Twenty Minutes in the Dharavi Slum

Since our early Holi in Pushkar, we moved on to Udaipur. There I spent the first day visiting Jagdish Temple, learning about miniature painting which the area is known for (the artists proved their talent on the spot with some fingernail art) and taking a sunset boat ride on Lake Pichola. The first day ended at a beautiful lakeside restaurant with the group, where we enjoyed a delicious meal by candlelight and moonlight.

The second day in Udaipur began with Delhi Belly. And stayed that way. All day. The inside of my hotel room was lovely. The inside of my stomach? Not so much.

Now I am in Mumbai…

The word “slum” has a negative connotation which seems to not only apply to the conditions of the landscape but also to the people who live there. That’s not a fair assumption or use of a word, although I don’t know what other term exists that could be used in these cases. “Shanti Town” doesn’t do much to put a positive spin on it either.

I have very little time in Mumbai and one of the things I really wanted to do was take a walk through the slums. Dharavi Slum is the most popular (thanks to Slumdog Millionaire) and the largest in Mumbai. By my research, the 3 square kilometers of slum land existing under the name of Dharavi houses 1 million people.

The slum looks, kind of, how you imagine it. Like Diagon Alley (shout out to the Harry Potter fans) but with more stacks of recyclables and packaged food towered up against the walls. The streets are crooked and lined with houses and buildings made up of every sturdy and semi-sturdy material you can imagine; brick, aluminum siding, ceramic tiles, plastic sheets and tarps, bamboo sticks, leaves woven into the shapes of doors and old saris and scrap fabric used as window coverings. The ground of packed dirt is littered with individual chewing tabacco wrappers, bits of plastic recycling that escaped their designed bins and never ending puddles created by…water? Hopefully.

That image is textbook “slum”. Outside that picture though, is something slightly different from the India I have experienced thus far.

Everyone was busy. Everyone had a job to do, a place to go, a purpose. One man was using a circular saw to cut up big hunks of plastic for recycling (motorcycle helmet, old plastic bin, etc), groups of women were seated low on the floor sorting other recyclables into coloured bins, two friends sat outside trying to repair a motorbike, other people were cooking and packaging food to be sold outside the community. There are shops and restaurants and chai stands set up like any regular community. It just happens to made up of a grubbier patchwork of materials. We walked into one building where four men where seated above our heads in a loft area, working at sewing machines and making denim jeans for sale (our guide told us “international sale”…I have to check that fact though). They don’t make a lot of money, but everyone there seemed happy and content and busy and ingrained with an extremely strong sense of community and work ethic. The children smiled. The adults worked. These are not lazy people. These are not people who beg or scam. And not one single person hounded any of us to buy or give them anything. This was unexpected and a pleasant surprise. What I expected from the slum and what I got definitely put me in my place and gave me a better sense of reality. These people have jobs and low rent. That how we need to try and look at it, because they do not want my pity or my money…otherwise they would have asked for it.

It felt strange and awkward and unfathomably intrusive to take photos throughout this walk, so I took one on the way out. Only one. It doesn’t depict the slum image very well, but I wanted one photo as reference or memory for my experience.


We also made some quick photo stops at the largest open air laundry, Victoria Station, Haji Ali Mosque, Marine Drive, the Hanging Gardens and Mahatma Ghandi’s house/museum, to name a few places.

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