Dharavi is not a place for the squeamish, the lazy or the apathetic. This throbbing heart of Mumbai is also symbolic of India showing you what India could be, inextricably entangled with what's holding it back, writes DILIP D' SOUZA.
The slums are so close to the airport boundary that terrorist strikes are possible... The aerial view of the airport, situated bang in the middle of the slums, is not only frightening but presents a very poor picture to a first-time visitor. The garbage dumped by these slum-dwellers attracts scavenger birds.
ONE Balasundaram of Santacruz (E) wrote this in a letter to the Bombay Times recently. In just those three sentences, he managed to capture an entire attitude towards slum-dwellers: slum dwellers are criminals, they are an eyesore for visitors, and they are dirty. There you are. He did not mention, but I have no doubt he feels with righteous fervour that other grave charge against them: they live where they do perhaps they just live "illegally."
For all these reasons, Balasundaram goes on to advise; they must be "cleared". Yes, in the circles where this attitude holds water, we speak of "clearing" human beings. Slum-dwellers, but human beings nevertheless.
Not so far from the airport in Mumbai, about a million such humans live in what is often called "Asia's largest slum" I've often wondered whether that label is used with pride or shame. If you walk into Dharavi, if you spend a day or four just wandering about, the best answer might be "both".
It shames India that so many Indians live in the conditions you find there. But even in those conditions, there is such a lot going on. Such a lot of drive, industry, vibrancy, enterprise. So much spirit. In such squalor, all that cannot but lift you.
Dharavi is no place for the squeamish. But neither is it a place for the lazy, the apathetic, the complainers. In more ways than one, this throbbing heart of Mumbai is India. Also in more ways than one, it forces you to see what India could be, inextricably entangled with what's holding it back.
In recent times, two different people have looked at Dharavi like this, rather than use the finger pointing that comes so easily to Balasundaram of Santacruz (E).
One is Kalpana Sharma, whose Rediscovering Dharavi (Penguin, 2000) is a model of sane, human, down-to-earth writing. In it, she manages to remind us what we should never have forgotten: in those thousands of Dharavi homes, there live garden-variety men, women and children. Not garbage-flinging terrorists.
The other is Robert Appleby, an English photographer based in Italy. Like Sharma, Appleby spent weeks tramping through Dharavi. The result is what he calls "City of Crows", a stunning, heartbreaking, soaring set of photographs that was the April feature on the acclaimed Web photo journal, The Digital Journalist. (See http://digitaljournalists.org/issue0204/city_intro.htm). His sensitive, almost tangible images in that collection capture a certain essence of our urban condition.
Through a number of individual stories, Sharma puts together in her book a three-dimensional picture of Asia's largest slum. It's not that the stories are dramatic, tragic or heroic. You might think, giving into the voyeur inside each of us, that those are features to be found in Dharavi lives. Instead, what strikes you about the people in Sharma's book is how ordinary they are, how matter-of-factly they tell their stories to her. Yet it is that ordinariness, oddly enough, that makes the stories resonate.
Take Shamsuddin, who arrived in Mumbai in 1948 and lived in a hut in Dharavi. He tells Sharma of those early days:
"Every day my cousins and I would make several trips to distant Virar, then located outside Mumbai, where we would buy rice for 1 rupee and 14 annas per pound. We would carry packets of it back as our personal belongings, get off at Mahim station, and walk through the khadi (swamp)... The rice would then be sold for Rs. 10 per pound.
As the years passed, Shamsuddin moved on: from smuggling rice to a stint in a coal company to another at a printing press. (In passing, you wonder why simply trading in rice was seen as smuggling at all). About 70 today, he runs a chikki factory. No longer is he in a hut. Shamsuddin lives in one of the several-storey blocks of flats that have, in recent years, mushroomed around the periphery of Dharavi.
Rags to riches in its most elemental form. An encouraging story?
But remember the context in which it unfolded. For Dharavi encapsulates much of what is wrong in India today. Open drains, piles of uncleared garbage, filth and pitiful shacks are everywhere. Why must so many people live like this? That's partly answered by the housing crisis India's cities are buckling under. Foolish laws, misguided policies and venal combine to produce an artificial, but severe, scarcity of land for affordable housing, forcing middle-and lower-class Indians into tiny tenements in impossibly crowded slums like Dharavi. If that's not hard enough, their lack of tenure over the land they live on keeps their lives in a sort of permanent limbo. All over this country, slum-and pavement-dwellers are frequent targets of municipal drives to "clear" them.
The Balasundarams of Santacruz (E) look on approvingly. After all, we have to "present" a better picture to first-time visitors. Can't let them see what we Indians have got so inured to, can we?
Indeed: Sharma's book, and her examination of the issues of land and housing in urban India, makes you ask a variant of the question I asked above: why do the rest of us think it's OK that so many people must live like this?
And yet, as Shamsuddin's ordinary tale also shows, Dharavi is so much more. In particular, this corner of India produces everything from garments to tallow to watchstrap buckles to lip-smacking savouries like chikki, much of it for export. Much of this activity is illegal and unsafe, but that matters to nobody. For these reasons, for decades now, for all its awful squalor, Dharavi has been a magnet of opportunity that has reached out to every corner of the country. There are people here from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and elsewhere; and, of course, from Maharashtra itself.
That being so, Dharavi is arguably the most cosmopolitan piece of soil in India. When I once ran that thought by Robert Appleby, he remarked: "That should make them splutter in their coffee at the Bombay Gym!"
I accompanied Appleby on a few of his trips through Dharavi. The dominant thought I returned with was contrast. Contrast that almost defines the place. I don't mean here a simplistic notion of a gap between rich and poor: Shamsuddin is a good example of why that fails to adequately describe Dharavi. I do mean instead the contrast between the enterprise, ambition and good humour of the people there, and their soul-deadening surroundings. The way life grows and flourishes in what you cannot help thinking should be fields of despair.
That spirit comes through in Appleby's photographs, spilling over as they are with emotion and life.
There's his amusing shot of the neighbourhood barber at work as the neighbourhood goat noses about. Perhaps you're inclined to dismiss it as a standard "mysterious East" picture? Then look at the couch potato who seems ready, not for an evening in front of the TV, but for a spell of inadvertent train spotting. From Bombay's suburban trains, you see the shacks that press up against the tracks and it is startling enough. But the impact of the extreme proximity is magnified when you walk from shack to shack in Dharavi, timing your steps to avoid the trains that thunder past almost overhead. Think of that reality as you meet this young boy's gaze.
And it's easy to miss the young eyes in another shot, but look for them. Because beyond filmstar backs and busts, it is the slightly sad quality of those eyes that makes the picture, and again says something about Dharavi.
My favourite is Appleby's quiet, almost pastel shaded image of a potter at work. It's quiet, but it takes you a few seconds to realise that his hands are a blur. For me, since the day I watched Appleby take the shot, that blur has stood for the hum of life that is Dharavi.
It is precisely this vast combination, in our slums, of squalor, tension, enterprise and diversity and how they energise each other that I believe is utterly lost on people like Balasundaram of Santacruz (E); that on the other hand fills the work of Sharma and Appleby.
It is in that sense that I said earlier that Dharavi forces you to look at what is holding India back; the attitudes Balasundaram typifies, the miseries that we tolerate but want to hide from visitors. But it is also in that sense that you understand, in Dharvi, what India could be.
If you so wish, you can take that to mean the dirt and flies. But this is a place where every free square metre is an opportunity to start a business, where the children of destitute migrants from dusty Bihar backwaters study software.
The future of India is here. Take a look at Appleby's twilight panorama, this place that's forever India. (See http://digitaljournalist.org/issue0204/city43.htm). Where is that shimmering band of light leading us?
Pictures by Robert Appleby
For more of Robert Appleby's work, see www.robertappleby.com.
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