“Dharavi has a population of 1 million people living in an area of 1.75 sq. kms. The area generates 665 million US$ after taxed, and probably as much in undeclared income, from the thousands of industries that operate there”, our tourist guide, courtesy Reality Tours and Travels rattled off.
Though I have shot several times in Dharavi, it’s mainly been on the Dharavi-Sion Hospital 60 ft. road, and general shots. I’ve been into the tiny lanes a couple of times researching a character. So, I was up for the “Reality Tour” that my colleagues were going to take, prior to our shoot there next week.
The young boy who was taking us around lives in Mankhurd, New Bombay. His father saw the advertisement in the papers, and said he should check out an opening for tourist guides. I didn’t get around to asking him why? Perhaps his father thought he needed a reality check, perhaps he thought it would be a good experience, perhaps this boy was not doing anything else. Whatever the reason, our 20 year old guide was as awestruck by his own experience of Dharavi as he was about showing it to us.
We were a little impatient, I confess. Being documentary film makers, we’ve seen a lot of “real India”, and we had more questions than he had answers to. Two of us, who are women, also didn’t take too kindly to his notion that his job would be too tough for a girl to handle. Or that we wouldn’t be able to walk for 2 & 1/2 hours. We did a full 7 hours of walking yesterday (and me, once again on high heels. What’s with me, and wrong shoes? I hadn’t been stupid, just didn’t know the agenda.)
I was inclined to be more lenient however, just because he was so young, 20. I’ve reached that age, when a 20 year old could be my kid. And I remember how incredibly silly I was at 20. I lived within the covers of a book, and I thought of my life as a novel. I just thought I had to turn a page, for something new to happen, and that if things got bad, all I needed to do was to close the covers. So when it did, reality hit me hard.
Anyway, it’s a decent tour. It’s not intrusive, they have a no-cameras policy in a lot of places, and the ease with which the young guide walked in and out of workshop premises, and his exchanges with the people there, reflected a good, friendly relationship between the tour company and the people living and working in Dharavi.
Of course, because since we two women were walking with a Western guy, everyone assumed that we were foreigners, though we look 100% Indian, and I was wearing a salwar kameez. It’s only when we answered questions in Hindi, and I showed off my Marathi, that the kids believed that we were from Mumbai. Not many Indians take the tour.
And yes, though Dharavi is an unexpectedly safe place to be in, easier for a tourist to walk around in than Colaba with it’s scores of beggars and vendors haranguing you, banks and credit card companies black-list Dharavi residents, and don’t give them loans and credit cards that easily. It’s the same with film people, so I’m not shocked, though I make appropriate noises of commiseration, when the local cable guy tells me what it’s like to live in Mumbai-17.
The best part of the tour for me, was to climb up the asbestos roof of one plastic recycling unit, and see the asbestos rooftops of all the other units spread out, like another world altogether, people drying out plastic pellets, piles and piles of plastic stored for future use. I’d only seen these asbestos shacks with plastic piles on top from the road, but from the rooftop one couldn’t see the road at all. I’ve always been fascinated by rooftop/terrace worlds.
The recycling industry is I think a model of Indian ingenuity. Everything from old drums to CPU backs to shaving creams past their expiry date (recycled into washing soap) is used up. It satisfied my Indian, middle-class soul.