John Gregory-Smith took a tour of Mumbai’s infamous slum Dharavi. Dharavi slum was a city within a city, home to over 600,000 people and one of the most fascinating place on earth.
I have a huge amount of love for India. I think it is one of the most incredible places in the world. The people are beautiful and the food is so amazing. I am always astounded every time I go back. I love the complete chaos that surrounds daily life there – the beeping of horns, the odours, the flash of colours, sleepy cows in the road and India time. A hippy I am not, but I was taught the word ‘shanti’, meaning calmness or peace, on my first visit to India. This is exactly what you have to be. Nothing happens fast and there is no point getting irate. You just have to roll with it.
Every time I visit wonderful mother India she has something new in store for me and my last trip was a cracker. I spent a week working in Goa learning about local cuisine for one of my books. After reshardos, balchaos and vindaloos I hopped on one of the many trains up to Mumbai. It was a complete pleasure. I chatted to my fellow travellers, wandered the corridors to make new friends and ate lots of weird snacks. Sadly I am a very precious sleeper so I lay awake staring at the old fan as it whizzed around to the contented snores of my fellow passengers.
I arrived at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus station at the perfect time – 5:30am, just as the city woke up. I walked through the station, which was packed with people all waking up, stretching, burping and yawning. As we sped through the streets to Marine Drive the scenes were the same. Taxi drivers woke up in their cabs. The street kids ran around to find a drink, and city workers in their crispy starched shirts pounded the streets to their offices.
I was in Mumbai to eat, drink and be merry and once again India threw me a curve ball I will never forget. I was put in touch with Amish, a friend of a friend, who ran a private tours company in Mumbai. He picked me up on his scooter and drove me off to do a tour of Dharavi, one of the many slums in Mumbai.
For some reason I was expecting something shocking. Forgive me for thinking this, but I had no idea really. I geared up to be appalled by seeing such amazing people in the bleakest of environments. The walk over the rail bridge did little to put this to bed. A filthy road, covered in litter, with a few dusty kids walking along. Amish had organised for a local guy to guide us through the slum. We began by hitting the rooftops to get a sense of space. Dharavi is a massive, sprawling, winding mix of houses, shops and industry.
We were in the plastics area and the air was thick with acrid smoke and the rooftops were alive with workers sorting plastics. We visited some of the workshops, which were basically mini factories. Plastics and paper were being sorted, shirts sown, leather goods made, soap bars moulded, cardboard recycled and turned into boxes with ‘made in the USA’ stamped on the side, metal machinery parts made and a million other things. I am not going to lie, health and safety would have had a melt down and started crying if they had seen the conditions. It was shocking. That said, in every dingy place we visited I was greeted by a sea of grinning faces, chai tea and screechy Hindi music. It was amazing.
The more time I spent there the more fascinated I was. It was a city within a city. There were shops, cinemas, cafés and bars. The streets were tiny and the houses even tinier, but there was a sense of community spirit in that place unlike anything I have ever seen before. Every few metres we would stop for Amish and his mate to chat to the local boys and girls. They all knew each other and were so friendly towards me.
I felt a bit awkward as a tourist staring into people’s homes, but I kept pictures to a minimum and took it in just as I would have strolled around my own neighbourhood in London. It was unbelievable. There was no sense of personal space. Everything was crammed into a tiny area. Little rooms, which were most likely whole houses, were packed with huge families eating lunch. Immaculate school kids wandered back to class and we would catch a flutter of colourful sari as it was pulled round a narrow street corner by a beautiful girl sacheting down the street.
Electricity and water were provided at certain times of the day. As we continued walking I noticed that the hazardous wires were just pinned, in huge bunches, to walls. At the same time people were washing in the streets. Water was rationed, so every available vessel was filled up and used throughout the day for drinking, cooking, washing and cleaning.
We emerged onto another ‘high-street’ and sat down for a de-brief chai. I was dumbstruck. It was one of the most amazing places I have ever been to and a testament to the spirit of India. Even in that bleak place people were happy and laughing. Homes were spotless and, despite litter issues, there was an obvious sense of pride.
It would have been great to see better working conditions and greater access to clean water, medical facilities and 24-hour electricity. But that community spirit was infectious. I heard stories of people who were relocated from the slums to soulless (but safer) apartment blocks. Being deeply unhappy due to the lack of community they moved back. I have no idea what the answer is, but I do know it was inspirational for me and I am forever grateful to have been there with Amish.