Yesterday we visited Dharavi, the largest slum community in Mumbai. Our group was divided into four teams, each assigned to a guide. Alongside our guide, we entered into Dharavi, a really hectic place that was difficult for me to digest as a stranger. “Here we achieve every day of our lives.” People riding and honking their motorcycles in a frenzy to get to their daily races, carrying loads of plastic material on their shoulders—sometimes boxes full of different things—in order to earn their days. Dharavi is a place where one couldn’t be sure whether chaos was the order or the order was chaos. But there was a sense of order, no question about it.
As we made our way into various commercial districts in Dharavi, I could have glimpses into the ways in which the residents of this community used their wit and skills to make a living. Navigating in a dark and damp maze of narrow back alleys, sidestepping clotheslines and finding our footing on the cracked pavement, passing by several workplaces. I looked into the lives of people toiling in cramped rooms with minimal lighting sometimes no electricity, severing and molding iron with no equipment for their safety. Others had jobs such as dying clothes into different colors and baking delicatessen. Earning their bread in dignity. Although I didn’t use to look at slum communities in a negative light, until this tour, my experience reminded me that when I thought of slums in the past I, most often, considered the extremely challenging struggles of those residents but neglected their perseverance and resilience. The tour added a much-needed layer to my thinking of such communities as my former approach failed to do justice to their whole being. This is especially dangerous because poverty, as a type of structural violence, oppresses the disadvantaged people in ways that strip them of their humanity in the eyes of the people who are the benefactors of this system.
I have realized the existence of this inclination within me as I tended to peer into the houses of people sitting on the floor, brushing their teeth, cooking, or sleeping. They may not have doors but they have a right to privacy and I was violating that. I questioned myself as to why I was able to look into other people’s houses so easily whereas I clearly would have thought twice before doing so in my dorm or in my country. The answer was that I became desensitized to the privacy of these people as a result of the dehumanizing force of their oppression. It became clear to me that this was more than simply a tour to just see Dharavi. This was reclamation of their humanity.
In the afternoon, we had a meeting with Parthenon, an education management consulting firm, in one of the most pretentious skyscrapers in Mumbai that defied the heavens. The building reminded me of the Babel Tower. Everything inside was absurdly luxurious. A snow-white floor with black piano as its centerpiece, windows stretching wide to give full view of the Indian Ocean, red velvet jewelry boxes on display, an artificial waterfall, and marble bathroom stalls…
“MARBLE BATHROOM STALLS?!”
I tried to do a rough estimate of how many Dharavians could fit in one of those rooms. They say everyone is equal. But you’ll see some people are more equal. Don’t be surprised. It’s a funny world of slanted seesaws. Like the one I saw at the Gramshree public school. Except that one was missing one of its seats so one of the kids would have to sit on the bare, rusty, rough iron.
Deciding to reject those privileges after an outburst of petty teenage angst would be just hypocritical. After all, saying that I don’t want these things because the world is not equal is just another privilege that I have. Privilege to have or to refuse. Never ever having been so desperate for something.
I’m stranded on an island of unabashed contrasts and jarring extremes. Everything that I see here is an opportunity for me to reflect. Not to understand. I will never be able to understand what this will mean at the end. I can identify things separately but when they do coalesce to paint the full-sized picture I’m at a loss for words to explain. The only thing that I can do is to unpack each and each and every single experience so they will not be lost. So that they will be screaming the things tried to be kept as secret but, nevertheless waiting for the moment to come flying out through the zips of an overweight, checked-in baggage. I know we all can we feel what the overarching picture is. Our hearts can see it. Our minds and words fail us.