I woke up feeling a lot better, which was just as well because we’d booked onto Reality Tours and Travel’s Dharavi Slum Tour, the same one Rob had been on and which I wrote about in a previous post.
We had breakfast delivered to our room, and walked to Churchgate Station to get a train to Mahim, a suburb of Mumbai where we’d meet the tour.
We met the guides and the rest of the tour at 10am. I don’t remember the names of the guides, but we have nicknames for them: one called himself “DJ Shaker” as in his spare time, he’s a DJ and has recorded the sounds of the slum - recycling, manufacturing etc - to mix his tracks that he plays in Dharavi bars at night. He had grown up in Dharavi, and was also the official tour photographer, as we weren’t allowed to take photographs. He was originally from Tamil Nadu!
The other’s name began with “A”, but when I first asked him his name, he said “my name is Khan, I am not a terrorist” and burst out laughing; apparently it’s a line from a film…
The tour split into two; we had My Name Is… as our guid, and were with a group of American guys who worked for a software company and came to Pune on business quite often; they’d decided to spend a few extra days in Mumbai. My Name Is firstly stood with us on a railway bridge overlooking Dharavi and told us about the slum.
The word “slum”, despite its endless negative connotations, simply refers to any houses built on government land. The government has a rule that any structures built after 1985 on this land are illegal and theoretically have the power to turf people off at any time. But thanks to police corruption, they’ll often happily receive bakshish from illegal landlords rather than follow the rules themselves.
My Name Is… told us that “Slumdog Millionaire” was filmed in Dharavi and inf act one of the reasons that Reality Tours and Travel started the tour was a response to the negative, unrealistic image of the slum presented in the film. They thought that it didn’t show the bonhomie, community feel and hard work that really goes on there and will only exacerbate views of India abroad. It seemed like a perfect business idea to exploit people’s interest and educated them about the reality of life in Dharavi, whilst putting money back into their partner NGO, Reality Gives. My Name Is… told us to note if we ever saw any beggars and to consider how friendly everyone was; to conclude, I saw just one beggar, and everyone was, on the whole, very friendly.
He took us to some buildings where we watched the processes of recycling plastics and manufacturing goods. From the rooftop we could see similar goings-on all over Dharavi; we walked past men welding, a Muslim man making Hindu statues, women making pappad (or poppadoms as they are known in the UK)… they were all extremely welcoming given that two tours trample through their habitat each day, which must be pretty intrusive. Just to see everybody’s resourcefulness was so inspiring; of course there are no health and safety regulations so people have to work in the most horrendously dangerous conditions, but our guide reminded us that when there are fifty people applying for one job to feed their families, they can’t afford to be picky about helmets or whatnot.
Dharavi was heaving with people: after the tour I read that it is Asia’s biggest slum and the most densely populated “city” in the world; this was manifest on the tour from the families standing outside their homes, kids running atop gutters, women ferociously scrubbing clothes on rocks, men crammed in doorways smoking beedies. And whilst there were the narrow, dark winding passageways with just loose stones balancing precariously on drains to walk on, and only cracks of light overhead to let in the faintest of the sun’s rays, a lot of the slum had main roads, supermarkets, banks, a cinema… it was, in essence, a suburb.
Something I’d thought would be visually worse was the sanitation problem. Millions of residents share just one toilet, and I’d assumed there would be more people relieving themselves on the streets, and generally more rubbish everywhere. We were taken to an area with several large rubbish dumps where dozens of children were playing, some defecating in the open. Though these conditions would obviously be described as “squalid”, what struck me first was the good nature of the kids, playing so happily with each other. The whole slum was home to such a sense of community; there were also several schools we walked past - our guide told us that around 85% of Dharavi’s children are in education, which isn’t a bad statistic compared to other parts of India. Reality Gives has a primary school, and there are other NGOs also working in the slum.
At the end of the tour we went to Reality Tours and Travel’s office and I bought a poster of one of DJ Shaker’s photographs, of the huge manufacturing process carried out by men from the slum. I want to put it on my wall and remind myself, each time I look at it, of the resilience of some people in the world who are a lot less fortunate than I am. If I ever feel down, I hope that this photograph will inspire me to stop moping and to get up and go!