Reviews of Rashmi Bansal and Deepak Gandhi’s book Poor Little Rich Slum are out. The collection of stories, according to one reviewer, attempts to ‘close the sympathy gap’ with real short stories of people in Dharavi. There is reason to cheer the book - the divide it seeks to close is real.
Ironically, all that we know of brand Dharavi is what we see in the media. This is truer in the case of the visitors from abroad, thanks to Slumdog Millionaire. The aura surrounding Dharavi, how the ‘slum’ is perceived, and what Slumdog Millionaire did to emboss some impressions indelibly, is perhaps a subject that needs to be studied. What will make an even better case to study is the undoing of this stereotyped imagery - if it is accomplished.
I got a firsthand feel of the Dharavi aura among foreign tourists when some delegates from international offices of a media agency landed in Mumbai for a conference, not too many years ago. A friend employed with the agency reached out for help in arranging a ‘Slum Tour’ of Dharavi. They were not keen on going with one of the professional tour guides - ‘slum tours’ were booming.
We decided to show them the Dharavi that we thought they should also see.
We started with breakfast of idlis and egg dosas. After the visitors had nibbled enough, it was time to visit the Kamarajar School, which was thankfully closed. Permissions to open it up for visitors had been procured. Our visitors watched intently at some special coaching classes for kids taking their board exams. The teaching staff took us through the school and its many labs, and when we came to the computer lab, one visitor confessed that he did not have the same large flat screen displays back at his home in the US. He was informed that kids here start learning on these computers in class one, aged six.
Visitors were also told that the school was started many years earlier, and is supported by a trust comprised of about 20,000 people, including traders from the area.
Clearly, this wasn’t the Dharavi they expected. They wanted to see the ‘slums’. A short walk behind the school took us into one, lined with shops on either side fronting homes, with women selling fish and snacks.
Our guests sated with the sights, sounds and smell of the ‘slum’, we moved on. With enough ladies in the entourage, we had to stop by some of the leather stores, of which they had read enough. They knew the tanneries were a big business in Dharavi, employing thousands. Post shopping for belts and bags, it was time to see yet another facet of Dharavi – its heart.
Providing shelter, food and perhaps more importantly, education, to around 50 ‘abandoned’ girl children is a small three-room apartment in a typically Dharavi society on the main road. We took our guests in. A room to one side doubles up as a classroom, as one made out from the black board. Most of the kids were in school uniform - they are enrolled in a nearby school, we were told. Running this show is a couple who used to live in the same apartment – until they had to move out to make way for the children, whose numbers have swelled steadily. They do so with active support from the traders of the area, accommodating fellow residents of the society and helpful doctors in the locality.
Answering queries of our curious guests was a young girl, a duly qualified nurse employed at a hospital nearby. She was among the first girls to be adopted by this home. She is now empowered to earn her living. She stays at the home, and helps with its running, taking care of her younger ‘siblings’ when she’s not at work, the visitors were informed.
For the bunch from different countries, Dharavi was not one Dharavi anymore - much like India is not one India.
Gokul Krishnamurthy, editor, Campaign India