The Soul of a Slum in the Heart of Mumbai

After four long and rewarding days of Chiropractic service with the Sant Nirankari Samagam, we decided to take a few action packed days to explore the infamous city of Mumbai before moving on to our next destination. As the most populous city in India with 24 million inhabitants, Mumbai is a mix of everything that is India. This metropolis sits on the water, surrounded on three sides by the Indian Ocean, with a long sandy coastline that is filthy from the city’s excessive pollution. Mumbai takes much pride in its grandiose and detailed architecture, with many old towering and intricate buildings right next to new modern builds. The streets are lined with large shady trees and there is a sort of Los Angeles charm in certain regions of the city, where one can easily find a variety of posh eateries serving a selection of international cuisines,local seafood, and salad bars filled with movie stars and their pure bred dogs enjoying their lunch on shaded patios under the golden sunshine as well as a multitude of colorful boutique shops filled with the latest designer trends. The home of Bollywood, India’s famous movie industry, Mumbai houses many movie stars and their entourages, some of whom have residences that are larger than an average sized hotel.

Not more than a twenty minute drive across the city is a completely different environment than the posh beach life of India’s rich and famous. On the exact opposite of the spectrum are some of the largest slums in India. The poverty that makes up the majority of the city is intense, with many families living on the side of a busy traffic filled street, cooking on small fires built on the sidewalk and hanging their laundry to dry in the trees while their young children run around naked and barefoot on the pavement as cars whizz by just a few feet away from where they all sleep. Mumbai is a clear example of the dichotomy of India: The richest of the rich living right next to the poorest of the poor.

We spent a few days exploring the city, sampling a variety of local eateries, which included our favorite Britannia and Co. where the 96-year-old Iranian immigrant owner still introduces himself to every table in order to make sure everyone’s experience of his Parsi cuisine is just right, and taking a seagull surrounded hour long ferry to the nearby Elephanta island, where we would explore an ancient network of caves filled with large stone carvings from somewhere between the 5th and 7th centuries. However, our most memorable excursion would be one that affected us on a much deeper level.

One of the days we spent in Mumbai was dedicated to a tour of the largest slum in all of Mumbai, named Dharavi. Out of respect for the residents, we were not allowed to take any photos within the slum borders, so all of the slum photos that are in this post are provided to us by Reality Travels, a company run by residents of Dharavi slum, to bring awareness of the actuality of slum life to the outside world. In Mumbai alone, there are approximately 9 million people living in slums (approximately 60% of the city’s population), while the number in India adds up to an estimated 104 million people living in slum conditions. Slums are somewhat misunderstood by most Westerners to absolutely be an area where living conditions are completely unfit, dark and dingy, where shelter is usually made up of a tarp or a piece of impermanent structure of sorts, where all the residents are hungry and poor, and where crime runs rampant in the streets. While this is the heartbreaking reality for many of the slums in India including aspects of Dharavi, this large heart-filled slum broke these preconceptions in some surprising ways.

The slum of Dharavi takes up a meager area of about 2.1 square kilometers (.81 square miles), yet houses approximately 1 million of Mumbai’s residents inside its borders, the majority of which are men, but also many family members of all ages. Much like a small city, there is an industrial area, a residential area, schools, and segregated religious areas where Hindus, Muslims and Christians all live peacefully in relatively close quarters.

In order to enter the slum, our tour guide led us across a bridge and down the stairs onto the main street where one could find a variety of shops, eateries and even a movie theatre (which consisted of a dark room with a projector showing the latest flicks, floor seating, and permitted any kind of food inside to snack on while you watched). The street rang with the sounds of people shouting, horns honking, engines revving, dogs barking, cows mooing, goats baaing and children playing, and was quite packed with the daily hustle and bustle. Years ago, the city had attempted an improvement to all the street traffic by building a large walkway above the busy main street to allow pedestrians to pass more quickly and safely through the cluster. However, this bridge was never utilized by the residents, and now merely acts as a zone for the street dogs, a shelter for some homeless to sleep and shade covering the commotion on the street below.

Eventually we turned off onto a side street in the industrial area and began our journey into the unknown life of slum inhabitants. Initially, we found ourselves walking through many thin, dirty streets, surrounded by towers of bags upon bags of plastic trash. We passed many open workshops, each with a crowd of men circled around a giant mountain of plastic, working on separating out the similar kinds. There was a room full of just plastic spoons, one with only colorful children’s toys, one of plastic bottles separated into their respective colors and another of discarded household appliances. We came to learn that Dharavi is Mumbai’s leading plastic collector and recycler, attributing for 80% of the city’s plastic. Many slum residents spend their days collecting plastic from trash piles, rivers, neighborhoods, you name it. The plastic is brought in droves and then separated into its respective types which are then processed together into little colorful pellets the size of BBs. These pellets are then sold back to manufacturing companies in order to be reused for all sorts of plastic products, excluding plastic used for beverages, food containers or medicine packaging. This industry is what supports most of the residents of Dharavi. However, there is also a large pottery, embroidery, goat leather tanning and soap-making production. There are many villagers that travel to Mumbai to work in Dharavi for most of the year in order to send money back home to their families, hence why the majority of residents in Dharavi are men.

Beyond the industry of Dharavi lies an extensive spread of dwellings. It is relatively apparent which residences are older based on the amount of space they have. Some areas of Dharavi have many bright colored multi-story houses, each with their own small yard and a common courtyard. As more and more occupants decided to move into Dharavi over the years, it became necessary to conserve space and the residences began to shrink and stack upon each other. In the most crowded areas of Dharavi, multi family residences are stacked one upon the other with only a thin walkway between the next set of buildings. There is hardly enough room for one average sized person to pass through the walkway, and one must duck on multiple occasions to avoid power lines and water pipes. There are children who play upon these walkways that it seems may hardly ever see the light of day, as the sunshine never reaches into the depths of the darkest parts of this slum. The streets are wet with water from leaky pipes, sewage and food particles. A man sits on his front step lathering himself up from head to toe for a bath while a woman hangs out of her narrow doorway, only a few feet away, brushing her long black hair as she has a conversation with a nearby neighbor. And still, there is space for all the animals to live: the slum cats, dogs, goats, and cows somehow finding the room to exist.

We passed one simple school within the slum where children of all ages attend classes together. Although throughout India, many children beg for money on the streets, not a single child approached us to ask for anything other than a sweet hello and perhaps a few exciting words of exchange in English. No one seemed to be lacking in anything, their basic needs, although not quite ideal, were covered, and they had the gift of a close knit community to grow up in. Each section of about 6,000 residences shares a latrine, and apparently, sometimes the line can take hours, so one must plan accordingly. Scattered throughout the slum is a mosque, some churches, and a few Hindu temples, existing peacefully side by side. In such close quarters, there is nothing more to do than accept each other and work together to try and create a better life for the community as a whole. Although we are blessed with so many things in our home country, perhaps there are still a few things we can learn from these slum residents about compassion, accepting others, and the benefits of working together. Needless to say, the slum tour left us quite speechless for the rest of the day, and gave us an entirely new understanding and a deep respect for the people working very hard in some of the underground industries of Incredible India.

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