Chapter 140: The darkness of Dharavi

Mumbai Ghats

There are two India’s, according to Balram Halwai, Aravind Adiga’s protagonist in the book, The White Tiger. The first India is that of the Light, that of wealth, technology, education. The Light flows from the coasts inward, and is embodied in the Taj Mahal, New Delhi, cosmopolitan Mumbai, the beaches, the majestic deserts and the paradise of India. The second India is that of the Darkness, that of poverty, disease, ignorance. The Darkness flows outward from its source, the Ganges, and is embodied by Old Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and, in Mumbai, the slum of Dharavi.

Purportedly Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi is home to over 1 million people spread over just two thirds of a square mile. It’s not a tourist location in any sense of the word. People generally don’t go here of their own volition. Dharavi and the other parts of the Darkness represent the India that scares, shocks and drives away tourist dollars, and doesn’t tend to be pushed or mentioned by tourism companies or travel brochures. However, it’s an integral part of India, and Dave and I had to go.

Through some fellow travelers (and Lonely Planet) we heard of a company that offers tours through Dharavi, and donates most of the profits to non-profit groups working in the Mumbai slums. We met at a train station and took a 3 hour walking tour along with 16 other tourists from all over the world. They broke us up into groups of 6 plus a guide so as to be as inconspicuous as possible.

We weren’t allowed to take any pictures, a requirement that became more welcome the longer we walked through the alleyways. There were too many incredible things to take pictures of, too many incredible things to shield your eyes from, too many things to remember and too many things to forget. Dharavi was emotionally exhausting, and has been very, very hard to explain. The following are six pictures, in words, of what I remember when I think back to those three hours.

Picture 1: In a barely lit alleyway, there is frail, elderly man scrubbing the inside of a paint can. The paint can was scavenged from a construction site in another part of Mumbai, and he’s scrubbing the inside with a wet rag trying to get as much dried paint out as he can. He kneels in a pool of paint-water on a thin and flimsy pair of flip flops. On either side of him are 50 or so paint cans he has or will soon scrub to finish. A young boy is carrying four paint cans over to stack them on the “yet to be cleaned” pile.

Picture 2: A two year old girl stands on a pile of trash next to a drainage gutter. She’s not wearing shoes, and her cloths are stained grey from dust. Behind her are several elderly women looking towards the camera warily. On all sides are squalor and filth, trash and alleyways. She’s smiling as bright as anyone has ever smiled, and has extended her tiny hand to shake mine.

Picture 3: Two middle aged men toil in a giant room inside a makeshift factory, melting aluminum into bars. They wear no masks, have no ventilation system, aren’t using gloves, and will be responsible for their own health if they hurt themselves on the job. To the right are a giant stack of salvaged aluminum cans, and to the left a towering stand of finished bars. The two men are staring at the camera, one wiping his brow from the dead-of-winter 100+ degree heat.

Picture 4:
Framed by a small doorway into their home, a couple with a small child lay on the floor to escape the afternoon heat. There is no furniture, just a multicolored carpet or rag on the floor. The man wears no shirt or shoes, the woman wears a brilliantly colored sari, and the child is asleep between them. On the ceiling is a television playing Tom and Jerry. The entire house appears to be about 8 feet by 10 feet, and in front is a running stream of whitish water that smells of paint.

Picture 5: A young man talks in a cell phone in front of a street food vendor. Behind him are three incredibly lean men carrying hundreds of pounds of steel beams through an alleyway no more than 3 feet wide. The young man is talking in a mixture of English and non-English and is gesturing widely. Behind him several diseased dogs sniff the refuse pile next to the food vendor, which is selling potato pakoras.

Picture 6: In the foreground are two young girls playing with tattered barbie dolls. Both are talking happily as they play amidst a landscape of trash. In the background is a tremendous mountain of refuse that serves as the areas open air toilet, and several grown men squat defecating, looking into the distance.

Dharavi, like much of India, displays the best and worst of humanity side by side. Sweatshops where the workers sleep below their tables to make dollars a month, just up the street from the baker who offers up a breakfast pastry to me just so he can see the look of enjoyment on my face when I eat it.

Before I arrived, I promised myself that I’d drink deeply from the glass that is India, that I’d take in the bitter with the sweet. Overall Dharavi might have been bitter, but I will always remember the sweet.


Chapter 139: The clouds are afraid of Rajasthan

I inhale deeply, and feel apricot flavored smoke fill my lungs. I focus on the palace, the lake and the distant ducks, all seen through small tendrils of smoke wisping away from the hookah as I pass it left. I exhale slowly through my nose, and briefly contemplate what it might be like to be a dragon.

We’re nearing the end of our extended stay in Udaipur, a palace filled town in southern Rajasthan. We had taken a train from nearby Jaipur, and had originally planned on only staying a day or two. However, Indian trains appear to need actual advanced notice to book a ticket, as the earliest we could leave was four days after arriving. In several days we’ll catch an 18 hour sleeper train to Mumbai.

India feels very big.

Surrounded by hills, Udaipur most prominently centers around Lake Pichola, which contains the lakeside City Palace and the two island palaces Jagniwas Island and Jagmandir Island. Many of locations in Udaipur were used as filming locations for the James Bond flick, Octopussy. We were pleasantly surprised to find a hookah bar on Jagmandir.

Clockwise on my left sits Sandra from Germany, Stephanie from the Phillipines, and Dave from Indiana. We met the two girls during breakfast the previous day at our lake view guest house. They were taking a break from working in Shanghai to get away from the Chinese New Year. It turns out both of them also worked for Evalueserve, and Sandra was friends with several of our interpretors from our in time in Abheypur.

India feels very small.

We pay our bill and stroll through the gardens on Jagmandir under the most perfect of blue skies. We had seen a single cloud in the four days we’d been in Rajasthan, and it didn’t have the temerity to stay very long. The sun was warm, the nights and evenings cool, and the air clear of the smog that seemed to infest Delhi and Jaipur.

My hands in my pockets, I slip off my sandals and stand in the perfectly manicured green grass, staring out over the lake into the hills to the west. Later that night the sun will set over these hills, and I will drink sweet lassi and listen to traveler stories on a balcony of our guest house. Tomorrow me and Dave plan on hiking through a wildlife reserve to the Monsoon Palace, a fantastic complex at the very top of one of those hills.

India feels … just right.


Chapter 138: The Golden Triangle Hustlers, a story in three parts

Part one: Delhi

We walk from our hotel through some shady markets to the New Delhi train station. Dodging monkeys, rickshaws and the occasional elephant, we attempt to make our way to the other side via an train station overpass so we can purchase a round trip ticket to Agra for the next day.

We’re intercepted by a man flashing an official looking ID who tells us we can’t go in that way without a ticket (he doesn’t ask anyone else for their tickets). We explain what we’re trying to do, and demonstrating a surprising amount of knowledge of the Lonely Planet India book, he deftly points us to the tourist information office in Connaught Place, where we’re told we can book the tickets. He offers to book us an autorickshaw, we politely decline, then walk over to the government autorickshaw stand to avoid getting ripped off too much. Unknown to us, he sends a friend to intercept our chosen rickshaw.

This friend then plays the part of rickshaw boss man, and after explaining to him where we want to go (LP book again), he organizes a rickshaw to take us there, and also comes along for the ride. We drive at breakneck speeds through the absolute insanity of Delhi traffic as he makes chit chat. The cab drives to the right block, then pulls suddenly into a small courtyard, we pay, and then are ferried by an outsider into the office. The smooth talking tour operator explains that everything is booked except for some very, very expensive buses. We’re shown fake webpages and government documents, and are assured that there is no cheaper fare. We leave, much to their dismay, and notice the actual Tourist office 100 ft from where we were dropped off.

This type of commission based scam is pretty common, apparently. The hustlers who got us to the fake tourist office each get commissions for bringing us there, and the tour operators have a full collection of tools to convince you to buy a 500%+ marked up fare. We were still in sleepy-and-honest-Abheypur mode, and didn’t make the connection that we were being had until after putting all the pieces together.

The next day we’re in the same block, and Dave stops to take a picture of our would-be-scammers office. The tour operator is escorting two tourists inside, sees us and charges. “Is there a problem?!” “No, no problem,” we chuckle. “No problem? Then leave!” He retreats to guard his tourists, who are very confused why we are laughing so hard.

Part two: Agra

After a stress free sunrise trip to the beautiful Taj Mahal, where we managed to beat not only the tourists but the associated Indian hustlers, we head to the nearby Agra Fort. The tour guides swarm us as soon as we start approaching the gate.

“You want tour? I very knowledgeable. 100 rupees.”

“I show you all the best sites, only 150 rupees.”

Seven tour guides are summarily dismissed with hand motions, cold shoulders and stern comments of “Shanti! Nay!” (“Quiet / Peace!! No!”, I think). After ignoring my repeated demands for his silence, the eighth says, “Sir, how can you appreciate such a beautiful fort if you do not have a guide?”

This strikes a chord in me, and I turn to face him for the first time.

“When I go to the forest, I can enjoy and appreciate the trees in silence and by myself. When I go to the mountains, I can appreciate them in silence and by myself. And, in the same way, me and my friend plan on enjoying and appreciating this fort in silence and by ourselves.”

No longer smiling, he stares at me for a moment, mumbles “I see”, then just walks away.

Part three: Jaipur

“20! 20! This beautiful elephant for 20!”

“20 rupees? Sure, I’ll buy it for 20 rupees.” (40 cents)

Blank stare. “Dollars sir. 20 dollars.” (1000 rupees)

“No way. I’ll buy it for 20 rupees.”

“Not possible. 800 rupees.”

“Not possible. 20 rupees.”

“700 rupees.”

We cross the street, at least 5 merchants and hustlers in tow.

“600 rupees, for you, my friend.”

I frown at him. We make it to our car and our driver Ashok jumps up and unlocks the doors.

“500 rupees.”

“20 rupees. I’ll buy two for 40.”

“No sir, 500 rupees.”

I’m trying to close the door, but his body is halfway inside.

“400 rupees!” he pleads.

“20 rupees or get out of my car!” I am physically trying to push him out.

“Not possible! 350 rupees!” he shouts as he resists my pushing.

On the other side of the car, Dave is repeatedly closing the door on a merchant with a similar green elephant.

“300 rupees!”

“Not possible!” I shout as I kick him in the chest in an attempt to close the door. Eventually the kicking works and he backs off enough I can shut the door. Dave has the merchants arm pinned in the door and a green elephant in his lap.

“Look, unless you take the elephant, we’re going to leave. Take it if you want it, I’m not giving you 200 rupees,” he says in between door slams.

Somewhere, through all the noise, my merchant says “50 rupees!”

Dave’s eyes light up. “50 rupees?? Fuck, I’ll buy one for 50 rupees.” He pulls out a note and stuffs it in the merchants hand.

The merchant scowls. “100 rupees.”

“No! You said 50. Fine, give me back the money.” The merchant refuses to let go of the money, and we eventually manage to shut the door and drive away. Watching us go are several very dour green elephant salesman.


Indian hustlers are pushy, persistent and pervasive. They also lie through their teeth about anything and everything. I in turn tell them I’m French, Canadian or South African, that I only paid 50 rupees for the same rickshaw ride yesterday (after having just arrived in a new town), that “Je ne parle pas anglais, je suis francais!” and that I will need to see how many push ups they can do, because “I have already bought one of everything in the market and I need four strong men to carry my suitcase, as it is the size of a cow”.


Chapter 137: Of sand and Intellectual Property

Our car bumbles along the dirt road, its tiny wheels barely surviving the bumps. The four of us unload at the high school teacher’s house, and the teacher leads me, my translator and our driver through dirty yards and alleyways to a pile of sand. We’re looking to find a certain sized grain to put into a water filter, and me being an American engineer need to give my blessing on the sand (the idea of me being a supposed expert on construction materials still gives me a chuckle). We sift through the sand, I nod, the translator nods, the teacher nods, our driver nods, and we start filing the sand bags. As we struggle to carry the bags back to the car, the teacher and driver tell me through the interpreter about a woman who could carry our 75lb sacks on her head as if they were nothing.

The car loaded, the teacher leads us to his house for the mandatory chai break. We pass by some women managing cowpie production, and see them arranging the 12″ diameter pieces of poop into neat rows, letting them dry in the ample winter sun. We sit on a wicker bed / bench in the courtyard of his home as the teacher and driver go to prepare chai.

My translator works for a company called Evalueserve, an outsourcing firm in Delhi. One of his bosses is an alumni at the University of Hartford, which is the school who organized this Engineers Without Borders work project. The alumni arranged a deal that let employees take the day off if they agreed to volunteer to translate for us. Generally nerdy, all have been very helpful and good natured.

“So, what department do you work in?”, I ask, making conversation. Most of the translators had worked in business development or sales.

“I work in the Intellectual Property division.”

To fully understand the meaning of what happens next, it is best to understand the usual response to hearing of my stated profession. Indifference, confusion, dismissal, walking away, statements akin to “So you have a big stamp?”, blank states, condescension, statements regarding the US governments efficacy at accomplishing anything, etc.

“Interesting. I also work in IP. I’m a patent examiner.”

“You … you are a patent examiner?”, he says incredulously.

Cautiously, I respond in the affirmative.

“Oh my! I can’t believe I have met a patent examiner!” he bursts, nearly jumping out of his seat. “We read about you! You do searches and apply the law and … I can’t believe I met a real live patent examiner!”

Both of us sit with someone shocked expressions and talk about IP business practices until the teacher and driver return with chai and Indian sweets. I sit on my bench, drinking chai, the translator still beaming at me, watching random children peek over fences to stare at me, and quietly enjoy this Indian parallel universe where being a patent examiner is cool.


Chapter 136: A day in Abheypur

I thought the only way to describe my Engineers Without Borders experience in rural India was to just describe one day in detail. Here goes nothing.

"One!" "One!" x1000
“One! One!”

630am: Dave’s alarm goes off, we talk about Lonely Planet induced plans as we walk through Pathways to our early morning Yoga class. We are staying free of charge at Pathways, an IB school for international students that has a campus larger than Case’s. Beautifully manicured lawns lie between English styled buildings, and you can almost convince yourself you’re at an English boarding school. In reality, we’re a very dusty two and a half hour drive from Delhi. Yoga reminds me of each and every part of my body that is weak. The instructor asks us to help him apply for a PhD in Physical Education in the US. Afterwards we have breakfast in the Pathways cafeteria, the 15 or so of us eating potato cakes, cereal and handmade hot chocolate milk.

915am: We load into our bus to Abheypur. It takes an hour or so depending on random back roads village traffic. I mostly sleep, outside of the massive speed bumps.

1030am: Arrive in Abheypur, a small farming village of about 750 people. It’s on the edge of some very rocky hills, and in the fields they mostly farm Mustard seeds, Rice and Wheat. The girls school we are working on is in session, and we get many stares from the grades 1-3 students as they sit in open air classrooms in neat little rows. I’m to go with two students from Hartford University to the shopping district of the nearby town of Sohna, where we are to get PCV couplings, metal pipe and bleach.

Running of the Americans (or Dave)
Running of the Americans
(or Dave)

1100am: Head to Sohna, listening to our translator Nishant’s tales of going to school in Scotland and his companies deal that lets him have the day off to translate for us. He’s quite happy to help, as according to him “no one likes their jobs”. He talks of wanting to move out of Delhi into the countryside. We drive along harrowing roads, avoiding head on collisions and severely overloaded rickshaws.

1130am: Arrive in Sohna. The people we work with in Abeypur are mostly used to us being there by now, but our white skin and foreign clothing gives us many stares in Sohna. Crowded market streets, wandering cows holding up rickshaws and cabs, trash everywhere. We go to the hardware store and are sat down on an embroidered bench by the owner. Through Nishant we communicate broad descriptions of the fittings and other items we need. He mostly understands, but tries to tell us we need metal fittings for our metal pipes. It is apparently impossible to explain what we are actually using the pipes for; we need to cut holes in PVC pipe without a drill, so we’re planning on heating up the metal pipes in cow-poop fires (the main Indian fire fuel it seems) and then use it to burn the holes. The hardware store sends out a worker missing at least one finger for what we assume are our supplies, but he comes back with snacks and chai. We eat and drink in the midst of the small crowd that’s gathered. Another worker coils wire for us as I eat what appear to be carrot brownies. We load up and head out, avoiding more cows and curious onlookers.

"Sam, a third year engineering students ..."
“Sam, a third year
engineering students …”

130pm: We arrive back to find an Indian journalist team from the Indian borough of the Associated Press interviewing the team. Our Hartford University professors are gone, and Dave’s on the phone with them and trying to stall the journalists until they get back. We eat our lunch, croissants filled with potato curry and an apple. The main journalist wants to know if Engineers Without Borders does work in Pakistan.

“We don’t do work in countries that the US government has travel advisories in,” Dave explains.
“So no Pakistan?”.
“No Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea …”
The journalist says something about Muslim countries, followed by “So no Pakistan.”

300pm: School lets out. The two hundred or so schoolgirls who had been sitting (mostly) dutifully doing school work (and singing multiplication table songs) all start mobbing for my camera. All the kids have figured out the system. Hold up your pointer finger and say “One!” repeatedly, then when the cameraman (me) finally breaks down and takes a picture, they all giddily rush over to see what they look like. Rinse and repeat, with slight variations and interruptions until we leave each day. The other (mainly boy) activity is the Running of the Americans. The pushy boys will come up to you and start repeating “Go!” while pointing down the yard. If you start running you’ll have 20-30 boys chasing you, screaming, until enough latch onto your shirt or limbs that they pull you down to the ground. There were enough of us that we could keep rotation going that kept them occupied for a while, but there seems to be an unlimited amount of energy contained in a 7 year old Indian boy.

Smog in the countryside.
Smog in the countryside

400pm: We go on a children led hike up the hill near town. 10 of us, our translator Nishant and 40-50 kids scramble up rocks as seven different kids try to be path finder. We watch some peacocks attempting to mate, scare off some monkeys and break up a game of “I’m braver than you because I won’t dodge the rocks you throw at me from across the valley”. At the top we can see over the trees to the somewhat fertile valley below. We see some goatherds burning cow poop over the hill. Amid more demands for “One!”, we make the hike back to the school.

600pm: The non-hikers have finished the connections of PVC, we enjoy some more Running of the Americans, and eventually load into our bus. I split a pair of iPod headphones with Constanza, the only girl I’ve ever met who independently knew of the band Mr. Bungle.

730pm: We make it back to Pathways and rush to dinner before the school children eat dinner. We talk about our planned day trip into Delhi the next day, where we’ll visit some ruins, the Ba’hai Lotus Temple, the Indian Institute of Technology for an industrial design meet and greet, and have dinner at a rich businessman’s house.

1000pm: We smoke cigarillos on our dorm patio, talking of life, religion and India. The sign outside the Pathways school says “Learn. Work. Play. Think. Live.”

I sleep like a baby.

(posted in Delhi)