if God exists, he must be in India

Growing up as a second generation Indian immigrant in the United States, I’ve often tossed around the popular expression: “if God exists, he must be in India.” As seemingly comical and perhaps even controversial this pithy statement appears to be, it pervaded my experience on the reality tour at the Mumbai slum, Dharavi. There was no way to mentally or even physically prepare ourselves for today. Despite our extremely effective and helpful discussions about perspective, humility, and the “mind’s eye,” the sheer overwhelming force of what I saw at Dharavi ironically both numbed and heightened all of my senses. I began with a downward (literally) focus: weaving delicately around piles of muddy trash, quickly tiptoeing over open drains, avoiding large puddles of every shape, size, and color. However, how could I ignore everything going on behind, above, and beside me? It was dizzyingly impossible to maintain a 360-degree view and a figurative understanding of everything that I was witnessing. At times, I was so flabbergasted by the efficiency of the industrial activity that I found myself staring at old men reshaping oil cans till my irritated, itchy eyes alerted me to the smoky fumes. I couldn’t comprehend how the absolutely adorable slum children simply wanted to shake our hands and hear our voices, whereas the street children that I encountered on a shopping trip the day before desperately begged at our heels, following us persistently.

I guess I’m not really sure what I expected Dharavi to be like. On the bus ride from the American School of Bombay to Dharavi, I sincerely tried to clear my mind of any preconceived notions of poverty and slums so that I could truly engage in the full experience. However, the staggering statistics, immense industrial and commercial activity, and absolute, abject poverty just didn’t fit together. In a place where 96% of the residents own televisions, how can daily life operate on a ratio of one toilet to 1500 people? How can a robust, middle aged man hunch over a sewing machine all day, sleep on the marble floor beside his completely school uniforms, and make barely enough money to visit his family in his village once a year, on Eid? We definitely engaged in a holistic experience: I saw immaculate residential quarters amidst filthy alley ways, heard the voice of a small child chatting on a cell phone while brushing his teeth over a gutter, smelt the unforgettable scent of putrid garbage, fresh goat hides, and cooked food (all mingling together), and touched the chalky surface of a freshly made pot by a Gujarati Muslim. Dharavi definitely surpassed my expectations because despite arriving there with an open mind, I couldn’t possibly comprehend and make sense of everything that we were exposed to.

Of course, being an Andover student, my utter bewilderment of Dharavi didn’t hinder me from trying to rationalize and even justify the extreme injustices and fleeting moments of bliss that I observed at Asia’s largest slum. That’s why that familiar adage, “if God exists, he must be in India” repeatedly popped into my head. It’s easy to say that India is a land of contradictions, but until I saw Dharavi I didn’t fully understand the depth of that statement. Moreover, because India is defined by a rich religious tradition, it makes sense that one could reason that the survival and even success of a place that shouldn’t work can simply be attributed to divine control. I guess what made me most uncomfortable about Dharavi was that I couldn’t eloquently or concisely capture, in words, my reaction to our tour. The experience there was undoubtedly unforgettable, and I think that it will spur numerous discussions, perhaps even arguments, and meaningful reflections that will help us grapple with everything we felt- because as of right now, I’m no longer content with believing that the existence of Dharavi in the emerging world power that is India is merely an act of God.