The Dharavi spirit
Ever since Slumdog Millionaire released there has been a lot of discussion on whether it is right to portray India’s poverty. Well, SM is not a treatise of history nor a documentation of life in a slum. It is a fictional account based on a novel and presented in a cinematic, dramatic fashion. Yes, it’s been tweaked, but that’s what commercial cinema is about. And ofcourse the film did not show the complete reality, but that’s all right because it’s just a film!
If one wants to know the whole truth, then the reality is that slum dwellers in Dharavi are a spirited and hardworking people. Dharavi is a place where human spirit and enterprise lives and triumphs against all odds. Far more so that in the luxurious apartments of the rich.
To imagine that Dharavi is a den of crime and sleaze is the huge mistake that foreigners make when they come to India, and it is possible that they equate it with the slums which used to exist (or exist) in their countries. This is what has been said about slums which used to exist in New York. Jacob Riis published a groundbreaking photo journal documenting the conditions of the New York slums and he wrote:
Every time a child dies, the nation loses a prospective citizen, but in every slum child who lives the nation has a probable consumptive and possible criminal.
And if this article is accurate, it appears that New York was synonymous with muggings not very many years ago…and certain areas were at one time associated with crime. Dharavi is not associated with crime, never was. Poverty and filth yes, but not crime.
I don’t know whether slums in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) really were “infamous favelas, with their drug gangs and ocean views” or whether the slums in Cape Town and Johannesburg were only about “illicit beer halls known as shebeens” but I do know that Mumbai’s slums are not about illicit liquor dens and drug gangs.
Deepa Krishnan has written about Dharavi’s bright side on her blog:
…several bright-eyed children going to school…many, especially the little ones, were walking with their mothers. I saw mothers carrying schoolbags and tiffin boxes and bright plastic water bottles, walking in that determined way that only mothers have, hustling their kids to school in time. After the depressing sights I had seen, the sight of these young kids was like a ray of sunshine…Still further down, I saw the Lijjat Papad van making its rounds, collecting papads and distributing fresh dough for making more….It lifted my spirits. It’s not all beyond repair, I told myself. There are good things too. Even among squalor and depressing conditions, Dharavi always manages to show a little bit of its bright side to anyone who cares to see it.
Some foreign visitors too have understood what the real Dharavi is about. Like Christopher Way who said to Smithsonian magazine:
We’re trying to dispel the myth that people there sit around doing nothing, that they’re criminals…we show it for what it is—a place where people are working hard, struggling to make a living and doing it in an honest way.
Reality Tours, which offers slum tours to “poorists,” has managed to help shed the myths of some people who came here to see the places where Slumdog was shot. Sam Cameron after a recent slum tour said to the DNA:
You could learn a lot from the people in the slums. They have a sense community that is way stronger than what we ‘civilised’ people have. Every single smile is returned. It is a positive community. The movie has highlighted only the negatives.
Another tourist, Mark Styles says:
There is nobody in the place who is sitting without work. There are makeshift schools in every corner where students are studying and helping their families simultaneously
We Indians know this ofcourse, and most of our movies highlight this aspect, and tend to push the stark poverty into the background. The foreign films tend to do just the opposite. The truth lies somewhere in between.
There may be poverty, but the human spirit is supreme here. Kalpana Sharma in a book she has written on Dharavi, (Rediscovering Dharavi) talks about a Dharavi where “citizens have defied fate and an unhelpful state to prosper through a mix of hard work, luck and ingenuity…” The truth is that Dharavi is teeming with small businesses making everything from pots and pans to purses and papads. Sure, many of these businesses are illegal, operate without a license, and the workers work too long and too hard and safety norms are flouted…but they do work. They don’t steal.
They may be poor but they have pride. Certainly more pride than the Ramalinga Rajus and Harshad Mehtas of the world.
Dharavi has its own site and for those who want to find out about the real Dharavi that’s the place to start. The place holds almost a million people in a small area of 550 acres, “and it’s about 11 times as dense as Mumbai (Mumbai is the most densely populated city in the world with 29,500 people per square kilometer) and more than 6 times as dense as daytime Manhattan (about 50,000 people per square kilometer).”
I want to end this post what the Dharavians say about themselves:
Those who have never ventured into Dharavi may imagine it as a wasteland of tent-like temporary structures, an immense junkyard crowded with undernourished people completely disconnected from the rest of the world, surviving on charity and pulling the economy backward. Beneath the sea of corrugated tin roofs, the reality could hardly be more different. Dharavi is a highly developed urban area composed of distinct neighborhoods and bustling with economic activity that is integrated socially, economically and culturally at metropolitan, regional and global levels.
(Photos are copyrighted to me)
Related Reading: Slum Tours in Mumbai
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