Sunday morning, 10am. Here I was, trooping through the narrow lanes of the Mumbai’s massive Dharavi Slum. Hundreds of little doors lined the alleys, leading into homes. Colourful metal ladders rose higher, leading to floors above. A local greeted with a smile me as I passed by. “Welcome to India,” he said, laughing loudly.
Welcome to India indeed.
For the uninitiated, Dharavi is Mumbai’s largest slum and one of the largest in the world, home to close to about 600,000 people. While landing into Mumbai, you are sure to catch an aerial glimpse of it from your window seat.
I have been extremely fascinated by the Dharavi Slum for a while now, but always hesitated to indulge in so-called slum tourism, given its seemingly voyeuristic, intrusive and disdainful nature.
And so I kept away.
Miss Wanderlust finally made it to Dharavi as part of a walking tour conducted by Reality Tours & Travel, which spent about four hours walking through the heart of Dharavi. And contrary to all my concerns and worries, it was a marvelous experience – it felt extremely natural, almost like you were wandering about any neighbourhood of Mumbai. The locals were extremely friendly, and our presence felt far from intrusive.
I should add that the folks at Reality Tours are doing some really work. They plough back all profits earned from conducting tours into giving back to the Dharavi community.
Also, photography is not allowed on the tour. So no over eager tourists shoving their cameras into homes. Or trying to click selfies with the locals.
Our tour guide Nilesh was a local lad – extremely entertaining and hospitable. He gave us an insider’s perspective of Dharavi. The pride in his voice as he spoke of the industries was evident. As he explained, “We are people with little money, small homes and jobs. We have little but we gladly make do. We are not beggars or pavement dwellers.”
I was amazed to see the magnitude of the recycling industry in Dharavi. There’s some really good work going on there. Unfortunately, this happens outside the sight (and knowledge) of most people in Mumbai.
It was an extremely grounding experience to wander through the tiny lanes and alleys (barely two feet wide), the maze that makes up Dharavi. Tiny grocery shops, the odd paanwala, temples, mosques and even little gardens – everything is packed in compactly into the maze.
I found myself wondering about how ‘space’ is a relative term. How much space does an individual need to be happy? And on that same note, how much space do you need to play a boisterous game of cricket? (Answer: Very little)
The locals, with their bright, smiling faces went about life as usual around us. Impish little kids shot us curious glances and shyly inquired, “What is your name?”
The leather industry operating in Dharavi is another magnum opus. The leather factory we visited had a sign which read, “Since 1976 upto 4ever.” Got to love the confidence!
Close by, we came across a bakery (we could smell the bakery even before we saw it!) Large volume of the famous ‘khari’ biscuits are manufactured here and sold to tea shops and Irani cafes all over the city.
I was impressed by how determined and driven the people of Dharavi are. There is a very real desire to excel, to rise above – and that desire is reflected in each person’s attitude and behaviour. There is no self pity, only self motivation to do better and be better.
We visited a school, where a session on giving job interviews was underway. The enthusiasm and eagerness with which the children were learning was refreshing and heartwarming.
A teacher we met at the school told us that she wished more Indians would visit Dharavi (almost all visitors are foreigners) – being in Dharavi would go a long way in dispelling stereotypes, incorrect beliefs and preconceived notions about the place and its people.
Visiting Dharavi is not about feeling pity for the inhabitants or noticing what they lack. Nor is it the so-called haves making the have-nots feel inferior.
Instead, you leave with a feeling of warmth, pride and admiration. You remember the smiling people and their stories for a long time to come.
You will find yourself marveling how truly wealthy the people of Dharavi are – with their zest for life, their determination to make a better life, the richness of their relationships and the overwhelming love that the community shares.
Slum, what slum?
Photos courtesy Reality Tours & Travel
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