My madhouse. My city of dreams.
From the roof Dharavi blends into one entity, one shimmering expanse of metal rooftops and bright blue tarps. Plastics teeter on the edge of each roof: bright yellows, pinks, greens, and purples drying in the sun. Workers occasionally walk by, turning the plastic over and exposing it to the blazing sun of a monsoon season with no rain. These workers treat the experience casually, as if seeing their world from above is simply something they have done before and will do again.
I have never seen Andover from anything higher than the top floor of our science building. Imagine what it would be like to know your world as intimately as the people of Dharavi understand theirs.
Our guide Sunny says that Dharavi presents itself as organized chaos to both those who live and those who visit. I see Dharavi as a web of closely woven strings, with each string being tugged at random. For some, their connection to Dharavi is taut, while others hold the ends of strings loosely in their hands. The strings are bound together tightly, and when one is pulled, another must give. The movement is unceasing.
From the minute we enter Dharavi, I too feel a tug inside of me. I stumble over the uneven slabs of rock that cover open drains. I spend precious moments with my eyes locked to those of a young man standing in the door of a machine production factory, a faint smile on both our lips. I see women rolling out dough and men sitting at the potter’s wheel, children playing cricket on the top of a heap of garbage, someone taking a bath, someone sitting under a fan, someone selling mangos, someone having trouble crossing a street. Basically, I walk around a slum for two hours watching other humans go about their lives. And I think it is beautiful.
This realization comes when I am stooped over in a dark alleyway, one that is devoid of sunlight, dank, cramped, and quiet. I realize that I have seen Dharavi from above, have looked out across the expanse of community and imagined that I could see each of the one million people who populate the area.
I have also seen Dharavi from the innermost residential alley, have walked the veins where the blood of Dharavi flows every single day. These people are what keep Dharavi alive, and I think it is beautiful. The majestic scale strikes me: one million human beings breathing and sleeping and living in this place I have been allowed inside of.
Do I have the right to say a slum is beautiful? I have not lived here, have not used the public toilet that a thousand others do every day. I have not struggled to find adequate health care at the overcrowded public hospitals or worked in Dharavi alone to support my family in another state, sleeping on the floor of the recycling factory I labor in. Can I feel the pull of people if I have not experienced their poverty?
Our kind host at Parthenon later in the evening refers to Bombay as a madhouse, a city of dreams, and a failure of urban planning. On top of that, he has complete faith that the India of tomorrow depends on the Mumbai of today, and I agree. What I have seen in Dharavi is the extreme life force exuded by each inhabitant, the compassion and community we have spoken about again and again in the past ten days, the humble courage of struggling through poverty every day. And you know what? I feel comfortable calling that beautiful.