m good, how are you?” I replied.

At which point she smiled and nodded, signaling that she had reached the extent of her English.

I then switched to Hindi (to shrieks of surprise and delight from the crowd), and after telling them about our countries, and how much we’ve enjoyed India, my barbaric vocabulary hit an endpoint, and the conversation descended into wild gesticulations and peels of laughter. The big woman’s name was Khushi. And from what we could gather, she loves movies from “Amrika,”  Barack Obama, and screaming before each laugh. She has lived in Dharavi her whole life.

Chai flowed, and people occasionally stopped to shout “Hello, hi!” The women laughed as I rolled up my sleeves and plunged my hands into their garbage trays, helping them sift out pieces of metal, which they would sell to recycling groups for extra money.

It wasn’t until Zuzana cried “The cab!” that we realized how much time had passed, and that we desperately needed to go. We hastily said goodbye to the women, and thanked them for the tea, before hands shot out at us from every angle, and the crowd proffered a chorus of Goodbyes and Nice-to-meet-yous. “See you soon?!” shouted one of them.

Then two young boys tugged at my pant leg. “Uncle! Uncle!” they shouted, “Photo?” I lifted my camera, and the boys proceeded to strike an outlandish pose. Suddenly more children appeared, crawling out of the woodwork. A girl ran into the frame, giggling as she spun her younger brother in her arms. A shanty door flew open behind me, as a little boy ran out, followed by the low pitch of a television inside: a woman’s voice, singing in Hindi, accompanied by the exultant rhythm of sitar and tablas, which floated on the afternoon breeze.

Next it was even more goodbyes, with some people noticeably coming back for seconds, and I checked my watch before hustling into the square; past the waving teenagers, past the old men drinking chai on wooden boxes, and into the honeycomb of doors and dusty alleyways, which no longer seemed so miserable and depressing. Sure, Dharavi is filthy and poor, and its people are all in the shit—but I couldn’t help but admire their encouraging warmth and camaraderie, that they’re all in it together.

I followed Lee, Gary, and Zuzana up onto the footbridge, shielding our eyes as we ran into the blinding afternoon sun. Across the river of diarrhea, amid the concrete, and glass, and bustling traffic of Mumbai, our cab driver sat parked by the side of the road, patiently waiting to take us home.


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For another tale of inspiring humanity and terrible, horrible judgement, check out the Pakistan adventure, “Kidnapped in Alipur

For more big-hearted Indians being wacky and eccentric, delve into the fascinating subculture of “Laughing Yoga in Calcutta

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