Slumming it through Dharavi

I gently slid the camera out of my bag and began filming. At first, all I could catch was a glimpse of smoke billowing out the pipe filled with tobacco, opium and hashish. Eventually, I focused in on Sohail Saddiqui, a slickly dressed Dharavi native wearing knock-off Ray-bans and slowly puffing on a pipe as he mused on life in one of India’s largest slums.

“It’s a great place, Dharavi. People help each other and we all live together,” Sohail said as he exhaled and passed the smoky concoction down around the circle formed by his eight assembled cohorts.

Venturing into Dharavi, well known as the setting of the award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, Mail & Guardian gets a taste of what life is like in one of Asia’s biggest slums.

There I was, a firangi journalist in the notorious slum made famous on polaroid through Slumdog Millionaire and in word through Shantaram. While covering a business conference, I had come looking for a grittier Indian story, and so found myself in one of Dharavi’s abandoned and derelict high-rise buildings sharing a Kingfisher beer with some part-time drug dealers cum informal businessmen. I couldn’t complain: They’d taken it reasonably well when I’d gently declined offerings of cocaine, hashish and opium.

I have on many occasions ventured into areas like this in South Africa — but Alexandra, Soweto, Kwa Thema and the like hadn’t prepared me in the slightest for what I had encountered in Mumbai’s most famous slum.

Approximately a million people, living on top of each other showing a true smorgasbord of humanity. Some of the most industrious people I have ever come across, paupers barely scraping by and, of course, the ubiquitous hustlers I came to be sharing drinks with.

Certainly a far cry from the business meeting I was covering: The New African Footprints business conference. India, it would seem, is well placed to invest in Africa — I would argue they’d best stamp out the fires at home first.

The day before entering Dharavi, I had heard speeches and pledges of investment and multibillion rupee projects that were to uplift all of the country — from corner to corner.

Whatever had already come to fruition in terms of investment and development — Dharavi had missed that bus.

In the multiple Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, Asia’s most famous slum is depicted through somewhat rose-tinted glasses. But, imagining quaint little love stories unfolding behind the scenes of many hardships isn’t the real story here: Dharavi is anything but a bed of roses.

Since shacks first started popping up in the 19th century south of Mumbai, the area now known as Dharavi covers a cramped area of only 2.2km² — but is home to somewhere between 600 000 and a million people. And with an extensive micro-industrial sector with about 5 000 businesses, 15 000 owner-run factories (each occupying little more than a single room), Dharavi is on the fringes on India’s economic boom — trying to ride the crest of the country’s developmental wave.

Yet in spite of its estimated $500-million annual industrial output, Dharavi seems to be stuck in some sort of economic twilight zone — unable to escape.

For the most part, the slum’s small scale industry mix of embroiders, tanners, artisans and recyclers fit in perfectly with the sentimental notion of the determined but poor craftsman who makes the best of a challenging existence. But in between Dharavi’s fairy tales, lurk any number of horror stories.

Rapists, labourers, murderers, fruit wallahs, child prostitutes, harried mothers, informal traders and habitual drug users, all live side by side in this world-famous slum. The apparent harmony in which they exist resists the influence of anyone brave enough to try to improve the status quo.

The most recent attempt to bring uplift Dharavi was announced at the beginning of 2011: a government-endorsed plan that has seen the drive to redevelop the area subcontracted to the Maharashtra Housing Area Development Authority, which will supposedly offer a mixed investment option that will see residents become partners in development through a 49% ownership model.

But, like many of the development projects unveiled since 1997, there is little hope for the initiative.

It ‘s a problem that seems to plague all developing nations — especially those in the BRICS economic bloc.

Look at South Africa alone: Massive investment, decent economic growth — but no tangible successes in addressing widespread poverty.

However, whereas economic strata tend to split South Africa along racial lines, poverty in Dharavi is a different beast.

There, it didn’t seem that strange that a white man had just wondered into the neighbourhood. Instead the people of Dharavi seemed more interested in the expensive camera and nice watch on my arm.

It may seem as though the Dharavi’s destitute are accepting of their fate, much like our own township dwellers here in South Africa. But just as the service delivery protests have flared up across our land, and the determined people of middle Eastern nations have risen to greet the Arab Spring, by many accounts the mood bubbling just under the surface suggests that the people of Dharavi have had just about enough.

My hosts, however, did not seem especially enthusiastic about rising up. Perhaps they had other concerns.

“This is a lovely place,” insisted Sohail as he dragged on the pipe once more. “No one ever gives you trouble and we don’t have crime. It’s tough but we live together, you know?”

With my camera wedged in between my leg and elbow — I managed to catch them prepping another pipe.

“That’s a nice camera, hey man?” Sohail remarked as he drew in a large drag from the pipe.

Instinctively, I put it away.

Finishing my beer and taking in the glazed eyes of my hosts, I pondered the future of Sohail and company: Were they victims of circumstance or was their environment, in fact, a product of their own crafting?

Reflection aside, I eventually managed to take my leave after Sohail shook me down for a business card and insisted on meeting me at my hotel later.

I didn’t think twice about giving him the wrong address.

But later that evening I was taken aback to find that Sohail had arrived in the lobby of the hotel I actually was staying.

The concierge wandered over and asked if I knew him. Inexplicably, I was overcome with fear: How had he found me? Why?

I told the concierge I didn’t recognise him.

It was an all too familiar act. I denied Sohail with the same ease with which I blindly dismiss beggars at the traffic lights, or turn a blind eye to South Africa’s own slums.

Was that disappointment or rage I glimpsed on Sohail’s face as I scurried away to the lift that would lead me to the sanctuary of my room. Relief warred with shame.

Had I just saved myself from a risky encounter with one of Mumbai’s more unsavoury individuals?

Or had I become that which I despise: A wide-eyed daytripper looking for thrills who, when confronted with the prospect of deepening a relationship with the reality of his surroundings, cuts and runs?

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Nickolaus Bauer
Nickolaus Bauer is the Mail & Guardian's jack of all trades news reporter that chases down stories ranging from politics and sports to big business and social justice. Armed with an iPad, SLR camera, camcorder and dictaphone, he aims to fight ignorance and pessimism through written words, photographs and videos. He believes South Africa could be the greatest country in the world if only her citizens would give her a chance to flourish instead of dwell on the negativity. When he's not begging his sub-editors for an extra twenty minutes after deadline, he's also known to dabble in the occasional poignant column that will leave you mulling around in the depths of your psyche. The quintessential workaholic, you can also catch him doing sports on the weekday breakfast show on SAfm and presenting the SAfm Sports Special over the weekend.

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