As I stepped out of the Bombay Airport Saturday afternoon, I was struck with an overwhelming sense of familiarity. Not familiarity in the sense that my surroundings were recognizable- the busy streets and the tall structures were anything but familiar to me. It was the heat. The hard-core, unbelievable Memphis-style heat that makes you feel like the sky is pushing down on you with a 5-ton weight.
Over the past few days here, that all-too-familiar heat has followed me. However, instead of reminding me of home, it has only heightened the sense of being in a new place.
Yesterday we visited Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Asia. The population density of Dharavi is unreal. It has the same number of people as San Francisco, all piled into a piece of land the size of the Phillips Academy campus.
Loaded with information similar to the one above, I entered Dharavi expecting many things. I expected uncomfortable, unjust working conditions, overcrowded streets and pungent odors filling the alleyways.
And, for the most part, I was right.
The working conditions in Dharavi are unimaginable. There are so many people in such small spaces that you wonder how they can even breathe. And the smell was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
But Dharavi was so much more than that.
Immediately upon entering Dharavi, I sensed a tremendous feeling of community. Everywhere I looked, there were people not just coexisting in the same area of land, but truly living together. Children ran around laughing and playing, traversing the un-level pathways like they owned them. Women sat together in tight-knit groups, washing clothes from soapy buckets and chatting warmly with each other. Elderly folks rested on the steps of the community temple, sitting quietly in the peaceful camaraderie of the structure.
And then it started to make sense to me. It started to make sense why the residents of Dharavi didn’t want to move into the high-rise apartment buildings the government wanted to provide for them. It made sense why millionaires- people who could literally live anywhere they wanted- chose to remain in Dharavi.
I would imagine that Dharavi is not always an easy place to live. The heat is unbearable, there are flies everywhere, and the residents often have insufficient means to make their voices heard. But I know that if I was lucky enough to live in a community as tight-knit as Dharavi, I would be hard-pressed to give that up.