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Slum gods

Unlike Slumdog Millionaire’s Jamal Malik, these Dharavi residents have made good after long years of labour. Refusing to be embarrassed by their past, they wear it as a badge of honour, reports HT.

india Updated: Jan 17, 2009 23:07 IST

It’s Makar Sankranti. No kites, though, in Dharavi. No one has the time, really. A lungi-clad father holds his young daughter’s hand tight as he leads her to school, hopping with practised ease across the drains and cracked tiles. Young boys in hastily-ironed uniforms, well-scrubbed and hair neatly plastered down make their way on their own through the alleys. A tailor’s machine whirrs away, a worker packs brightly coloured snacks into giant packs out there on the dusty strip that passes for a road. It’s work as usual today.

The world may see it as one big festering sore, but Dharavi is simply about enterprise. About striking gold in the sludge, about working one’s way up the survival ladder. Those who make it up there are far from embarrassed about their past; they wear it proudly like a medal.

And this new movie about how a boy from Dharavi becomes a crorepati, they’ve heard of it — in the timber mart, in the leather factories and the precariously perched homes. They call it just Millionaire. That’s the operative word. And oh yes, there are plenty of boys like that here.

Like P Muthukrishnan, who dropped out of school after Class II, started off from an 180-sq-ft living space in the slum and now caters South Indian food at spiffy clubs such as the CCI and the Willingdon Gymkhana, film studios (“Shah Rukh Khan loved my food”) and weddings.

Muthukrishnan, director of Muthu-swamy Caterers, is Mumbai’s best-known caterer of South Indian food. He has yearly sales of Rs 1.5 crore, employs 22 people and now lives in a 1,200 sq ft flat in the predominantly Tamil locality of Matunga amid temples, colleges and tree-lined avenues. “I came up through sheer hard work and even today, I, my wife and eldest son, Vivek, a BCom graduate, work full time,” says Muthukrishnan. Always in his trademark white shirt and mundu, the entrepreneur celebrates in style: on Pongal day, he books an entire theatre in Matunga, screens a Tamil film for his guests and serves them, what else, his delicious food.

In contrast, Hukumraj Mehta sits on a leather chair in his office, complete with a flat-screen television, computer, and laptop. The Venetian blinds and the continuous whir of an air-conditioner shut out the commotion outside — Mehta chooses to work and live in Dharavi, though his company, Kishore Pharmaceutical Distributors , has a monthly turnover of close to Rs 1 crore.

His father, a farmer, came here from drought-prone Rajasthan and Mehta got into business early. “I realised that Dharavi did not have a chemist store, so I started the first, Abhijit Medical Store,” says Mehta. “Those days you got land in Dharavi for close to nothing.”

Today, he is the general secretary of the Mumbai Pharmaceutical Wholesale Association and supplies medicines to 1,800 chemists from Colaba to Santacruz. “In the slowdown, the only sectors that are booming are pharma and gold,” he beams. He sees gold for his compatriots too: “Once Dharavi is redeveloped, everyone will be a millionaire,” he says.

‘Mehnat kiya, madam’

Deepak Kale, 47, already is a rupee millionaire. At his 1,600-sq-ft flat in one of Dharavi’s few high-rises, sunshine floods in from the huge French windows as Kale talks of how his mother delivered milk bottles, scrubbed utensils and washed clothes to fend for her five children. Kale, the eldest, had to drop out of Dharavi’s Kala Killa school after Class VI to supplement the family income. The year was 1976.

Today, Kale is the owner of Jazz, a flourishing leather goods shop in Dharavi, four other shops that he rents out and two flats. His annual turnover is Rs 25 lakh.

How did a man with little education, no money and no godfathers make this fortune? “ Mehnat kiya, madam (I slogged),” he replies simply, as he recalls how he scrubbed floors in a company before landing a Rs 240-per-month job upholstering sofas. He went on to work for an interior designer and in 1991, opened his leather showroom. “I ploughed back all my savings into the business, to buy shops and real estate. And I have no vices — I don’t smoke or drink,” he explains.

Kale was twice elected municipal corporator but makes it a point to say his wealth was created before he joined politics. “There are still ways of making an honest living in India,” he says.

Kale’s two daughters study in good English-medium schools and if you ask him what he’d like them to do when they grow up, he replies in a shot: “I want them to become IAS officers. Mere bachchon mein desh chalane ki kshamta honi chahiye (My children should have the capability to run the country).”

Rayappa Pitkekar, 48-year-old leather work contractor, says his daughter Priyanka’s dream is to “become what Kalpana Chawla was (an astronaut)”, while his son Kunal wants to be a doctor. Pitkekar has started planning for that day even though he lost Rs 7 lakh in the stock market crash last year. Says Pitkekar, whose business is corporate gift items, “It’s official, all in my demat account,” adding that his annual turnover, which was Rs 26 lakh two years ago, has crashed to Rs 16 lakh.

That figure is still a far cry from the days of his childhood when his mother Mallava earned Rs 1.25 a day rummaging through garbage to pick out reusable plastic for Dharavi’s plastic industry. Pitkekar studied by day, hawked evening papers in local trains, earning Rs 5 for every 100 papers sold, and worked in a hotel by night. The tired youngster often dozed off in class and his irate teachers asked him to choose between school and work. It was hardly a choice. His studies came to a standstill.

He started work in one of Dharavi’s many leather units at Rs 3 per week. “Of this, the owner’s brother, who was a local dada, took back Re 1,” remembers Pitkekar. He could not complain. He merely worked harder to get to where he is now.

Rupee by rupee

Like Kale and Pitkekar, Khursheed Ahmed, 45, who owns KA Timber Mart, with an annual turnover of Rs 25 lakh, has invested in his seven children’s education. His eldest son Ataullah helps him with the business; another studies engineering and the youngest will become a pilot if his father has his way. And two of his four daughters are studying medicine. “I wanted to buy just one house and one shop. My aim is not to buy property but to invest in my children’s education,” says Ahmed, who studied only up to the eighth standard before he came to Dharavi from a village in Uttar Pradesh in 1979.

He kept accounts for a saw mill, where he recalls, “I learnt ‘wood-turning’ work for two years even though I was paid only Rs 300 a month.” He went on to manufacture standardised wooden legs for beds and cupboards. “I went from one furniture shop to another, taking orders,” recalls Ahmed. The only help he got was Rs 2,000 from his in-laws.

If Rs 2,000 doesn’t sound like much, how about Rs 25? The breeze wafting into Mohammad Rais Khan’s fifth-floor bedroom window in Dharavi is precious, for it reminds him of the long nights spent in a stinking Dharavi shanty with four other mates, drenched in sweat because they couldn’t afford a Rs 225 fan. “We had just about managed to pool together Rs 200 but the fan cost Rs 25 more. We had to return empty-handed,” recalls the 39-year-old, now proprietor of Rais Embroidery Works.

Khan came to Mumbai from a village near Allahabad when he was 11, and found work in an embroidery unit. He has worked his way up, literally, rupee by rupee. “My boss gave me one rupee to rent a bicycle for delivering clothes. But I saved that rupee every day and walked,” remembers Khan. With those saved rupees, he managed to rent a machine of his own and hasn’t looked back since. “Later I bought my own machine for Rs 2,500 and worked till 1 am every morning,” he recalls.

Khan’s income peaked about a decade ago, when he imported computerised embroidery machines from China. “All the caps and uniforms that Bharat Petroleum workers wear are embroidered at my units. I’ve also done work for Pepe Jeans, Pantaloons, HDFC, Grand Hyatt and Air India,” he says with pride.

Khan, who continues to live in Dharavi, looks to the future for his four children as he says, “I’d like my son to become a pilot. I’m looking at an investment plan that will enable me to send him abroad to study. But I will place equal importance on my daughters’ studies too.”

A worker hands him a patch that reads ‘Roots to Wings’, and as Khan examines it, the symbolism is hard to miss.

First Published: Jan 17, 2009 22:24 IST