We were hoping to meet some girls in Dharavi. Bright, ambitious girls with plans. I call up D who works part-time as a guide at Reality Tours, and lives in Kumbharwada in Dharavi. D’s family has lived in Dharavi for a few generations. The potters were one of the first communities to be relocated from the heart of the city, to the marshland used by unscrupulous, lazy builders as an illegal dumping ground, to save on trucking costs to Deonar. Around 75 years ago.
Turning off from the 90-ft road into Kumbharwada, once again you are face-to-face with the wonder that is Mumbai city, small villages, communes, areas with a life, identity, architecture all their own. Kumbharwada could be a small, crowded village anywhere in the country, with a river supplied by imagination. Small houses, small courtyards, heaps of pots everywhere.
D’s house is tiny, a room for parents, D and 3 sisters. His father doesn’t make pots anymore but sells them in a small shop in Vile Parle. His uncles and other relatives continue to make pots.
D’s youngest sister, in the Xth Std., wants to be a doctor. She thinks it’s great how doctors are respected, worshipped like God. She wouldn’t mind being worshipped. She’s naughty, restless, prone to picking up fights with her sisters just to have a nice ruckus going on at home. The older one wants to get a good job, somewhere, any job, after her BCom. The eldest is away at work already.
D wants to do his MBA, specialize in Human Resources. This is an ambition he has nurtured in the last 3 years of his interactions with different people as a guide. He says he’s an average student, and has to work hard to get decent grades. But he’s been told by happy clients that he’s good with people, that he could do well in HR. He wants to get a corporate job with a MNC, with all the perks, house, car, and move out of Dharavi. If his father agrees to move out. But he’d like to keep this house of his ancestors for life, for remembrance.
D says it won’t be easy for him to get a student loan, because he lives in Dharavi. So he’s making sure he saves up, with his part time work. Perhaps some of his clients will help him, as they have promised.
We also meet D’s neighbor, a girl, who’s been working since she was 15, cooking at homes in Bandra. Laughing all the time she talks, she only hints at a father who can’t work, and a brother who won’t. Mother and daughter manage the house. She’s learnt to make pasta and pizza for her employers, but doesn’t think anyone at home would want to eat those. Anyway, she doesn’t have all the ingredients at home.
D thinks the development plans for Dharavi will make those with small houses happy. They’ll get flats to live in. But what will happen to those with small industries, the potters, the tanners? They won’t be able to work in apartment flats. Where will they go? Where will his community go?
The youngest scamp asks us what a documentary is. My colleague explains, “Like the programs you see on Discovery, you know, on wild animals and all.” My colleague is not being rude, just struggling with her Hindi giving up after a long hard day. I think however, she’s not far off the mark. We make documentaries about people who to us, are as strange, unfamiliar, as wild animals. The only difference is that we need to treat the wild animals with more respect, keeping our distance, in case they attack us, or run away. With people, particularly poor people, we can walk into their space, sometimes with little regard, for their privacy. We turn our cameras on people living, working, bathing, sleeping on the roads, sometimes without even a courteous by-your-leave.
After many years, I feel drawn to a people, like I did in Kutch. Perhaps it’s the way they treat the cameras. They don’t list their complaints, tear their hair, beat their chests, roll out the tears, like many unfortunately do, seeking attention for their real griefs in a trivial fashion. They just go about doing their work. The people at Dharavi are tough, hard working, but also graceful in their ability to negotiate their hardships without much ado, with dignity.