21.01.2017 - 21.01.2017 33 °C
It is a cliché but India truly is a nation of contrasts. I write this on the train from Mumbai hurtling past acres of fat grapes on the vine, neat rows of fruit trees – their harvest ripening in the sun. Whitewashed farmhouses and villages, children playing and gleaming tractors. A good time to reflect on the opposite-land craziness of Mumbai and our experience in the slums. Perhaps I idealise rural life but I find myself asking ‘Why would anyone leave this for that?’
The slums seemed almost never-ending; cities within a city – their own streets, their own rules, grown up organically between the edge of the railway tracks and the new high-rise development, in the gaps society has left unplugged.
One day in Mumbai we ventured in. Arriving at the train station to meet our tour group we were faced with a slightly awkward group of tourists, white faces that looked uneasy at the prospect, perhaps at the thought of spending the next few hours ogling the poverty of others for the sake of an experience. We flipped a coin to decide whether to go with them. Tails never fails and away from the group we snuck and waited for the next train to the slum so we could enter alone.
Nerves jangling, faced with images of squalor, shit, eyes in darkness, theft or worse flashing in front of me we set off from the train station towards Dharavi. Possibly the largest slum in the world with an estimated 1 million inhabitants. We walked along the main road bordering the slum, stepping over the usual bottles, rags, and puddles of sewage. We plucked up the courage and entered on the largest path heading in, making sure to check our bearings on the main road. No one batted an eyelid, nothing more than normal levels of staring. Once inside, we walked past endless shops selling all manner of items, all services on offer. Houses rise higgledy from the dirt, stacked precariously. They are held together by ancient beams and stolen bricks, dirt-streaked awnings and long-forgotten advertising hoardings. And sheer willpower.
Will to survive and thrive and to make the best of it; houses and businesses on land that was a swamp that nobody wanted, where the British put their garbage, pollution and sick Indian population. From the beginning Dharavi was a slum, and it seems set to remain that way despite some sort of token efforts from many governments. The alternative solution of new high-rises and shopping malls seem unlikely to favor the resident population.
People are everywhere but what’s so different about that? People going about their business, selling coconuts and saris, shaving beards, and fixing generators. Of course there is poverty but there is also money here, in the largest informal economy in India. Kerri stops and buys some shiny metal bowls, later we see small factories and workshops. The mood is busy, lively, energized, not the oppressive misery I was half expecting. We continue this way and that. The path narrows until we are deep in the maze of houses. No light from the sun penetrates here. Past tidy living rooms, neat curtains, shrines, footballers, a blind man begging. Starting to doubt whether this was a good idea as we lose the main path. A local seems to point the way and we walk hopefully. Suddenly we are spat out on the road blinking in the light.
Soon we are heading back to our comfortable hotel in central Mumbai. How lucky we are to have the option.
N.b. we didnt take any photos inside of the slum, these are of the outside.