Immediately when the word ‘slum’ is mentioned you think lack of sanitation facilities, over population and most of all, poverty…and you’d be right! So it’s fair to say we were a little anxious, as well as quite excited, to take a lone trip into Dharavi – Asia’s largest slum….
To put it simply, Dharavi is the slum of all slums! You know, the Slumdog Millionaire type of slum. In fact Danny Boyle actually used parts of Dharavi as the set for the Oscar winning movie back in 2009. But the lifestyle of the people that live there couldn’t be further from hollywood.
With Dharavi covering over 2.1 square kilometres and being home to over a million people (most living 4-6 to a room) you can only imagine how cramped and run down the living conditions are. Located just off Mahim Junction and a short walk across the railway tracks lives one of the poorest communities in India.
You see we’d done a little research before arriving in Mumbai, but probably not enough. All we knew was that we HAD to visit the slums as part of our Indian experience and that we definitely didn’t want to pay a tour guide to show us around – paying someone up to 800 Rupees for a guided tour of poor people’s homes seemed quite immoral! So with locks on our backpacks and empty pockets we took off on our own adventure and dived deep into the unknown.
As soon as we hopped off the train we spotted the tin walls in the distance and headed down towards the make do houses. The frantic questions soon followed, “Where are you going?” “What are you looking for?” We continued our journey over the tracks, being pleasant to everyone along the way and replying with one question of our own, “How do we get inside the slum?”
From the outside, it seemed impossible to find a way in without direction. We passed many puzzled faces, as well as a few hellos, before finally taking a turn down one of the tiny, narrow walkways that would surely lead us into the midst of it all.
As we trampled through piles of litter and tried to sneak a peak into some of the ridiculously small houses, one confused man stopped us to see if we were lost. He explained that tourists rarely came into the slums without a guide as it can sometimes be a very dangerous place. So taking us under his wing, he lead us through to the end of the Mumbai maze and we finally arrived in what can only be described as a mini version of India. We’d made it to the heart of Dharavi!
It was kind of a surreal moment as we stood and took it all in. The street we were standing on was like a main road leading through the centre of all the madness. There were kids playing, women cleaning and men going about their daily routines. It took all of about 15 seconds though before the locals noticed us, and within a matter of minutes the whole street was staring! But what we’d expected to be such an intimidating experience soon became the complete opposite!…
We were greeted by smiles!! Smiles and welcoming faces. Faces that didn’t look at you as a rich subject that they could hopefully scam money from. But more of a thankful look, grateful that we’d come all the way from a western country to take time to visit their underprivileged country. You could see the happiness in their eyes and without realising it, we’d soon become the attraction of the area!
Kids dropped their balls and ran over from the playground, mothers came thrusting their babies upon us and questions were being thrown from all directions. Hey, the questions we didn’t mind…at least they weren’t throwing rocks like some of the kids in Jodhpur. Most of the kids just giggled at our answers and of course there were a few cheeky boys trying to teach us swear words but we were amazed at how much English they spoke. All the build up and anticipation had been for nothing! The rumours and stories we’d heard couldn’t have been further from the truth and it was clear that the poorest of people we’d met in India were ironically the friendliest.
As the photo’s finished and everyone went back to their normal lives we continued our venture through Dharavi. So remember how we said we’d done a little research before hand, well we were under the impression that the slums were just where people lived but this obviously wasn’t the case at all. We soon found out that they actually have their own shops, markets, pharmacies and even schools all located within Dharavi. Not only that but sure enough, just like the rest of India, there were animals dotted around everywhere. Although the animals seemed to be people’s pets rather than strays which was nice to see and it’s fair to say we think people are super fond of cats in the slums!
It absolutely poured later in the day but that only led to another amazing experience. We feel that in India, just like the bull in Jaipur (if you haven’t read that blog you can find it here), little things happen for reasons unknown until we end up in random places with random people. So after getting completely soaked one of the kids we’d met earlier from the playground called us into her house. It was a small room no bigger than an average persons bathroom back home but sure enough there we were: us, the family of six, three cats from different homes and a bunch of kids from the block. All squeezed into what could only be described as a life size box. But it was their life size box and they loved it. It had a TV, a pot for cooking and a bed. Don’t ask us where they all slept but in the slums, everyone is welcome in anyone’s house. The community feeling really is like nothing we’ve ever seen.
We sat round and although there was not much flowing conversation because of the language barrier the family clearly wanted to talk to us and find out our story, as did we them! We used the young girl as a translator and got the gist that the parents of the family had lived in the same house for 50 years. They explained that most of the men in the slums work (this guy in particular worked night shifts on the railway) and all of the women stay at home looking after the children. Their main goal is to get their child a good education and they excel on surviving hand to mouth. One thing that stuck is they mentioned how the quality of life varies drastically from one slum to another but if they could choose to live in any slum it would always be Dharavi. “A lot of the people live in desperation, but they are happy.” The girl said. “They understand that they are the poorest they can be but with high spirits and a community that pulls together anything is possible”…
…and this is why out of all the places in India we travelled, our hearts lie firmly within the slums of Mumbai.