She looks up and sees this…thing, half spider, half man.Tinted, round lens seem to be part of, not an accessory on, his thin, focused face. Underneath the nose is the gray streaked black beard of someone who has lived mere decades but experienced lifetimes. He, currently occupied, spared her no glance as she tremblingly inches towards him. His eight, wiry limbs do not pause movement; they churn and calculate, answer calls, follow itineraries, record memos in enchanting, imperfect rhythm. He is the life beneath the feet of the lavish, feasting guests above, the reason their every request is fulfilled. She stares with awe, fear, disgust and curiosity for a second, to stunned to do anything but watch. This is my favorite Japanese animated movie, Spirited Away by Miyazaki. In this moment, on the cusp of the slum, I am ten year old Chihiro. I have fallen underground and come upon the not-quite horrible, not quite-human being that is Dharavi.
Except, instead of fantasy, what I see is too vividly real for me. I have not fallen into a fantastic home or taken a magical, convoluted path; I have merely crossed a bridge. One so easily non-existent that if I kept my face towards the traffic and brows furrowed with focus, if I avert my eyes and blind my conscience to the makeshift homes and people living on the sidewalks, if I let the thin, dilapidated, rusted sheets of metal be concrete coverups of the impact that is Dharavi, I never have to see this bridge.
I, too, walk trepidatiously, heart tangled in anxiety, caught like a frightened bird in my throat. I cannot breathe. The life that is Dharavi moves furiously through the traffic, emblazes the wary, if not annoyed glances, weaves itself in the whirr of machinery crushing, chopping, collecting, cleaning, and accents the conflict of knowing that ten minutes ago, then feet ago, this place did not exist.
And I feel small, I feel like I am floating, I feel like atop my head is a neon rooster crowing “Here is a foreigner! Here is a trespasser!”. And I want to look down and clench my jaw and put one foot in front of the other until I am back in the safety of a familiar, emotionally and literally cleaner place. I force myself to look up and smile at the men and women (and lord, are those children?) behind the aluminum curtain.
Dharavi notices me. It swings its head and looks through me so, vulnerable, I shoot my head down and wish for home.