The slum is right next to the international airport in Bombay. It is impossible not to notice it, as there is that peculiar heady smell of the rot and of the human waste that envelops you and penetrates your every sense the moment you step out of the airport terminal. You get hit by the heat and the smell. An “irresistible” combination. You get used to it pretty fast though. You even get to love and welcome it in a bizare, morbid way, if you are a regular visitor to India.
The moment you step out onto the Indian soil outside the airport you become a target. You get hustled to change money, to take a taxi, a hotel room… You are asked so many questions time and time again, all in the best humor, with keen interest and the disarming enthousiasm: What is your country? What is the purpose of your visit to India? What is your good name?
You get hustled for money in every possible way. However tough, resilient and determined you may be, they will always be more so. You can not win. From their point of view you are fair game. Even you begin to see the cosmic justice in that. Flying in from somewhere in the West, the world they only see on the TV, having paid a ticket that costs more money than they can even imagine to hold in their hands.
Maybe I should mention here that, at the same time, some of the richest people in the world also live in India and live in the style of the Maharajas — which some of them indeed are.
Once you are in the city, well … it is a beehive. You definitely have to learn really fast how to navigate and handle this sea of humanity , the armies of child beggars, vendors and just ... people! The density of the population is incredible. First of all you must drop all your American notions of life, of well being, of the basic human and children’s rights in general. I am inevitably thinking now of the child beggars in Bombay. It is almost obscene how triumphant these kids will be at the first sign of shock and compassion on your face when you see say, a small kid 6 years old , heavily crippled, deftly limping, cheerfully chasing after you down the street . Then try to imagine an army of them… I do not really know where to begin explaining these things to you. It is another planet. Begging in Bombay and the other big cities in India is a whole industry. An organized business. It is beyond tragic . A new vocabulary must be invented for these things. You must grow a new set of concepts altogether, just to begin to understand what goes on there.
For a better picture and some more information about all this, I recommend you see the movie mentioned in the above article: “Slum Dog Millioner”. A definite “must see”.
I have a book suggestion for you as well, a great read. You won’t be able to put it down once you start . “Shantaram” is the title, it is written by Gregory David Roberts. He is an Australian guy and the book, a novel, is actually a unique account of his own life and his adventures mainly in Bombay, but not only. He escapes a high security prison in Australia and the story begins with him on the run , flying into Bombay on a false passport. His addiction had led to some robberies which had inevitably led to a prison sentence. But as it usually is the case, he is much more than an ex addict and an escaped convict.
Anyway, this is happening in the 80s. Bombay becomes his new home. He lives for a while in a slum; he takes on a role of a slum doctor; learns to speak the language, eventually gets involved with the Muslim mafia, the Afghans, Iranians and the locals. Gets to know the city as no other foreigner or a middle class Indian ever did. As a matter of fact, he still lives there, as I write this. The last I heard, some years back, he worked in a casting agency for the Bollywood movie industry. Now he must be in his seventies, probably retired.
I used to say often, kind of half jokingly — if I were a man, that could easily have been my life story. Being a woman, it is only slightly different .
Another author that wrote about India from personal experience, someone I very much enjoy reading, is Ruth Prawer Jhabwala. For example “Heat and Dust”. I believe there was a movie made on basis of the book. She is a Polish Jew from England, married to an Indian, also lived in India for a part of her life. Wrote a number of novels and short stories about India.(So many good books for you to read, it is almost as good as travelling. Sometimes even better.)
I am curious what Zev had to say about that piece on Dharavi… Probably not much. It is just a background picture unless it us your home.