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.

3 Replies to “Chapter 140: The darkness of Dharavi”

  1. Wonderful stuff. Hold these images in your heart, measuring them against all our American excess. All the paint-related stuff was horrifying.

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