I was back in Mumbai. It had been almost a year since I had been here. It looked the same for the most part but I knew it had changed. While I was gone it had been rocked by an awful terrorist attack. Even for a city that had experienced numerous violent incidents, this time people told me, was different. These terrorists hunted victims and killed indiscriminately. There was no mercy. Not that there was every mercy in terrorism, but historically the incidents had been mainly bombings which while they killed many, did not seem to have the same element of deliberateness that the November incident had.
As soon as I arrived, I headed straight to Dharavi to meet Jockin. The streets of Mumbai were as I remembered them, filled with people and moving vehicles. There were street children racing in between cars, jumping over the meridians in the road, laughing, shouting and hanging out. The pavement dwellers cuddled to the side of the road, eking out a living and a life on the streets. Their homes and shops spilled onto the roadways in colorful rivers of fabric and goods as black and yellow taxis raced by nearly missing their children who played on the edge. Life was continuing here as it always did. The traffic snarl carried people from north to south and back again along the crowded roadways. Air conditioned sedans transported business people to meetings, upper middle class housewives to yoga classes and foreign visitors to fortress like five star hotels. The late morning sun was melting into mid-day and a film of moist dust was settling on the millions of bodies mulling through the streets. And all around me I could feel it again, the heartbeat of this fantastic city as its rhythm filled the air and vibrated through each and every one of us who bore witness to it today.
As I pulled up to the new building that the slum dwellers had recently constructed I met with a collection of men hanging around outside. They peered curiously into the car as I opened the door to get out. One of them smiled as he recognized me. He remembered me from before and I, him. I asked where Jockin was and he pointed to an open doorway. I picked my way across the rocky, trash strewn roadway in front of the building and stepped up into the doorway, discarding my sandals at the door before I entered.
Jockin was seated cross legged on the floor by himself busily answering the two phones that he held in his hands. As soon as he hung up with one, the other started to ring. As soon as he picked that one up to speak, the first one started to ring. He’d finish his call and pick up the next one, put the phone down until it rang again. Sometimes there were too many calls and he just had to hit the “ignore” button. I sat patiently for a few minutes watching him. He glanced up and me, then peered over his strong glasses and smiled, then answered another call.
Eventually there was a lull in the phone calls and he greeted me properly, saying he was ready for me to spend the day with him today. That was a relief. I was not even sure I would find him here or that he had received the message that I was coming. I wanted to include the stories of his life and his work in the slums in my book. I had been inspired by him and the others who work with him in the Alliance, from the moment I met him four years ago and he shared part of his story with me. Here was a man, an old slum dweller (as he called himself) who had made the world sit up and take notice of people whom they would rather forget, ignore, hide or move. And not only that, in the process had empowered hundreds of thousands of slum dwellers to take responsibility for improving the conditions of their own lives while at the same time learning to ask for what was rightfully theirs as citizens. His work had not only helped people to change the lives of the poor in Mumbai as well as other cities in India, but now it had ignited the confidence and creativeness of slum dwellers in almost every other continent. He had helped to discover solutions to many of the problems of urban poverty that had stumped governments and large aid organizations for decades.
He explained to me now that he had one small problem with our schedule today. He had to go to a meeting with the people who were bidding on the project to re-develop the slums. He had to be there so that he could hear what they were thinking and also so that he could give input from the slum dweller perspective. This was a closed door meeting and so he could not take me with him.
So what to do until he returned? I suggested that it had been awhile since I had strolled through the streets of the slums. I wanted to see if and how they had changed since my last visit.
Thinking this a good idea, Jockin picked up one of his ringing phones, hit the “ignore” button and proceeded to call an old friend to ask him if he would take me around for an hour.
Jockin’s friend arrived slowly. He slid through the door, his filthy bare feet padding across the floor towards me. His hooded eyelids lifted ever so slightly to take me in with a glimmer. His name was John. He was a retired bootlegger, which meant that at one time he had made his living selling booze in the slums. Today his business card listed a number of legitimate professions including TV press reporter (he showed me his press badge, nestled in a filthy wallet), a community worker, a chief promoter of one of the developments which had been initiated by the slum dwellers and a general secretary of a local power company. He came originally from Goa, a state south of Mumbai that is known for its lovely beaches. His father worked in the railways and brought the family to Mumbai when his son was only 6 months old. We stood together as Jockin took his leave and discussed for a few minutes where we thought we might want to walk. We set off along the busy, dirty street that delineates the world of the slum called Dharavi and the rest of Mumbai.
We began to chat as we walked. John launched into a convincing monologue that he was a good and honest man and that he did not cheat people or steal. After awhile I began to wonder whether I should be worried about this or whether he was trying to reassure only himself of it. Regardless, I figured he was probably pretty street-smart by now and I am sure that also included a healthy dose of cheating and stealing to make a living even if he knew it was wrong.
Initially it was clear that John did not know why I was there or that I had been there countless times before. He was doing Jockin a favor. He prodded a bit, but was not interested enough to pursue it. John, I was to learn, had been very close to the filming of “Slumdog Millionaire”. He had lent his one room shack so that the kids could make costume changes on site during filming and he had seen the kids and others make money and gain favor from the experience. I suspected he was wondering how he too could get a piece of the action. Perhaps “Slum Tours” was a new business opportunity. What did I think?
Privately I was very bothered by the idea, but I asked him how people would feel if busloads of tourists arrived to stare and take pictures of them. He shrugged and looked away. Maybe he did not know.
I on the other hand I was not so interested in seeing the deplorable conditions of the slums. I had had my fair share of days walking through waste strewn alleys, hopping over raw sewage and stepping across mountains of garbage. I explained to John that today I wanted to visit some of the businesses in the slums to see how they were doing.
So off we went, leaving the relative peace of Jockin’s building and walking at a quick clip out into the streets. We crossed two lanes of aggressive traffic and thankfully reached the other side unharmed. Continuing along, we paused briefly to check out a line of little businesses on the side of the road. My suburbanized Western eye took a minute to adjust to the filth and chaos and to look beyond it. The sun beat down on us and I was covered in sweat. The dust and dirt churned up by passing trucks, motorcycle, carts and cars filled my nostrils. There were people everywhere, bumping into me, staring at me. There were no sidewalks. I was quite certain we were going to be hit by the passing traffic. The cacophony of honking horns and shouting voices was deafening and yet I was aware that all around me was a vibrant micro economy churning out a day’s work. In front of me there were several crooked and dilapidates buildings housing a number of businesses with open fronts to the street. One stacked what looked like old timbers and beams in front of its open door. John explained they had collected old building materials from all over the city and were taking it apart and recycling it and would sell it again to those who could use it and make a small profit. Next to them was another workshop whose front was completely obscured by stacks of silver oil tins. These tins, rectangular in shape, all about a foot or so high, were arranged neatly one on top of each other and they gleamed in the sunshine. They had been collected from garbage bins and various drop offs all over the city and brought here to cleaned and restored to as good as new. They would be sold again to vendors who would fill them with oil and distribute them back into the market. Another workshop was busy packaging up soft plastics in large bags. Wedged in between all of them was a small stand which sold a variety of sundries. John excused himself to buy a pack of cigarettes.
In Dharavi, known popularly as Asia’s largest slum, there are over half a million people living and working. The place is the size of a medium sized city unto itself and it is only one of a number of slums in Mumbai. It is estimated that 60% of the people living in Mumbai, live in slums. In Dharavi 70% of the people who live here also work here. Most if not all are entrepreneurs running some type of business that the rest of the city would not deign to touch. There are over 1,000 recycling businesses here like the ones I saw on the side of the road. As our journey took us deeper into the heart of the community, I noted more and more recycling efforts in all sorts of unimaginable materials. Dharavi is also the center of leather production in the region. The Tamils who came to Mumbai from the south of India over the past 50 years, brought with them leather making expertise. Now 38% of the leather that in tanned and worked is exported around the world for manufacturing purses and shoes. There are other businesses too. Every morning 3 million little breakfast pastries are made in Dharavi and delivered all over the city so that the Indian middle class and others can enjoy them for breakfast. The domestic help that cleans the homes and drives the cars of middle class Mumbai also reside here.
Our walk took us off the main road and down some twisting stone steps into what looked like a cave. I almost slipped and fell on the grime. We walked by a few open doorways while women in colorful dress holding babies regarded me with avid curiosity. The cave opened up into sunshine again and we were standing atop a sewage drain pipe which had been transformed into a sidewalk of sorts. On either side of the pipe were piles of garbage and human waste and a trickle of water that looked toxic. It was had a sort of purple hue to it. I was almost knocked over by three little children who barely came to my knees but were able to navigate the narrow top of the pipe walkway better than me. John was far ahead, much defter at balancing on this structure than I would ever be.
I rushed after him, careful not to fall and eventually found myself in a narrow alleyway that twisted and turned its way through haphazard, leaning, and unrecognizable structures. These were all homes and I was now walking through a neighborhood. The alley underfoot was muddy and covered in trash. I passed a woman crouched next to her doorway washing clothes in what looked like a tiny little canal running down the side of the way. Next to her was a young man, most likely her husband, fully dressed but also covered from head to foot in white sudsy soap. His big wide white toothy grinning face looked up at me in a welcoming way but also with what seemed like great amusement that I had caught him in his bath. I guess it was an efficient way to bathe – clean body and clothes all at the same time. Though most likely he was compensating for the lack of privacy. In these narrow streets where people live cheek to cheek, there is no privacy for bathing, for intimacy or for relieving oneself.
Eventually we spilled out onto one of the main interior streets of Dharavi just as the Muslim call to prayer began. The street began to empty of its men folk and as we passed the another narrow alley that led up to the mosque I took in its lovely ornate form, white walls and mint green trim. Outside there were rows and rows of shoes arranged in order. As I stopped to observe I felt a nudge from behind and swung around to find a goat. There were several on the street but they seemed to just blend in with the chaos. There were small trucks parked in the middle of the street that motorbikes and small open cabs had to make their way around. Everywhere were people moving together in one direction or the other. There were children running around between our legs and young men in their twenties loitering. Some became particularly curious about my presence there and started to crowd around me asking me questions in English. There were a few women in black chador, only their eyes visible taking in my presence with a glance before moving on with their chores. There were old men wearing dhotis. There were women who walked by in bright colored saris and sparkling jewelry who stopped to talk to my companion, flirting with him and chatting him up before they moved on.
As the morning wore on, I recognized again that familiar but oh so rare feeling of being left entirely to my own business. Unlike other parts of Mumbai (or India for that matter), here in Dharavi no-one harassed me, begged for money from me, grabbed my shirt to get my attention, jeered at me. Here in the slum, people were busy living their lives, doing their work, caring for their families. Their interaction with me was mild curiosity, but otherwise they just accepted my presence as an outsider and went about their daily routine.
Jockin Arputham would remind me every time we met that the slums are a community just like anywhere else. “The only difference here is that we have no running water, no sewage thus no toilets,” he would say. “What services we get are siphoned off from those delivered to the rest of Mumbai because the government, when they relocated us here, did not build the necessary infrastructure needed for decent living.” Now the houses and structures are so crammed in and crowded they cannot possibly retrofit the infrastructure without tearing the place down.
Jockin migrated to Mumbai when he was 17 years old from the south of India. His story is actually one of “riches to rags”. Born to a well off family in Tamil Nadu who lost its fortune, Jockin at a young age went to work to support his family. He worked as a carpenter and at any odd job he could find. One day when his uncle returned home from Mumbai telling stories of the city of opportunity, Jockin decided to leave the south and ride the rails north. A single young man with no family along, Jockin found it easiest to live on the streets. He picked up any work where he could and at night he wrapped himself in the saris that were left out to dry in front of people’s shacks and went to sleep. He bathed in a local restaurant for a small fee. He made his home in a slum called Janata Colony where he stayed for the next 6 years until it was demolished by the city. But it was not until he got married that Jockin finally built a home for himself and came in from the streets to live under a roof.
In the early 1960’s when Jockin was still new to Mumbai, he would work all day and then finish in the late afternoon. One day as he was sitting observing some young kids playing he began to chat with them. Lively conversation turned into singing and within an hour Jockin and the young kids were singing and dancing and having a wonderful time before they all dispersed for home. The next day after work, Jockin returned to the same site and not only the same children but more were waiting for him. A few days later the crowd of children had grown to 200 and Jockin now had to organize them into groups to keep the fun manageable.
As the days turned into weeks, the number of children who joined kept increasing and Jockin organized the children into more groups and started competitions to see who could make the best performance. There were judges and accolades. Gradually the mothers of the children began to show up to see what their offspring were up to each day and eventually they asked Jockin if he could do something for the children. So they started a school. It began first with classes in writing and math for the youngest children, but over time it grew to include older children. As the number of children increased, volunteer teachers came to lend their time to teach the children. Soon there were more than 50 volunteers helping the children and after a few months there were 3,000 slum children coming to school. There was no fee for the school but people contributed what they could. A church donated powder milk for the children to drink after school.
Then one day, about a half a year after the school had started, Jockin who had been increasingly frustrated with the conditions in which they all had to live and seeing the potential of this group of children and mothers to come together and make something happen, realized that that the same energy could be channeled to make small changes to their slum. One of the problems with the slum was that there was no municipal service to remove garbage and the place where most of the trash was dumped was right next to the school. On a Saturday they all came together to discuss ideas on how to best get rid of the trash that had piled so high and had become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Jockin and the children decided that they would organize a “garbage picnic” whereby the children would come with their school bags and collect trash, wrap it in newspaper and then as a group walk over 3 kilometers to the municipal office to deliver it to the doorstep.
This small act of civil disobedience caught the attention of the municipality and when they came to the slums to see the perpetrators, Jockin showed them the garbage problem they were dealing with. The slum dwellers agreed to organize garbage collection within the slums if the municipality would provide the truck to collect and take it away.
For Jockin this incident was the turning point in his life. From this point on he became first an activist for the rights of slum dwellers and then eventually the rational voice who represented them to government and international aid agencies.
When I visited with him this time I explained that I had come back to see him because I wanted to write his story and that of the slum dwellers. I wanted to help the rest of the world to see the work he had done here and how he and others had become an integral part of a new and sustainable solution to urban blight.
Jockin, ever as gracious as he is stubborn, smiled at me and nodded. He patted his hand on the floor next to him and said “come sit here, right next to me”. Then he turned to his people and asked for the next problem to be presented.