Monday, April 28, 2008

Dharavi - Thinking Again

Keeping up is critical. Geography’s not my forte (don’t ask me what is. I can do quite nice Lazy Daisy stitch, as and when the need arises...). I can – and do – get lost in my own Sainsbury’s, if they put parsnips where the cornflakes were, last week. The maze of Dharavi’s criss-crossing runnels and alleys would tax even Mr Roland’s innate compass, so we can’t afford to let Ravi get more than an eyelash in front. There’s so much to look at, in the residential zone, I’m getting neck-ache from swivelling side to side, as our guide nimbly hops across open sewers and darts down alleyways. Every young person we meet wants a hello or a high five, but I see Ravi’s chatting, too. He says, they’re all asking him about his exams. He’s about to sit his pre-university exams, and has been home to his village, preparing. Even the dogs we meet, he knows by name. We’re in good hands.

I ask him, what a house here is worth (entire floor space, less than a double garage), and he says, three, maybe four lakh (£40-50,000). I’m amazed, having had the Monu Singh All-Mumbai Property Tour, because Dharavi houses are more cramped and altogether less luscious, than the two lakh houses elsewhere. Then I remember the three most important things about real estate, no less true here, than in Putney. Little wonder, that developers are circling round and round, like black kites.

At the patisserie, trays of Khari biscuits – cooked and uncooked – are stacked in towers, on the floor, round the ovens. “You want to try?” Ravi says, ducking in and filching a hot handful. They’re like little mouthfuls of nothing, so light, probably about 840 calories each. We continue our trek, munching, spraying crumbs, and I worry about paying for our snack. “Don’t worry,” Ravi says, “you’re with me.”

We have to take off our shoes, to go into the sewing-factory. I leave my new trainers conspicuously lurking on top of a mountain of flip-flops at the door, and step inside. Everyone stops working, to come and talk to us. We count twelve men, each with a sewing-machine, and a heap of fabric pieces. They’re making baby clothes, pink and blue, to be sold locally. I ask how long their working day is. Ten hours. Twelve machines, twelve men, tiny room, no windows. As working conditions go, it’s not great. They’re all laughing, though, and proud of their work.

We see animals by the ark-ful, cats, chickens, dogs, goats, but no children under three or four. Where are the babies? “Inside house,” Ravi says. “All people looking at, no good for child. Stay inside with...” his English fails him, and he mimes the rest. They keep their babies away from public glare, marking their faces with a black dot, to mar their perfection, so as not to attract the Evil Eye.

Dharavi has water for three hours a day. When the tap’s working, you fill your blue water-tub, for the rest of the day. There’s approximately one toilet per fifteen hundred inhabitants, so the offices of necessity aren’t very appealing. Instead, people use Mahim Creek, or the ironically named Mithi (sweet) River. “Are you hot? Do you fancy a swim?” asks Ravi. He points, laughing, to the opaque grey water of the creek, with its unspeakable flotsam and jetsam. “You go, I’m waiting here!” We say, another day, maybe.

The poppadum ladies roll out balls of dough, and lay them on tilted round wicker trays, to dry in the sun. They’re paid 20 rupees per kilo, which the manufacturers sell on for 120 rupees. Ravi’s disgusted – he says it looks like they’re providing jobs, but it’s slave-labour. The women make maybe 60 rupees a day, which Ravi says is ok, for a woman. I teach him the phrase “thin ice” – but he says, women also are responsible for home and family, and can’t work a full day. I watch a lady, harvesting the dried papad, and she drops one. It lands, half on the floor, half on her sandal, and she picks it up to stack it with the rest. Well, it needs cooking before eating, it’ll be fine.

Crossing the tanners’ sector, we interrupt a cricket game, but everyone’s delighted to break off, to come and shake hands. We stand, discussing the tanning industry, and the young cricketers drag along their even younger siblings to meet us - “This my sister, she say hello!” We see the machines, for buffing the goatskins, before they’re stretched to dry. The tanners are Muslim, mostly. Before the riots, in the early 1990s, Muslim and Hindu lived cheek by jowl. Hundreds of people died, during the fighting, and the two peoples had to separate, to co-exist. Now, Dharavi’s more segregated, but peaceful.

Ravi takes us to the school, set up by Reality Tours. English lessons are available to all. Some pay a nominal fifty rupees, Ravi says, because if they don’t pay anything, they think they don’t have to come. Others don’t pay at all. The classroom’s tiny, fourteen desks. A course in electronics is also available, for aspiring electricians. We fill in a feedback form (every time you buy a sandwich here, you have to tell them, in writing, whether you’re delighted or devastated, with not only your name and phone number, but your birthday and wedding anniversary...). I’m supposed to say what I think of my visit to the Pottery, but we’ve not been yet. Shall I assume, I ask Ravi, that it will be Very Interesting? “You keep the form,” he says. “See later.”

The potters – kumbhar – have more space, and more substantial housing, it seems, than the recyclers. Pot-throwing’s done in the morning, to give the pots time to dry out, in the sun, before being fired in the evening, when the heat of the day has diminished. The women sit under the awning, rubbing the clay under their thumbs, to take out small stones, which would destroy a vessel in the firing. In the house, the men use electric wheels to shape the clay into fat-bellied pots. Outside, the ovens are walled in, like pig-pens. The smouldering cotton, blanketing the kilns, produces a heat-shimmer, and the air’s thick with drifting waste. They can’t use sawdust or wood-chippings, because they burn too fast, and scorch the outside of the pot before the inside’s dry.

A potter takes my hand, and keeps it, while he tells me about his family and his business, and enquires about mine. I’m a chapatti away from exchanging email addresses with him, when Ravi drags us on to visit his mate, Dave, ex-tour guide extraordinaire, slum-dweller on the way up. His new job’s with a merchant bank, and he’s learning, via his two-week induction course, how to talk to clients. Ravi shares with us the tiny spiced mangoes he swipes from Dave’s Mum, who’s making pickle indoors. A bit of a magpie, our Ravi, but he gets away with everything. He’ll be a millionaire, before he’s finished.

This settlement couldn’t and shouldn’t be decanted into high-rise flats. The potters, and the tanners, and the recyclers, they all need floor-space. If you weren’t here before 2000, in any case, you’re not entitled to any compensation or re-housing. “Vision Mumbai” – designed to make a world-class city of Mumbai within five years – is, at best, naive. Less charitably, it’s opportunist profiteering.

Suddenly, there’s Monu, across the road, waving, and we’re back in the real world. Except, all the tin-polishers and rag-pickers and khari-bakers are still there, polishing and picking and baking, after their lives coincided with mine for a snatched minute. It makes you think.