“How do you deal with beggars?” is a pertinent questions travelers visiting Mumbai ask us. I don’t really have an answer to it. There’s no blanket rule. Sometimes, I instinctively filter them out, sometimes I have to make an effort to ignore them, sometimes I get mad when they tap on the car window with their bangles, sometimes my heart melts and I give a shrivelled old cripple some change. But overall, I’ve been extremely insensitive to poverty. The city makes you that way.
Dharavi. Asia’s largest slum.
What did I, a local, know about it?
- You can see miles of tin roof from your airplane window during landing and takeoff.
- I’ve had a fair idea that you get some great quality cheap leather at the fringes.
- But that you can’t take your car, for if you park it there, you’ll come back to scrap, with everything valuable stripped off and stolen.
- Do not ever try to chase a thief into Dharavi, you’ll never find him, or your way out again.
- Cops don’t mean anything in there, they have their own local mafia government.
Then, I got a wake up call. Several travelers who visited Mumbai, began asking me about Dharavi. All westerners who visited, it seemed, had watched Slumdog Millionaire, and wanted to go on a tour of Dharavi. What is it like to live in such poverty, in such squalor? How did they feel about it? What goes on in their minds?
I was a bit stumped at first, “What do you mean how do they feel? They don’t think about it in a special way. It’s the only reality they know.” Until one day, our RTW traveler friends, asked us about the self sustaining industries that operated from within Dharavi. I did a bit of research and what I found truly opened my eyes. We decided this was definitely a side of Dharavi we wanted to show them, and see for ourselves.
Now, you may have noticed how we’re the last ones to go on guided tours, but for Dharavi, you need one. Read on to find out why.
Our friendly guide met us outside Mahim station. We waited a while for the rest of the group (A group usually comprises 7 people) and then walked down the road, and climbed a bridge over the railway track, and entered the industrial side of Dharavi. It was a Sunday, and surprisingly, everyone was busy working. A butcher greeted us cheerfully, asking if we wanted chicken or mutton, pointing to his neighbour who was bent over a large pot, making his Sunday Biryani. We waved at him and walked on, our feet squishing through black soil.
The black soil led us to the recycling area, where we saw all our old things (from computers to shampoo bottles) being broken down, separated, washed, dried, crunched into pellets, coloured, and packaged for trade. All of this was done by hand. We climbed onto the rooftops, for a brilliant bird’s eye view of the slum. Our friendly young guide (a slum resident himself), talked us through every bit, answering any questions we had. Giving us the pure truth. No glamorized stories. How every house had electricity, legally paid for, and how postmen managed to make deliveries, and how the entire area was under proper police jurisdiction. In the distance, we saw the clothing industry that we had passed, finally setting up shop and drying the print-dyed cloth on the terraces.
We walked on, trying hard to keep pace with the guide, on a bit of an obstacle course. Something in the distance smelled good. We reached the biscuit factory, where most of Mumbai’s favourite breakfast snack (a puff pastry of kinds that’s dipped in tea) is made.
Gradually we passed through several other industries, the aluminium one, where we had to cover our mouth and take a quick glimpse before we inhaled the toxic fumes that half naked labourers were working in, the soap factory (ever wondered where your leftover hotel soaps go?), the oil can washing and reshaping unit, the leather factory where leathers are preserved in salt and then sent away for tanning before they’re returned for styling. It’s amazing how everyone’s trash is segregated so well, that an entire patch was reserved only for plastic cups!
We had now crossed over to the residential side of Dharavi. As we passed through narrow alleyways, we stared in amazement at how these houses had been constructed so close to each other. Friendly children and shy housewives practiced their English as they waved to us with various greetings and questions. Passing through, we discovered several parts had extremely well to do households with all the imaginable comforts from Satellite TV to Air Conditioning.
We glanced inside some of the houses and discovered another industry flourishing within the kitchens. The women were rolling large quantities of poppadoms and drying them. (Poppadoms are like large tortilla crisps which are eaten either fried or roasted)
Further on, we were even taken on a tour, (or rather we stepped in and out) of a typical resident’s house that the tour company had rented for this purpose. A small one room unit, which doubled as a bedroom, living room, bath and kitchen. There were community toilets outside, but not nearly enough.
We crossed over into Kumbhaarwaada, the potter’s settlement, and watched women thumping clay into beautiful pots that were then dried and baked in earthen kiln, fired with scrap cloth for fuel. Some of the work was truly stunning, and it was heartbreaking to know the minimum wage these artistes would get paid for it.
We were told the company ran a community centre, which we tried to visit, but being a Sunday it was closed. They told us about a few nice Computer, Education and other skill initiatives they run for the children and youth of Dharavi.
We ended the tour in the Reality Tours’ Office, feeling overwhelmed by the understated.
Reality Tours and Travels is an ethical company that began with a view to showing the positive side of slum life to the world, but now has a Non- Profit Organisation that provides support to the slum dwellers in various forms, especially through education.
We took the Dharavi Short Tour on a Sunday morning for Rs. 500 per head. They also run several other tours that seem worth checking out.
Dharavi Tour Tips:
- Go with a curious mind, not a judgmental one.
- Wear closed, comfortable footwear. The long walking path can be slushy, slippery or filled with wires and glass.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions, you never know what you may be missing.
- Don’t turn up your nose or gawk. Be respectful, you are entering someone’s home as a guest.
- Carry a water bottle and hand towel.
- Leave your camera at home. Out of respect for the resident’s privacy, photography is prohibited inside Dharavi. (You can however ask Reality Tours for high res photographs such as the ones in this article after your tour)
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