September 4, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

Twilight City

One Balasundaram of Santacruz (E) wrote a letter to the papers the other day, railing against the slums next to the Mumbai airport. In three sentences, he managed to capture an entire attitude towards slum-dwellers. See if this sounds familiar:

    The slums are so close to the airport boundary that terrorist strikes are possible ... The aerial view of the airport, situated bang in the middle of the slums, is not only frightening but presents a very poor picture to a first-time visitor. The garbage dumped by these slum-dwellers attracts scavenger birds.

There you go. Slum dwellers are criminals, they are an eyesore for visitors, and they are dirty. He did not mention, but I have no doubt he feels it with righteous fervour, that other grave charge against them: they are "illegal." For all these reasons, Balasundaram advises, they must be "cleared." Yes, in the circles where this attitude holds water, we speak of "clearing" human beings. Slum-dwellers, but human beings nevertheless.

Not so far from the airport, about a million such humans live in what is often called "Asia's largest slum." I've often wondered whether that label is used with pride or shame. If you walk into Dharavi, if you spend a day or four just wandering about, the best answer might be "both." It shames India that so many Indians live in the conditions you find there. But at the same time, there is such a lot going on. Such a lot of drive, industry, vibrancy, enterprise. So much spirit. In such squalid conditions, all that cannot but lift you.

Dharavi is no place for the squeamish. But neither is it a place for the lazy, the apathetic, the moaners. In more ways than one, this throbbing heart of Bombay is India. Also in more ways than one, it forces you to see what India could be, and what's holding it back.

In recent times, two different people have chosen this way, rather than the finger-pointing that comes so easily to Balasundaram of Santacruz (E), to look at Dharavi. One is the journalist Kalpana Sharma, whose book Rediscovering Dharavi (Penguin, 2000) is a model of sane, human, down-to-earth writing. She manages to remind us what we should never have forgotten: in those thousands of Dharavi huts, there are garden-variety men, women and children. Not garbage-flinging terrorists. The other is Robert Appleby, an English photographer based in Italy. Like Sharma, Appleby spent weeks tramping through Dharavi. The result is what he calls City of Crows. His sensitive, almost tangible images in that collection capture a certain essence of our urban condition.

Through a number of individual stories, Sharma puts together in her book a three-dimensional picture of Asia's largest slum. It's not that the stories are dramatic, tragic or heroic -- features that, giving in to the voyeur inside us all, you might think are to be found in Dharavi lives. Rather, what strikes you is how ordinary they are, how matter-of-factly told to her. And it is that ordinariness, oddly enough, that makes them resonate.

Take Shamsuddin, who arrived in Bombay in 1948 and lived in a hut in Dharavi. He tells Sharma of those early days:

    Every day my cousins and I would make several trips to distant Virar, then located outside Bombay, where we would buy rice for 1 rupee and 14 annas per pound. We would carry packets of it back as our personal belongings, get off at Mahim station, and walk through the khadi (swamp) ... The rice would then be sold for Rs 10 per pound.
As the years passed, Shamsuddin moved on: from smuggling rice to a stint in a coal company to another at a printing press. About seventy today, he runs a chikki factory. No longer is he in a hut: he lives in one of the several-storey blocks of flats that have, in recent years, mushroomed around the periphery of Dharavi.

Rags to riches in its most elemental form.

A nice story? But keep in mind the context in which it unfolded. For Dharavi encapsulates much of what is wrong in India today. Open drains, piles of uncleared garbage, filth and pitiful shacks are everywhere. Why do so many people have to live like this? That's partly answered by the housing crisis India's cities are buckling under. Foolish laws, misguided policies and venal leaders combine to produce an artificial, but severe, scarcity of land for affordable housing, forcing middle- and lower-class Indians into tiny tenements in impossibly crowded slums like Dharavi. If that's not hard enough, their lack of tenure over the land they live on keeps their lives in a sort of permanent insecurity. All over this country, slum-dwellers are frequent targets of municipal drives to "clear" them.

The Balasundarams of Santacruz (E) look on approvingly. After all, we have to "present" a better picture to first-time visitors. Can't let them see what we Indians have got so inured to.

Indeed: Sharma's book, and her examination of the issues of land and housing in urban India, makes you ask a variation of the question I asked above: why do the rest of us think it's OK that so many people have to live like this?

And yet, as Shamsuddin's ordinary tale also shows, Dharavi is so much more. In particular, this corner of India produces everything from garments to tallow to watch-strap buckles to lip-smacking savouries like chikki, much of it for export. Much of this activity is illegal and unsafe, but that matters to nobody. For these reasons, for decades now, for all its awful squalor, Dharavi has been a magnet of opportunity that has reached out to every corner of the country. There are people here from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and elsewhere; and of course from Maharashtra itself.

That being so, Dharavi is arguably the most cosmopolitan piece of soil in India. When I once ran that thought by Robert Appleby, he remarked: "That should make them splutter in their coffee at the Bombay Gym!"

I accompanied Appleby on a few of his trips through Dharavi. The dominant thought I returned with was contrast. Contrast that almost defines the place. I don't mean here a simplistic notion of a gap between rich and poor. I do mean instead the contrast between the enterprise, ambition and good humour of the people there, and their soul-deadening surroundings. The way life grows from what you cannot help thinking should be fields of despair.

That spirit comes through in Appleby's photographs, spilling over as they are with emotion and life.

Check the amusing shot of the neighbourhood barber at work as the neighbourhood goat noses about. There's the couch potato who seems ready, not for an evening in front of the TV, but for a spell of inadvertent trainspotting. From our suburban trains, you see the shacks that press up against the tracks and it is startling enough. But the impact of the extreme proximity is magnified when you walk from shack to shack in Dharavi, timing your steps to avoid the trains that thunder past almost overhead. Think of that as you meet this young boy's gaze.

And it's easy to miss the young eyes in another shot, but look for them. Because beyond filmstar backs and busts, it is the slightly sad quality of those eyes that makes the picture, and again says something about Dharavi.

My favourite is a quiet, almost pastel shaded image of a potter at work. It's quiet, but it takes you a few seconds to realise that his hands are a blur. For me, since the day I watched Robert take the shot, that blur has stood for the hum of life that's Dharavi.

It is precisely this vast combination, in our slums, of squalor, tension, enterprise and diversity -- and how they energise each other -- that I believe is utterly lost on people like Balasundaram of Santacruz (E). It is in that sense that I said earlier that Dharavi forces you to look at what is holding India back: the attitudes he typifies, the miseries that we ourselves tolerate but want to hide from visitors. But it is also in that sense that you understand, in Dharavi, what India could be. If you like, you can take that to mean the dirt and flies. But this is a place where every free square metre is an opportunity to start a business, where the children of destitute migrants from dusty Bihar backwaters study software.

The future of India is here. Take a look at Appleby's twilight panorama of this corner of Bombay, this place that's forever India. Where is that shimmering band of light leading us?

Dilip D'Souza

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