Monday, December 7, 2009

Slumdog Millionwhat???

In my final three days in India, and all of Asia for that matter, I settled into the Salvation Army Red Shield youth hostel in Mumbai. This place was rough, even for hostel standards: the walls - on which there were numerous knife-etched warnings to "KILL THE BED BUGS" (the Lonely Planet I made copies of confirmed this itchy problem) - were so thin in my dorm room I could hear a boisterous group of Koreans deep into the night. One morning, when I told an employee the water wasn't working, he remarked that yea, it was out. "When would it be back?" He just shrugged and stood there. But, it was only $4 a night AND it included breakfast. Winner winner.

However itchy or smelly it was, the Red Shield wasn't nearly as bad as the housing for the majority of Mumbaikers, many of whom live in Dharavi. Dharavi, if you remember, is the Indian mega slum that figures largely into 2008's Slumdog Millionaire. In the movie we see Jamal and his friends running through the labyrinthine Dharavi passageways, his mother killed by radical Muslims, or children getting their eyes burned out and sent off to beg. The images shocked many Americans, myself included.

Over three days I had the opportunity to visit Dharavi, specifically the Sion neighborhood. On the first day I visitedthe Dharavi School, which is providing holistic education to children in the neighborhood. The next two days I ventured deeper in the busti for interviews and research. It had been a while since I'd seen the movie, and what I found blew me away. Of course, true to the movie...which was true to real was crowded. Very crowded. It's hard to overstate this fact for a community of 18,000 people per square acre. I weaved through passageways that were no wider than a meter and was often times forced to duck under arrant wires.

However, what mainly impressed me, rather than the crowdedness, or even the poverty, was the vitality. Everywhere I stumbled, someone was peddling a different product, making an honest living. There was hope, and the market buzz was one little piece of evidence. The magnitude of the diverse economy within Dharavi is enormous - estimates put it around $665 million per year.

At the 13th Compound, we saw ground zero of India's recycling industry, where plastic from all around the world is sorted into colors, crushed into shards, melted, colored, and formed back into pellets before being sold back to domestic and global companies for plastic production. And I think it's safe to say that no Muslims will be raiding the Hindus anytime soon. We walked by one shop and watched as Muslim carpenters crafted miniature Hindu temples made for adorning the local biryani restaurant.

Many of them were doing quite well, and it showed. One girl I talked to named Jaychitra (2nd picture) was studying Business Communication, Banking and Commerce at a convent university. With a strong command of English, she explained to me how her father was a driver and was able to put her through a private university with no loans. She was the first member of her family to attend university, but her was just a few years behind her. Right now she was bus
y applying to banking jobs through and personal emails to companies using her recently enlarged social network.

She wasn't the only of this kind. I met a couple of other young men who were starting up a tourism business, and another who was doing basic graphic design. One Dharavi man even claimed his daughter worked in an investment bank in Mumbai. During my time in the slum, there were certainly signs of poverty, but the overwhelming feeling I got was one of forward progression. I kept thinking back to the slums of Dhaka, where people were losing the battle day by day, some even literally dying in their homes. I kept comparing the tin homes and muddy, flooded land on which the Dhaka homes sat on, to the concrete structures and drainage systems of Dharavi. The Dharavi residents have hope, if not for themselves, for their children. It seems there aren't as many "slumdogs" as might be expected.

1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating, amazing place that must be!