I moved into Dharavi one wet monsoon day in September 1996. I lived there for three years, and left it only to go to Stanford University in 1999. I wanted to live among the people with whom and for whom I claimed to work for more than eight years as a social and political activist. I wanted to extinguish my ideological contradictions – a middle class activist working for the underprivileged.
Dharavi is an iconic Mumbai neighbourhood – like Malabar Hill or Nariman Point or any upmarket district that defines the city’s cultural vivacity. Rising from a fishermen’s hamlet in the middle of the 20th century, today it occupies an area less than half of New York’s Central Park with a population as large as Helsinki’s. That is a million people living on 160 football fields. Dharavi can’t be relegated to the margins of urban existence; rather, it’s the spirit of an urban imagination.
It is not abysmal landscape, but a pulsating metaphor.
The communal riots of 1992-93 had shaken me to my core while working as a relief worker in psychologically distressed Bombay. I wanted to experience Bombay’s heart of darkness. But, in 1996, I was awed by what I saw.
Although the traumatic viscerality of the riots had not yet been pushed into the depths of its murky sewage waters, it was safe in Dharavi for a woman to walk at 2 am without the fear of being touched.
Thousands of Muslims could pray every Friday in the open without the threat of being harmed.
Myriad festivals could be celebrated – by Koli fishermen and Dalits from Warrangal to Brahmins from Marathwada and Bhumihars from Dharbanga. Marxists intermingled with Sainiks, Gandhians with Sanghis, the sundry politician with the savvy NGO madam. Dharavi was life reverberating with resurgence.
Dharavi is a symbol of India’s tenacity, of the periphery more vitalising than the centre. Take away Dharavi and the thousands of settlements like it from Mumbai and all that will be left is a blob of humanity stuffed in concrete matchboxes shuttling in local trains packed like sardines. Dharavi is not that part where the underbelly of the city struggles through a miserable existence. It is Mumbai’s corporeal alter ego, its jaan.
My landlord was a retired foreman of a car factory, his eldest son a reticent railway officer, his middle son an entrepreneurial electrician, and the youngest one an ebullient press photographer. Among other things, we shared the latrine. I befriended an out-of-work textile trade unionist who made extra cash by showing old Disney cartoons on a rickety 16mm projector during Ganpati festivals that his father, a roving bioscope man, had left him. I was neighbours with industrious housewives who dexterously assembled transistors faster than my computer would boot Windows 95. Aged grandmothers who made papads with a boisterous cacophony that would put kindergarten kids to shame.
It is in this vibrant and pulsating dissonance that I fervently wrote poems of love, longing, destitution and hope. It is here that I worked on a photographic project documenting the vigour of this inner-city village. It was also here that I conceived my first feature film - writing the first draft as monsoon showers crashed on the tin roof of my quarters while I stuffed myself with homemade idilis and appams bought from a jovial Madrasi amma who also sold aphrodisiacs wrapped in Marathi newspapers.
In fact, Dharavi is not a slum — it’s a city in itself. It is 20th century India’s effervescent Varanasi. It’s a city with the heart of a village. It’s not an abrasion that must be hidden. It is a heritage to be preserved. Dharavi cannot be wished away — it has to be engaged. It is not where slumdogs quit to become millionaires. It is where slumdogs thrive and celebrate their doggedness.
(The author teaches anthropology and film studies at Yale University. His first feature film, Nirakar Chhaya, was seeded while he was at Dharavi)