More Complex Than I Could Know

I look down into a smiling face. A small hand closes inside of mind and we shake. She asks, “What is your name?”. “Rachel”, I reply, as I follow the rest of the group down the narrow alley, continuing our tour of Dharavi. Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, is home to one million people. Living and working quarters are tight. Dharavi is barely two-thirds of the size of Central Park in New York City. Residents have a three to five hour period in which to get water. Toilets are sparse and communal. Trash is in large piles and it floats down open pipes in the street. It is hot and muggy. I constantly swatted flies around my head. Some of the smells were awful.

We first visited the industrial section of the city. Dharavi is a unique slum. The estimated total economic output for the city is between $600 million and over $1 billon. People come and stay voluntarily. In the industrial section, I saw mostly men. They came to work to support their families. They lived in the workshops and sent nearly all of their money home. We walked into a dimly lit workshop in which a row of men were stamping cloth with wax. I was surprised with the amount of precision he used. Seemingly effortlessly he let the stamp fall onto the cloth perfectly in line with each previous one. After stamping the cloth, the men would dye it and then it would be sold. The man I was watching could make 300 cloths in one day.

We then moved on to the residential section of the city. Here I saw men, women, and children. Men and women carried large sacks on the heads, and children played in the street. I began making eye contact with them. I would look at them, they would smile, and I would smile. I was hit by something more than misery or pity. The people of Dharavi were people just like me. They experienced more emotions than just sadness or despair. The children smiled and said hi to me. They shook hands and asked me my name. I looked down into their faces and felt a sense of hope.

I did not feel a sense of resentment from anyone about their condition in either the industrial or residential part of the city. This was their life, these were their jobs, and this is what they were doing. Everything seemed matter of fact in a sense. It appeared that happiness was in the city.

But at the same time, it is undeniable that the living and working conditions are bad. I believe there are basic rights that every human being deserves. The people of Dharavi deserved access to clean water, to toilets, to better health care and education. The people aren’t that different than me. The main difference is I was born in the United States to a middle class family rather than to a family in the slums. It is an accident of birth.

My trip to Dharavi has left me confused. I feel that the situation should be improved. No human being should have to live and work under conditions as poor as the ones I saw today. However, I am unsure how I would help or what I would change. I am not sure I know everything I am feeling right now. The experience was overwhelming. Before going into Dharavi today I thought of it rather simply as an Indian slum. My expectations were low. I expected to see poverty and suffering. But what I found exceeded my exceptions. There was more than just suffering. I saw happiness. Yet, at the same time, I know that the people should not have to live like this. What I know is that after looking into that little girl’s face and shaking her hand, I will be less quick in my oversimplification of the city. Dharavi is complex, full of different emotions.