Friday, June 22, 2012

Sipping Chai in Dharavi

If you find yourself lost, you have only just begun your journey.

That's what it felt like when I looked at the sea of people crossing the bridge over the train tracks and pouring into Dharavi, famously known as "Asia's Largest Slum" and, supposedly, captured in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. 

Dont look down, they might say to you, as you dodge children and waves of people moving in every direction over the bridge. You hit the ground on the other side. Look up! See the woman leaning in the doorway of the second floor apartment, sewing and adjusting her sari? Children in uniforms scatter around you, running, pushing each other, and throwing a rock back and forth. The older ones are clinging together, staring at you wide eyed and giggling. "Hello," they'll say. And then they'll burst into laughter with pleasure when you respond.

Now the road forks and you have to decide where to go. To you it looks the same on both sides. Here no one stares at you because they want something. You feel safer walking around in the very crowded, busy and tangled streets there than you have anywhere else here. People dont look at you like they wanted something (this is the first time this has been true for the entire trip). They just look at you as though you are a new face in a very tight knit community, and when you smile they smile back. 

An invisible rope of shared foreign-ness keeps you tied to the other students you came with. You follow them through tiny, dark spaces, stepping over exposed pipes, drying clothes that have fallen from the wind, the lost cricket ball of children playing just ahead of you in an open square, and the occasional potato chip wrapper. 

We sat on the third floor of a loft with a small chat store on the ground floor. A man arrived selling Chai towards the end of our discussion about the community and the city (I, of course, was asking about local gangs, crime and violence... none of which played a huge role in this neighborhood). People live SUPER close together, but it isnt scary and claustrophobic which is what I was worried about. This community is one of the examples of this city where 60% of the population lives on just 5% of the land. And this is the 3rd largest city in the world. (Does this help with you picture of volume?)

It is really dirty: there is trash everywhere because the city doesnt provide sanitation options, and there is just 1 public toilet for every 1,440 people so people shit in areas where they can find space/some semblance of privacy. But there are little tienditas everywhere, there are potters, and tanneries and all of these highly skilled craftsmen who have been practicing the same trade for generations and supplying the entire city and export market with really incredible goods.

The children also came up to me and shook my hand, introducing themselves in English and asking me for my name with huge smiles. I felt much more welcomed here than I had anywhere else. And there werent cars etc mowing you down.

The Chai was a nice touch. It was boiling hot outside, the sun was out in full force for most of our trip but it made the city so much nicer to see and be part of then the sheets of rain from a monsoon would have been. The tea was sweet and dark...sort of like the conversations we were having in that room before we headed out to explore the city with a man who knew his way through all of the twists, turns, stores, homes and people we found across the city.

And really, it was like a city all its own. 

So if you find yourself lost in Dharavi, you have only begun your journey. 

No comments:

Post a Comment