A Tale of Two Cities

I could save this title for comments on the differences of Delhi and Mumbai–but today I realized that’s not necessary. The two cities I’m talking about here are actually just one–rich Mumbai and poor Mumbai.

Today I saw the spectrum in its extremes. I started the day in the largest slum in Asia and ended it sipping cocktails at the India’s most expensive hotel.

Eric arrived from the US a few days ago, bringing with him a chance for me to ditch the dorm beds in cheap hostels for awhile.  This morning, after a night of cocktails and bar snacks, we set out early for a tour of a slum. I battled internally with whether or not taking such a tour was respectful, but I’d heard glowing recommendations of a particular local NGO (Reality Gives) that operates the tours. Multiple sources, all well-traveled and highly socially conscious, recommended that I do it. So we did.

We met our guide at the Churchgate railway station at 9:15 this morning and got to witness some Indian train station insanity first-hand. It wasn’t the overwhelming chaos I’d anticipated, but rush hour was over. We were joined by just two other tour-mates–since the NGO only allows a maximum size group of five people–and hopped aboard a train destined for Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum and the setting for the film Slumdog Millionaire.

The Dharavi slum in Mumbai

Note: The NGO has a strict no-camera policy, which I appreciate, and so any images here of the slum are gleaned from the internet.

We spent the next two hours walking around in mazelike Dharavi, home to more than one million people in .7 sq miles–one of the most densely populated patches of land on earth. The slum is mostly segregated down religious lines, with Muslims and Hindus sharply divided following the 1993 riots. It’s mostly inhabited by migrant workers coming from rural areas hoping to return home once annually with some hard-earned rupees. It’s also home to a startling number of industries–including an extraordinary plastics recycling production process, pottery production, textiles production, leather production and innumerable more. Before you imagine safety goggles and a unionized workforce, consider the stats: The average laborer earns $3 in a 12-hour work day, is likely illiterate, and hasn’t had a day off in months.

Conditions are abominable. It’s extremely difficult to describe such a vivid, brutal reality. The plastics was especially hard to watch. Slum-dwellers collect castoff toys, buckets, and essentially anything else made of plastic from around the city, sort it by color, and throw it into grinding machines that spit out plastic shards. The shards are then treated with toxic chemicals (promptly dumped into the neon-colored sludge that was once swampy mangroves) and eventually formed into tiny pellets. The pellets are then sold to worldwide plastics manufacturers and shaped into blenders, children’s toys, electronics, dishes, frisbees, eyeglasses, you name it. This is the stuff we buy at Walmart.

Men sorting plastics in Dharavi

Dharavi residents were clearly used to seeing the small groups of tourists and paid us no mind. We got friendly smiles, which partially assuaged my thumping guilt for participating in the strange ritual of gawking at other people’s misery.  People chatted and laughed with one another, but their light-hearted attitudes didn’t cushion the shock of seeing (and smelling) acres upon acres of burning plastics, swarms of flies around listless children in the street, toxic waste slithering down the already choked riverbed, and piles of human and animal feces alongside women making papadam bread on the street. All of this compounded with the one-million-person crush of humanity packed into scarcely more than half a square mile. It was, in a word, horrific.

A street in Dharavi

All of that said, the residents of Dharavi do not appear to be what one might call miserable. They are hard-working, innovative, very alive. The slum, despite the indisputably squalid conditions, is well-organized and runs smoothly thanks to the creativity and industriousness of its residents. Some kids were energetic and curious, running up to us and greeting us, asking our names in 10-word English vocabularies. The scents of coriander and cardamom lingered alongside that of smoldering plastic and rotting garbage.

But the weight of the poverty is crushing, and people look unhealthy: Yellowed eyes, skinny, hacking coughs. Men spraypaint without ventilator masks, use table saws with no guard on themselves or the machinery, casually throw used paint containers into open fires (another industry), eat rotting produce coveted by hoards of eager flies.

We saw men working in dozens of industries around the slum. Besides plastics, I’ll mention another one: Vegetable oil cans. Those big multi-gallon Crisco containers come from somewhere, and it turns out that it may just be Dharavi. We saw thousands of stacked cans, some being thrown into an acid wash to remove labels, that would be smelted down and reconstituted into shape, then shipped to vegetable oil manufacturers. One can is melted and reformed up to six times–the can’s current age is discernible based on the thickness of the metal.

Men working on smelting and reforming vegetable oil cans

A man carrying reformed cans through a Dharavi street

A couple of things really struck me. First: Quality. Standards. There are none. No further comment, besides recognizing that with raw materials being produced under zero production standards in filth and by abysmally underpaid workers likely adds up to cancer, both economic and physical.

Second, I’d never before contemplated the origins of the raw materials I saw today. I never knew about plastic pellets or the six lives of vegetable oil cans, nor about the 6-foot-tall stacks of buffalo hides awaiting their next incarnation as Gucci leather jackets. I never thought about batik sarongs being hand-stamped with caustic dyes by a lone man in a dark, windowless room. I couldn’t recognize the flimsy metallic skeleton of a blender’s motor until my guide identified it, and even then I was distracted by its producer’s small lunch of dal and rice getting cold as he fiddled with the jagged edges of one piece.

Plastics burn across Dharavi's landscape at dusk

At the end of the tour, we visited the NGO’s projects in the slum: A community centre offering free English and computer classes and a (rather sparse) kindergarten. We paid our $10 each and filled out comment cards, all feeling somewhat depressed. We took the train back to Churchgate, comparing notes and impressions while being regularly approached by hirjas (transvestites) and beggars looking for spare coins. We were desperate for showers and our exposed patches of skin were visibly dirty from the aggressive grime of the slum. A shower never felt so good, and we’d moved into nicer digs with a great bathroom. Arriving in the Spanish tiled room with Moorish accents was like being transported into an alternate universe where slums were an imagined impossibility.

But it didn’t stop there. We took a much-needed rest, both physical and mental, and set out looking for drinks to take some of the edge off the grim realities we’d encountered. It started innocently enough by exploring a new neighborhood (Fort), which has its ritzy touches but maintains much Indian hawker chaotic identity. Not really finding anything, we meandered back towards Colaba, our home base, and stopped for a beer at a place geared towards tourists but populated by Indians. As we got close to home, I suggested we stop in the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel–severely damaged in the 2008 Mumbai bombing terror attacks–and look around. One thing led to another and soon we were drinking $15 cocktails made with Prohibition-era liquors, complemented by a bartender with excellent English and charming wit.

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel by night

This is the part of the post where I should talk about the disparities between rich and poor, what a country like India should do to close the gaps, how wrong it is for foreigners to drop more cash on a single cocktail than an NGO tour through one of the world’s grottiest slums, etc. My tiny backpacker budget still represents enormous wealth and potential resources in a place starved for cash and opportunity. But it all goes without saying and preaching it wears thin. It’s too exhausting to even contemplate, truthfully. I have the sense that I should feel some crushing guilt but really I just feel like I’m reading the same tired book again and again. It’s the same story everywhere I’ve ever been–even supposedly egalitarian Havana (which, by the way, bears remarkable resemblance to Mumbai for some reason).  And that’s the tale of two cities, or two realities, here and everywhere.


8 responses to “A Tale of Two Cities

  1. Anne Marie,

    I especially enjoyed your Mumbai post. As you may recall I love the chaotic vitality of the city in all its aspects, as we too have enjoyed the discovery and perverse community of Dhravi when we dined there in the home of a colleague (in 1977 when it was also big and crowded), as well frequenting the Taj Mahal many times, as recently as this past June. Your post and its expression of the intrinsic dichotomies are particularly apt and timely, as tomorrow I will be speaking to a neighborhood group in Upper St. Clair library about “Amazing India ! A land of contrasts”. Your “notes from the frontline” will be a very useful dispatch. There is also an insightful article in Conde Nast Traveler from 2009/10 (I guess October) that echoes much that you mention and more. The book, Maximum City is a tour de force of “understanding Mumbai” if you want to plow through it. Try to get to Elephanta Island, if you can for yet another take on the fascinating city. I hope you can continue to revel in India. Life is complicated, but few places throw so much of it at you all at once, as does India. Best, T.

  2. Anne Marie, I learned so much from reading this post. Thank you.

  3. I feel so bad for those people. Now I feel lucky for what I have

  4. Now that I know where plastic comes from, I won’t use it as much so they might not have to work hard.

    You did an amazing job on writing your description. I felt like I was almost there.

  5. Reducing consumption of plastics is great, but if we really want to improve the lives of the world’s laborers it’s more effective to lobby our government to work toward initiating a universalised fair labor law. If the U.S. and other countries with large buying power won’t allow the importation of products made under inhumane conditions, the people responsible for those conditions will be compelled to change their practices in order to get their goods to market.

  6. Great post. It truly is everywhere… and exhausting. Hardly fits in my brain either.

  7. Pingback: Dharavi Revisited | Half a Year and Half a World

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