Mumbai – a city of extremes

I found Mumbai fascinating. It’s a city of extremes: it’s the country’s economic powerhouse with an emerging and increasingly sophisticated middle class; it boasts a vibrant art and literary scene and some stunning colonial buildings (with their fading elegance). It is also plagued by badly congested traffic, diseases and shocking poverty. In fact, half of the 17 million Mumbai citizens live in severe poverty.

Four days ago, I enjoyed a lunch at a Chinese restaurant (treated by an Indian writer friend) at the very fancy Taj Lane’s End on the sea front and on the same evening, I ended up in Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai if not the world.

I had wanted to visit a slum, even since I read Katherine Boo’s powerful and vivid account of life and death in a slum behind Hyatt near Mumbai airport entitled Beyond the Beautiful Forever. While I was in Rio, I also took a slum tour, which allowed me some glimpses to the insight of the society. On that day, I went to a travel agency right next to my hotel to enquire if it was possible to make such a tour here. Of course, it was possible but for a fee too stiff for my liking. A young German student hanging around there said a taxi driver friend of his might take him to a slum on the way to the airport before catching his flight back home. I jumped on the opportunity and asked if I could tag along. Jens, the German, said he would ask when the driver turned up.

By the time the taxi driver, the 25-year-old Gufram, turned up, I had already earned some credit with the German as I promised to send 17 posts cards he had written but no money to send, for he had ‘lent’ his remaining money to an Irish back packer. That was another story. So Jens introduced me as a friend (one hour old!) and Gufram twitched his well-oiled head and agreed readily to take us to Dharavi and visit his sister’s family. Great! For me, traveling isn’t just about visiting a few famous attractions such as Taj Mahal but having interactions with local people.

Over a vegetarian dinner (treated by me), I learnt Gufram’s story. Born into a poor Muslim farming family in a village just outside Varanasi up in northern India, he was forced to give up schooling at a young age. Eight years ago, he migrated to Mumbai and learnt to drive from his uncle and became a taxi driver. Before long, he worked out that it would be best to serve foreign tourists. Smart and driven, he taught himself English and Arabic and is picking up some German and French. Obviously good at making friends, he is planning a trip to Sweden next year, upon the invitation of a Swedish friend he had driven. He hopes one day he would get the opportunity to work in a developed country such as Germany or Sweden.

Afterwards, we three, together with Jens’ heavy back pack, set off in his Gufram’s taxi to the slum. I felt excited in anticipation of an adventure. The largest slum with over one million (Gufram would say three million) people, Dharavi has been featured in various films, notably Slumdog Millionaire. Several child actors came from here. Upon arrival, a powerful stench smarted our noses as Gufram parked his car by a sewage cannel. The smell came from the cannel, a thick soup of rubbish mix, and the roadside rubbish dump, which obviously also served as an open-air toilet. At the entrance, Gufram’s friend, young bony boy, served as our guide. Here, the atmosphere wasn’t much different from some of the neighbourhoods I’ve seen: lots of cheap eateries and other stalls. And people everywhere. Then the guide ducked into a very narrow dark street. After zigzagging through the maze, we found ourselves at a workshop called Tuba Hide and Skin Co. Apart from recycling, the slum has several lines of thriving business, including leather and textile. Even it was pushing ten pm, several workers were busy cleaning up the ship skins and putting salt onto them – part of the process to preserve the skin. Under our feet, the floor was oozing with dark red liquid. In the heat, you could only imagine the smell.

Then Gufram took us to visit his sister in a much quieter part of the slum. Again, we blundered along some dark narrow streets. The ground was all muddy and wet, spoiled by water spilled from buckets women collected from the water supply points. 32-year-old Sama, her husband and their four girls, were waiting for us. The couple and their four girls live in a tiny cubic, all sleeping on the floor. Two of the younger girls, aged two and one, were sleeping soundly while the two older girls, aged at 12 and 10, were full of beans, excited to meet foreign visitors. Clad in a pale blue and matching scarf, which half-covered her head, Sama is an attractive woman with big spirited eyes and high-cheek bones. A gold nose ring sparkled on her left nostril. She smiles and giggles readily. To welcome us, she sent someone to buy a bottle of pepsi. Settled on the floor, I started to chat with Sama. “I am very happy and lucky, all because of him,” she said, pointing at her husband who haunched over by the door. Of course, she spoke Hindi and Grufam interpreted for me. Her brother nodded, saying their father did a good job in choosing a good man for her. Extraordinary, just to think in this modern age, a large percentage of marriage in rural India were arranged. The husband, who didn’t utter a word during our visit, makes furniture for a company, a very lucky position to be as most of the slum dwellers get by with temping jobs. He earns about $400 a month and saves $150 as they family hopes to buy a flat of their own one day in the distance future. Right now, they rent their cubic cheaply from a distant relative. Inside the hovel, there is no furniture but a stove and utensils. And there’s a 12 inch colour TV. Unlike her ambitious brother, the staying at home mother seemed so content with her life. When I asked her what was the single item that she desired most, she replied: “I have everything I need. I am happy.” As I walked pass her neighbours’ house, I noticed that some better off families have large rooms, beds and fridges. I knew they couldn’t possibly fit in beds, so I suggested perhaps a fridge? She said not necessarily. Then she added that if she had extra money, she would get a gold bangle. She lost hers when she attended some party a while back, which broke her heart.

The noises disturbed the youngest child. Sama picked her up and breastfed her. She revealed they would keep going until they have a boy. All the poor families seem to have tons of children. I don’t understand why India isn’t enforcing a family planning policy, a more humane more than China’s or the one forced sterilization introduced by Indria Gandhi’s son before his assassination. I don’t think the country can afford to allow the population to breed so freely.

Sama’s older girls go to a local school for which they had to pay but cheaply. After using her potty, the little girl went back to sleep without fuss. Slum dwellers of course use public toilets. I read somewhere that about 1500 share one toilet.

Sama’s immediate neighbours are all Muslims though people from other race and religion do live in Dharavi. As we talked and laughed, a dozen neighbours blocked the door, cranking their neck for a view of the foreign visitors. This is a very social and communal life style. I heard some families, after they moved to modern flat as part of the government effort in reducing slums, try to move back to where they were because they felt lonely and isolated.

I entertained the crowds by showing them the video clips on my smart phone of my girls singing and performing, which went down like a storm. One day, maybe next year, I’d like to bring my daughters here to help them to appreciate how privileged and lucky they are.

2 thoughts on “Mumbai – a city of extremes

  1. Interesting experiences you seem to have had.
    About the issue of why India doesn’t enforce family planning policy, I think the problem is that it would simply be impossible to get people to respect it in a society like India. All that would happen is that the slum dwellers and people in rural areas would go on having lots of children, and not report the “extra” children, which would create even more problems.

    To an extent this has happened in remote areas in China too, but I don’t think most people in China would actually go to the extreme of not reporting the birth of a child, so that it could never go to school or officially “exist”. I imagine in India this would happen much more.

  2. This is a fine post. I feel that visiting a slum is a good way to be more empathetic towards poor people and be more appreciative of the things you have. A lot of East Asians would be horrified at places like Dharavi and be unwilling to visit so I was pleasantly surprised to read this post. I do think that it’s good that China doesn’t have these kinds of slums, not that there’s no poverty but that it doesn’t exist in such dire conditions and a massive scale. I also read Behind the Beautiful Forevers and it’s a good book.

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