In January I spent three weeks in Southern India. This post was written at the end of our stay in Mumbai. I hope you enjoy it!
Before my first trip to India last winter, I read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo’s acclaimed non-fiction narrative about her three years of exploring a Mumbai slum. In addition to painting a portrait of slum life, it also provided a lens from which to examine my experience of India and tremendous insights into issues of corruption, caste, economy and poverty, all elements of any journey to India (along with the amazing sights, sounds, smells and tastes.) So, when I decided that two weeks wasn’t anywhere near enough to even begin to grasp this complex country and decided to visit again, this time in the south and for a longer period of time, I wanted to go deeper into the country and better understand its social and economic fabric.
We arrived in Mumbai last Wednesday and were immediately struck by this city’s juxtapositions. Wealth and extreme poverty live side by side. Vast tracts of slums border the most expensive home in the world. Exactly what I had expected, and shocking nonetheless. I was equally struck—and perhaps more surprised—by just how much I liked Mumbai—beautiful old British buildings, artsy areas, restaurants to die for, amazingly open and friendly people.
On our last day in the city, after we had seen many of the conventional sites, we journeyed deeper into the belly of Mumbai. We began our day at the Sassoon docks, where descendants of the earliest people of Mumbai fish and sell their fish. We then went to the Dhobi Ghat where much of Mumbai’s laundry is processed. The fact that a city still does its laundry with virtually no electricity—manually rubbing, beating, and spinning the laundry—and that so many piles of laundry are brought in, cleaned, dried, ironed and returned in perfect condition to their rightful owners–including massive loads from hotels and public facilities—took my breath away.
We explored the Matunga market with its stalls of fruits, vegetables, spices, beans and flowers strung for decorations at weddings and other festivities—and its gorgeous colors and amazing smells. The people, in their colorful clothes, added to the richness and sensuality of the experience.
Finally, we headed to meet our student guide, Farzan, who, for the next couple of hours, would take us on a tour of Dharavi, a city within a city. While classified as a slum, we were told and our experience was evidence that, the word slum was a poor fit. In Dharavi, one million people live and work in a space barely occupying a single square mile. The combined industries of Dharavi produce a billion dollars in revenue (impressive despite the fact that dividing revenue number by the number of residents results in an annual per capita income of just $100.) It is a city of working poor. Crime and drugs are not pervasive issues, there is no prostitution, there is relative harmony (not unique in India) among the myriad religious sects, children are educated and, like our guide, can end up with college degrees and middle-class professions. There are even wealthy residents who chose to remain in Dharavi when it wasn’t economically required, because of the sense of community and connectedness.
We moved quickly through narrow and narrower streets, visiting residential, industrial, and commercial areas within Dharavi. Seventy percent of Mumbai’s trash (and some percentage of American trash) makes its way to Dharavi where it is processed: cardboard is made from recyclables, used inner tubes are made into rubber piping, and scrap metal is melted and crafted into items such as the base of blenders. An enormous amount of plastic is sorted, melted, and shipped out. Local industries serve other local industries by creating the tools and machinery they need—typically from recyclables. In addition to recycling, Dharavi’s industries include embroidery, leather (75% of India’s leather goods spends some portion of its life cycle in Dharavi) and pottery.
Dharavi was, for me, a lesson in the mind bending complexity of globalization. American trash making its way to an Indian under city, where it provides a means for the very poor to make a living and use that to fund the possibilities for a next generation to emerge from profound poverty—paints an inspirational picture. More complicated is that the plastics factory is an environmental disaster (as is the leather industry), living conditions for much of Dharavi are unfathomable for a Westerner, income inequality in India is extreme, and the pervasive corruption makes solving any of these problems unusually challenging.
I am often asked why I choose to visit India. The answers are many. And one of the most important reasons for me is the imperative of understanding what it means to live in a globally interdependent world. Our few hours in Dharavi were perhaps the most powerful demonstration of the complexity of that interdependence that I have witnessed. I am enormously grateful to have had this opportunity and recognize that it is extreme privilege that allows me to make this trip.