There is more hope and industry than squalor in Dharavi, Asia's largest slum
By Mathew Maavak
Within 48 hours, I would be in a different world. I would be taxiing up the verdant Ukay Heights suburb off Kuala Lumpur to plonk on my bed.
With such a guarantee -- printed on a Malaysia Airlines e-ticket no less -- a man can thread where few natives dare venture in Mumbai. I was going to Dharavi, Asia's largest slum.
Think of a shantytown that may host up to 1 million inhabitants in one tiny square mile, and you will understand the anywhere-but-Dharavi hesitations I had encountered during my previous two trips to Mumbai.
"This is not the real India," I was frequently told...
I desperately needed an Indiana Jones, an adventurer, or anyone who can be piqued by the prospect of re-discovering Dharavi first-hand.
That timely quality was found in 25-year-old budding film director Geoffrey Mathews, who stayed just across the street. He had only peripheral encounters with Dharavi until that morning, despite it being a 50-minute bus or train ride away from our abodes in Belapur, Navi Mumbai.
The gateway to Dharavi begins at a suburb called Sion, and that was where we alighted for our first-hand encounter.
I remarked to Geoffrey that it meant "Zion" in French, and he corrected me that it was a corruption of Sheev in the native Marathi. Did the famed Baghdadi Sassoons or some colonial-era bureaucrat decide on the ingenious English diptych? I would never know.
In any case, it was a fitting tribute to India's unparalleled hospitality, spanning 2,500 years for exiled Jews, and 2,000 years for Christians.
However, we were not walking up the mystical Mt Zion that day, not to the City of God where no pain hunger, tears and death existed.
We were going to a place so mortal that unrelenting misery and squalor was the residential promise. I was reminded of the reams written on Kolkata's Anand Nagar, which, translates to the "City of Joy" in English and as a tutorial on the word "oxymoron."
From Sion, an ancient taxi dropped us off at the requested location that was not unusual in its scale of decrepitude. Run-down neighborhoods in India take a turn for the worse before they are reincarnated as an avatar of redevelopment."So, where are the slums? Where is Dharavi?"
We were, in fact, already in the midst of it when that the question was posed. Periodic signboard checks served as a confirmation.
However, this was not the slum we expected. Instead of rows upon rows of makeshift plastic hovels straddling construction sites in India, this place was a labyrinth of grocery shops, tailors, pharmacies, private medical practices, metal works, leather tanneries and so on.