Good-bye Comfort Zone, Hello Dharavi!

Good-bye Comfort Zone, Hello Dharavi!

As much as one is capable of spending one’s entire life in a lovely hotel, when there’s a great big bustling world out the door that’s so unbelievably different from the one at home, it’s a crime not to dive into it.

Today I did a guided tour of Mumbai’s Dharavi slum. My friends, the Ginger included, seemed a bit perplexed as to why I would want to but yesterday I only ventured out of the hotel to do Senior Citizen yoga and go out to a nice restaurant for dinner. The rest of the time I was in my room working, or by the pool, both things I can and do manage quite well at home.

I’d read about the Dharavi tours in the Love Mumbai guide book and so got a taxi from the hotel to Mahim Railway, the meeting point. Finally I saw the trains packed with people billowing out the doors like bubbles about to burst, as it goes in A Fine Balance!

From the station our group of six tourists and one guide, Suraj, crossed the tracks and entered the slum. Photos aren’t allowed so the one above is from the railway overbridge.

The tours are run by Reality Tours, an ethical non-profit company, dedicated to improving the reputation of the slum. There’s a bit of grumpiness about Slumdog Millionaire painting it as a grubby hive of non-industriousness but this, we were told at the beginning of the tour, is far from the truth.

“You will leave this place never again wanting to complain about how small your house is,” we were told, “or how hard you work.”

Having just written my next Woman’s Day column about how teeny my wardrobe is, I felt instant shame. Whole families live in spaces not much bigger than my one at home! Luckily for me I rarely complain about how hard I work because, erm, I rarely work too hard.

We started in the commercial area of Dharavi where every tiny doorway revealed a slither of one industry or the other. Music blared out of one small tin hut – it’s the local cinema! There was a goat outside looking like he was queuing to go in – the strangest looking goat I’ve ever seen. It looked like it had run into a wall at full speed and flattened the front of its face.

Down a muddy alley doorways on either side revealed people crouching around piles of plastic, separating the colours. The plastic is all melted down then made into pellets which are then exported outside the slum to be turned into something else. Down another alley, the same thing was happening with aluminium, down another it was plastic party plates!

Women sat in their doorways washing shirts or swept the floors of their tiny spaces while children seemed to run up and down ladders to the higher stories like monkeys. No one asked for money – although my sunglasses came very close to being filched from the top of my head.

The smell, about which I confess I had been a little concerned, moved from spicy to sweaty to slightly pooky (beside the truck full of sheep fleeces) and back to spicy when we were passing through the markets or doorways were cooking was going on in the tiny kitchen spaces.

There are one million people living in the slum – which is the half the size of New York’s Central Park. It is a city within a city and many of the residents never leave. They have their own schools, university, hospital and police. But many other residents work in the rest of Mumbai – doctors and software designers and other professionals among them.

I can barely explain what it felt like to be moving through such a world. I felt like I was in a dream or on the set of a Tom Cruise movie just before the generic car chase through the village scene.

It was not a depressing or upsetting experience – quite the contrary, it was strangely uplifting.

Poppadoms dried in piles on the sides of the alleys, clay pots in the pottery district teetered on overfull trays, a baby goat chased a chicken, a crying baby stopped and gawped at the tourists clomping past.

You won’t find that at the Taj Lands End! (Although I am enjoying a very nice cup of marsala tea and feeling very grateful for the air conditioning.)

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