Lost in Emotion

Although the tour of Dharavi was almost three days ago, not an hour goes by that I don’t reflect on the experience. Head pressed against the window of a bus travelling through the bustling streets of Mumbai, or staring off into the distance while waiting for the day’s opening activities to begin, my mind transports itself back to that humid, poignant day. I think about Dharavi, I talk about Dharavi, I wake up in the middle of the night to write about Dharavi, because I need to. Leaving the tour I was in tears, because that’s all I could be in, I had no words. When questioned if I was okay, all I could mumble was “overwhelmed,” because I couldn’t translate my knot of emotions and thoughts into words. And I’m still struggling. Let me begin by explaining what I saw. People were smiling, children were laughing and waving, and there was a strong sense of dignity in the businesses we visited. The leather belt business had a sign that was inscribed with "Since 1977" and even in the terribly humid, tight conditions, people invited us into their shops. Yet, I also saw piles and piles of trash. I saw a woman sitting in a heap of garbage. I saw a man in sewage sorting plastics. I saw feet in such poor condition that I couldn't distinguish blood from the color of skin. I saw a mother picking ticks out of her daughter's hair. I saw malnutrition. I saw narrow, narrow pathways, loose circuits, and suffocating living spaces.

I can say that yes, I did see some hope in Dharavi, the hope that comes with a smile, with the sound of a child’s laughter, with the observation of people feeling pride in what they are producing. But simultaneously I saw misery, the misery of living in such squashed conditions, with barely enough room to move, the misery of limited access to water, the misery of having to stamp ink patterns on sheet after sheet, hour after hour, crowded in the sweltering heat.

On and on in a mental carousel, I turn from feeling pity, to realizing it is a horrible emotion to have for people who are throwing themselves into their work, to being ashamed in myself for resorting to such a state, to having optimism for the growth of Dharavi, to feeling further shame in not knowing how to feel. I cannot help but have tremendous pain when thinking about a community whose members die of diseases that medication can easily cure in the U.S., a community whose conditions are so poor that I can see the ribs of children as they run by in the streets, a community that has minimum access to water. I don’t want to romanticize Dharavi. I don’t want to talk about the progress, the goods being produced, or the sense of family felt in the living spaces, because that wouldn’t be fair - fair to myself, fair to you, or fair to the community of Dharavi. I don’t want to pretend that the slight sense of hope I detected, hope that I mentally searched for, prevailed over the harsh conditions. That would be a mechanism to make myself feel better. That would be a simplification of Dharavi’s reality.

I want to feel empathy. But to feel empathy, I would need to understand Dharavi to the extent that I could put myself into the shoes of one of the community’s members. I am not going to pretend that I have already developed the mental capacity to understand Dharavi to the extent that I can even begin to feel empathy, but instead confess that it’s something I struggle to attain hour by hour, on each bus ride, each meal, every night and every morning.

Most pressing is the person screaming inside of me, within every article, documentary, tour, and discussion that makes the people of Dharavi seem as an “other.” I want to stop using “they” and “us” in conversation. I want to stop looking at statistics and economical viewpoints. I want to stop brainwashing myself into the romanticized view of Dharavi being a thriving community of hope. I want to instead learn stories, on an individual level. I want to learn about Dharavi as a community of people and not a series of numbers. I need to find a path to empathy without simplifying what is reality.

Through this jumbled post of words, I do not expect do effectively illustrate what Dharavi is, but hopefully those reading this can begin to imagine its complexity in the fullest sense of the word. In the struggle to find empathy is the challenge of growing a perspective without simplifying the community. Dharavi cannot be described with a single characteristic, a series of words, an article, a chart, a case study, etc. Dharavi is the lives of people. Until I begin to know those lives, I cannot feel empathy. And until I can feel empathy, I will struggle – throughout each bus ride, before every activity, within every bite of each meal, before and after I fall asleep each day, Dharavi will remain on my mind.