My walk through Dharavi (Mumbai’s biggest slum)

From above, Dharavi is an earth-toned patchwork of tin that stretches to the horizon.

But undernearth, it’s a dim labyrinth of tunnels off which spreads a honeycomb of 10’ x 10’ rooms, each home to a family of 4 to 5.

What would seem unfathomable living conditions to most of us is actually a supportive village to Balaji, my 26-year-old guide from Reality Tours.   He is the 3rd generation to grow up in Dharavi and could not imagine leaving.

The best ambassador for Dharavi in IndiaHe says that everything you need to live in right there. While some residents go out into the city for jobs, most work right in Dharavi’s massive recycling system.   Way ahead of its time, recycling started in the ‘70s as a matter of economics – anybody could collect plastics and metals from the city streets and dumps, and sell for money. Today I witnessed every step, from collection to sorting to melting to pressing to workshops that created new products like baby carriers with the recycled items.

There was even one shop with an official door showcasing its trademark name: Dharavi Leathers.

IWasASari, a cottage industry of Dharavi that recycles saris, IndiaThere’re also philanthropic programs like IWasASari, which transforms old saris into bags and scarves, and a robust sewing industry and leatherworks.   And each late afternoon, the earthen lanes come alive with bright carts of green chiles and lettuces, piles of red tomatoes – the freshest produce that reminded me of my farmers market back home, and at the best prices in the city according to Balaji   He says that for 1 rupee you can have a good meal or buy a new shirt.

But community is more than family members and work.   The State of Maharashtra for decades has provided free education up to 10th grade, complete with uniforms and a daily meal. Now, 12-year-olds get a free tablet and 15-year-olds get a laptop. Unfortunately, this was not available to Balaji when he was a teen, but there are still options for him – we stepped inside an adult English class and passed a computer school.

For Balaji, though, he now has wife and 2 children, plus a dependent Mom.  So work is his #1 priority.

Besides, he admits that Dharavi has more serious problems. The sanitation is not good.   There are 100 people for each pair of public toilets so lines are long in the mornings. Dharavi’s entrepreneurs have opened private pay toilets, but men often opt to just go out into the field and they bathe with a bucket right in the alleyways, covered by only a small sarong around their hips.   Women have it a little better, as most homes carve out a private corner for washing up. In Usha’s home, this corner was even tiled which kept it cleaner and cooler.

Usha’s was where I went for dinner.

To enter, I left my shoes at the door and stepped through the day’s hanging laundry and up into the room.   The left wall was one built-in bunk, with a 14” TV hung over one end and a stack of blankets on the other end (the bedding that the other 3 people used each night to bed down on the floor). Above was a cabinet for clothes, below was storage for extra water containers (you get 15 minutes of water each day, out of which you purify some for drinking and cache the remainder in tins for washing and cooking). On the bunk at the edge of this 10′ x 10′ “home” sat the family’s son who was ready to head off to college night class.

The facing wall was lined with closed bookshelf, underneath of which on the floor sat a skinny 70-ish woman in a pink shift meticulously chopping green beans on a wooden board in her lap.

Usha at her Dharavi stove in India's Dharavi My host Mom for dinner in Dharavi,in IndiaAnd in the dark right corner stood Usha at her 2-burner gas cooktop. The aroma of spicy dal, or lentils, was pushed around the tight space by 3 small dusty fans. As I soaked in the warmth of spice and cooking, I couldn’t help but worry about how inhospitable this must be during the heat of May, during which they say gets to 29* C, or about 120* F.

Usha doled out dinner – dal over white rice, and those beans into which freshly shaved coconut has been added, a favorite recipe from her childhood in Goa in southern India.   There was chapatti, a dried bread, and roti wraps, both bought at the market.

Sitting on the floor, cross-legged, to eat, did not seem odd in a country where wealthy Bohra families also each communal-style on the floor, though the Bohra trays are sprinkled with rose petals and adorned with multi-ingredient artisanal chutneys, while this setup in Dharavi, with Usha and me, our knees touching on the floor and the guide on the edge of the bed, eating on plates that were perched on our laps, felt more like my college dorm room.

But I felt genuinely welcome and we shared some fun laughs, my guide translating between Hindi and English.

Now I could see how Dharavi felt like home. Balaji had affordable fresh food and school for his kids.   He had work – in fact, everyone was industriously working on this late afternoon and I saw none of the homelessness that is rampant throughout the rest of Mumbai (or even through NYC, for that  matter).

And then I learned a strange fact: living in Dharavi is actually a privilege.   Another guide of mine, Sunni (see: Dabawalla blog) doesn’t live here because he can’t afford it.   Property values are too high. That’s right – it costs about $30,000 for your 10’x10’ space.   So he lives along with 56% of the rest of Mumbai population in one of the other slums of Mumbai.

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