Chris, a university student from the United States, shares with us what he took away from his visit to Dharavi.
This past May, I made my first trip to India. My mother and I have been traveling internationally every summer for the last several years, but had only recently set our sights on the second-most populous country on Earth. Having stayed mostly within Europe on prior trips, we were looking for something a little farther out of our comfort zone, something more exotic. We were feeling adventurous, and India was more than up to the challenge.
Our time in India lasted barely over two weeks, nowhere near long enough in retrospect; the sheer variety of our experiences was staggering, and I know we only scratched the surface of what that vibrant cultural tour de force has to offer. The country is thoroughly unique, full of endless surprises, and seethes with the energy of over a billion people whose warmth and kindness was ever on display.
When I think back to my favorite memories from the trip, some of them are what one would expect: drinking up the sight of the Taj Mahal by moonlight, enjoying views of Udaipur from the Oberoi Udaivilas, and seeing the world-famous tiger Machli in Ranthambhore. Held at least as closely to my heart, however, are a few moments that cannot be summed up with pictures in a travel book: smelling the fragrances of curry and incense on a rickshaw ride through the narrow alleys of Old Delhi; witnessing Gwalior’s joy on the night of Prime Minister Modi’s election; somehow finding ourselves engrossed in an over-the-top Bollywood film we could scarcely follow. parental blocker These human moments are what I treasure most, for they gave me the most insight into what is means to be Indian. One in particular, however, stands out above the rest.
Our last day in the country was unscheduled, in Mumbai. Searching for an activity to fill our final afternoon, we asked a tour guide for recommendations the day before. She referred us to Reality Tours, saying that their slum tours in the city’s poorest areas were not to be missed. We decided—with no small amount of trepidation—to sign up for a tour through Dharavi, the largest slum in the city. We saw it perhaps as some sort of atonement for the privileged trip we’d had thus far; staying in perhaps the most lavish hotels we’ve ever had the fortune to enjoy, there was a sense that we should go out and see the lives that so many in Mumbai navigated every day. I expected to feel markedly out of place, awkward, and potentially even afraid. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more wrong in my life.
Instead, I found myself enthralled by the friendly, open, and animated community that is Dharavi, a place in which unacceptable squalor is met gamely with optimism and cheer. I saw firsthand the stark realities faced by those who sort, grind, and dry plastic, melt down aluminum, or participate in countless other ad hoc industries for a few dollars a day. Most strikingly, I was met with a smile at every turn. I maneuvered through alleys where a million people lived in an area half the size of Central Park and felt completely secure and welcome. Indeed, I felt safer in the slum than in many of the places I’d visited in India over the preceding weeks, whether I was crouching to fit through alleyways or picking a path through a courtyard peppered with drying bread destined for the day’s market. We waded through a panoply of homemade clay pots, drank in a birds-eye view from a rooftop covered in a bright sea of drying plastic, and watched a group of small boys play a spirited game of cricket in what could only be described as a landfill.
At one point, we turned a corner into an alleyway and passed by a group of five children, one of whom spotted us and gasped, wide-eyed. They quickly loped after us, grinning ear-to-ear, then grabbed my arm and began babbling an incessant stream of questions and pleasantries. One young boy asked for my name, and upon hearing it grinned, proclaiming “that is a pretty name!” I laughed, honored by the compliment, and asked for his in return (which I duly applauded, to his delight). As we continued walking, they frantically waved goodbye, and used their best English to wish us well. Though I’d known them for less than a minute, I had the distinct feeling that I was bidding farewell to friends.
To say that I was deeply moved by what I saw and learned would be quite the understatement. In that maze of trash heaps, dangerous industries, and apparent destitution, a vivacious community of astonishingly ordinary people is thriving. They taught me that no amount of documentaries, articles, or privileged platitudes can fully convey either the poignancy of poverty or the utterly familiar humanity of those who suffer it. While the fortunate often heap pity upon them, it seemed the only things they wanted from me were understanding, friendship, and respect. Where I expected to find desperation and danger, we saw a warm, collegial community of prodigious optimism and courage. I got a taste of the way they live, the way they cope, and the way they hope, and they’ve won my undying admiration. I’d love to go back.