You can be forgiven, gentle reader, for having forgotten that I hadn’t finished telling you about our most recent trip to India, as it was four months ago that I left the story dangling with just one more day to recall with you – which was our trip to Dharavi. Now, you might think, what on earth would possess anyone specifically to visit Mumbai’s hugest slum area, with an estimated population of anything up to a million people. It’s hardly nice for wealthy westerners to go and gawp at their poverty, is it? And that’s a very hard question to answer, because yes, on the face of it, I would agree; but actually to visit the place, meet the people, observe their endeavours, and marvel at their ability to overcome what fate has chucked at them, is a really humbling experience.
We met our guide Amish and he took us to Charni Road Station, from where we would get the train to Dharavi, getting off at a stop called Mahim Junction. Although we’d played about on the trains before, this was our first experience of actually travelling on one. And it’s a real eye-opener. Nothing seems particularly unusual at first – you get on, find a seat and wait for the train to depart. What’s fascinating is when you approach the first station. The train slows down but barely stops, maybe for five to ten seconds at the most. This is why everyone hurls themselves on and off the train whilst it’s still moving. Now, I have great respect for the Indian people; they are charming, caring, polite and obliging; until it comes to trains. Getting on a train and nabbing a place to sit down is an act of war. There’s only room for the quick and the dead, as the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle used to say. If you’re young and strong you elbow weaker mortals out of the way as you dash for a vacant seat. The older and slower try to slither to the sidelines lest they be trampled underfoot. That famous Indian respect for the elderly evaporates before your eyes. You have never seen such unapologetic aggression displayed en masse. We were gobsmacked. No wonder they have to have women-only carriages.
Although Mahim Junction isn’t in Dharavi itself – it’s a short walk away – your route takes you past some families whose only place to live is on the street. It’s quite a wide pavement, and they’ve allocated themselves areas that equate to their own living space. You might see such people anywhere in India, but it made us think that if you have this level of large-scale homelessness outside Dharavi, what on earth would it look like when you got there? But we realised that these people are the really unlucky ones, for the slum dwellers of Dharavi do actually have rooms, roofs and shelter.
A pathway takes you over a very wide footbridge where the trains pass beneath on their way from the city centre to all points due north. As we crossed over, we saw that the trains were just stopped there, for no apparent reason, and their passengers were just hanging out of the doorways, as they do, looking for a sign that their journey would continue. It was like an image of them all frozen in time; packed like sardines, going nowhere, powerless against the state machine that would decide when and how they would make progress. Crossing further over the bridge you come to a spot that, in a grander location might be described as a balcony with a commanding view over all Dharavi; and your attention is primarily drawn to a gaudily painted corrugated iron shack with “WELCOME” boldly written on its front wall. Visually, it looks like an ironic statement; but actually, I think it’s genuine. This is their home and you are welcome to visit.
You walk down the stairs, and there you are, instantly in the heart of Dharavi; a wide, commercial High Street full of all kinds of people, many dressed extremely respectfully, involved in some form of trade. This is not a lazy place. To survive here, you have to be hard working and industrious, doing maybe heavy or physically demanding work in a cramped, probably ill-equipped environment. The first business we visited was a small bakery where a dozen or more young guys were baking biscuits and rolls, laying them out to cool, packaging them up and sending them off with a chap on a bicycle to their various customers. I don’t know about you, but that’s not what would have come to my mind if I’d thought about an “Indian slum”.
There are so many different businesses there, many of them based on recycling bits of rubbish that have been specifically imported from the west for the purpose. Some of them are things you would simply never imagine. There were the guys who snipped down multi-coloured bits of material into tiny shreds that would be used as packing or cushion filler. There was the man who salvaged and renewed tiny pieces of computer hardware and parts of white goods, seated on a filthy floor trying to make some sense out of the wreckage of old bits of plastic and metal scattered all around him. Another man was painstakingly bashing out and making good old paint cans so that they could be reused. There was a workshop where a team of guys were creating new-ish jeans out of cut-up pieces of old jeans, and a man spent his day ironing garments with the oldest, heaviest iron you have ever seen.
Very alarming to see were the two guys who spent the day dyeing material in two old vats, trudging around their tiny workshop barefoot, whilst the floor was swimming in chemicals. What it must do to their skin isn’t worth imagining; no health and safety regulations here. Still, when the choice is to work in a hostile environment and have an income to support your family, or no work and no income, there isn’t much of a choice for them. OK, maybe your life expectancy might not be more than 50; but without it, it might not be more than 30, so it’s a no-brainer. They seemed resigned to their plight, but we felt absolutely no sense of them resenting our presence or criticising us for being there. As always in India, we felt completely welcome.
There were three other sets of people whom we met in Dharavi who made a particular, lasting impression. There was one garment workshop where the owner had saved his profits so successfully that he had been able to invest in a huge modern knitting machine. A big computerised console, it covered a large worktop space and he was immensely proud of it. I hope it brings him much success. We were also privileged to be invited to take tea with two elders of the community from the Dharavi trading association; the man who intervened in business disputes between the traders, and his assistant; and it was fascinating to observe how much respect they had in their environment. There was a constant flow past of people who would stand before them, whilst they were seated, simply to say good morning and be noticed. The only person for whom they deferred extra respect to, by standing up, was the oldest gentleman inhabitant of Dharavi who came to call as well. Their welcome to us, their fascination in the fact that we had chosen to visit them, and the symbolic significance that they invited us to take tea with them, was the icing on the cake of a very memorable experience. The final person who made an impact was a cheeky boy on his bike who seemed to like us, and started following us about and chatting to us at odd moments. I would stop to take a photo, and he would suddenly emerge from nowhere to pull a funny face right in the middle of the shot. Remember “Slumdog Millionaire”, and how it featured street urchins from the slums? Many of the slum scenes were filmed in Dharavi and you could easily imagine how this kid could have featured in it. He had a very winning way about him; I hope he gets to lead a fantastic life, and carves a great future for himself despite his humble origins.
Turning into a darker area, where hardly any sunshine reached, we walked through narrow alleyways which hid the entrances to people’s homes; there’s no denying the meagre arrangements for the residents, but at least they’re not on the street. Ramshackle plumbing abounds everywhere; Amish showed us a junction of pipes where the fresh water and the foul water merged into one, at which point we felt a little queasy about having drunk tea with Dharavi Trade Association people. We emerged into an open courtyard which was 70% rubbish tip and 30% recreation area. The local boys were having a cricket match, as they do everywhere at all times of day and night in India. On one hand, it was pitiful to see them sharing one broken cricket bat and having to field the ball out of the rubbish mire; but it also embodied their incredible spirit to get on with life and make the most of what they had. We found our way back out of the dark alleyways into the sunlight, just a little further along the main street where we had first arrived, but it felt like we had visited another world in the meantime. Bizarrely, it was school going-home time, and past these slum workshops walked rows of spotlessly clean, smartly uniformed, private-school children, forming such a stark contrast with their environment. I had no idea where they had come from or where they were going (from college to home presumably) but it was quite the most unexpected sight.
Signs suggesting faded glory abound in Dharavi – my favourite was this decrepit board outside a run-down building boasting its availability to hold marriages and social functions. It really did look out of place. But not everything is a total mess. The temple of Srisiddhi Vinavakar, dedicated to Ganesh, located near the entrance/exit to Dharavi, is immaculate. Its intricacy of carving and spellbinding colours are an unexpected splash of magnificence in this decaying district. No matter how little money you have, in India religion and spirituality always seem to come first. We paused and sat for a short while before making our way back out of Dharavi and towards the centre of Mumbai. In this area of acute shortage and driving poverty, coupled with the most extraordinary spirit of ambition, hard work and decency, there’s just so much to take in.
Returning to Mumbai we had lunch at a Shiv Sagar restaurant, one of a chain of vegetarian fast food restaurants that do good food and is quite tourist friendly. Amish wanted to take us to the Leopold Café too, established in 1871 and a place where all and sundry meet to discuss the issues of the day over a tea or a sweetmeat. Not on the day we were there, though as it was closed and partly boarded up. There was also a sense of tension surrounding the place; people were milling around the stalls outside but not really doing anything; something felt wrong. We realised that an argument was starting up between one of the outside stallholders and a couple of men who were lingering outside. Then – a flurry of activity, the sound of shutters suddenly falling down, Leopold Café T-shirts were flung against the windows from inside to obstruct your view inwards, and all these guys hanging around suddenly got their hidden cameras out and started clicking their lenses at anything that moved. Apparently the café was the subject of an Income Tax Inspection raid, and everyone outside turned out to be an amateur (or otherwise) paparazzi photographer, trying to get the best shot of the proprietor and the inspectors. I guess it might have been a photograph worth taking if you needed some dosh. So we never got to go inside Leopold Café, but we did witness a proper Indian fracas.
After a rest, and before dinner, we had one last tourist site to visit – the sacred water tank of Banganga. It’s rather well tucked away in the Malabar Hill district, and is the place where Lord Rama shot an arrow into the ground from which emerged a spring of water. It’s quite an expanse of water for one little arrow, so it was obviously a good shot on Rama’s part. As we sat on the steps and dusk turned into night-time, we observed a few people taking a dip into the holy water – whereas we just tippy-toed around some of the shallower edges. It was a very peaceful, relaxing and reflective place, and with a charming small temple adjacent; although little did I know that I would get bitten by a mosquito there that would erupt into a very big bump on my leg over the next few weeks; alas I am the kind of person that mosquitos find totally irresistible.
From there we had just one more thing to do – our final dinner out with Amish, back to the Status Restaurant where we had eaten the previous night. However, whereas the night before we sat outside under the stars and treated ourselves to Marsala in Dosa from the canteen, on this last night we dined inside – and it was quite some feat to acquire a table too, fortunately Amish knows the right people! We made it as memorable and slap-up an event as we could, including Paneer Tikka Masala, vegetables and mushrooms cooked in fenugreek, aromatic chana and dal, and all washed down with top quality celebratory Coca-Cola. It’s a lovely restaurant and the meal was superb. Take a look at the menu, and see what you fancy. We felt very privileged to be there, and it made a fitting last night in Mumbai.
So that was the end of our Indian Odyssey – or rather, a week simply spent in and around Mumbai. There were still plenty of places we didn’t visit, but the secret of good travelling is always to leave somewhere to return to. And that’s precisely what we’re going to do next year – watch this space!
If you would like Amish to help you discover Mumbai visit mumbaimoments.com