“Don’t cross into this area, the police will come. Don’t take pictures.”
My camera hangs heavily at my side, uselessly pointing at the ground. The monsoon clouds swirl around us, the breeze warm and welcome.
“Can I hide in someone’s house? Shoot through a window? What’s in this door?” Everyone shakes their head, no, no, no.
“That’s the toilet.”
Less than 100m away from us lies the tarmac of Mumbai’s Chatrapati Shivaji international airport. This area, a low hill with an incredible view almost close enough to touch the wingtips of passing planes, is called “Jharimari”. For years, officials have been clamoring to shut down this slum (and many others — there are multiple around the airport), move everyone to high-rises, and clamp down on security.
But for now, it’s the same as it’s always been. A low line of brick toilets, a mound of rubbish, and a thin concrete fence keeping me out of the international airport.
I look pleadingly at my guide, a teenage boy wearing some sort of gold tunic
and a foppish haircut.
“Please? I’ll be quick!”
I’m met with a stern no, and our gathered crowd of onlookers begin to chatter in Hindi. I try to explain to them, I’m taking photos of inequality, and infrastructure. I don’t think there’s any other airport in the world quite as dramatic as this one, the light is perfect, blah, blah, blah. No, no, no.
My guide leans in closer to me and says succinctly, ‘these people don’t want trouble. This is a dangerous area’. From what I can piece together, taking photos can bring police, or maybe even worse. They pantomime men with binoculars, and then point towards the airport. The message is clear.
“They’re watching us.”
I knew people lived closely to the airport, which is clearly visible as a smudged area of shacks on Google Earth, but I wanted to see just HOW close. So I got in an Uber and drove for an hour in hellish Mumbai traffic to check it out. Sure enough, there are thousands upon thousands of shacks. Right next to the runway. In fact, if you look closely, there are shacks actually on the airport land, within the main perimeter of the airport. I was told that occasionally, although not so much anymore, stray dogs wander onto the tarmac.
That’s exactly why this place is so fascinating. The people here are caught in the midst of a vast urban upheaval. Their country is changing, rapidly. Their front porch, this rubbish heap, is essentially the front line in a battle for the future of India.
I have to marvel at their resilience. How do you resist an airport? But somehow they’re doing it.
This, like all slum areas, is not a romantic experiment, nor a den of thieves. It’s a community of people, with exactly the same problems, dreams, and aspirations as everyone else. Jharimari is a colorful orchid of humanity. The smells, the sounds. The men drinking tea in the café. The kids playing marbles in the rain. The jeweler taking the loupe from his eye to smile at me.
And like most slums, it exists in a precarious state of non-tenure, or, as my new friend Abdul Rahman puts it, “the big men pushing around the small men”. Looking at the Goliath of the airport just next door, its hard not to root for the underdog David of the slums. Crazily enough, just like the story, this David seems to be winning. The airport cannot expand. The unfinished arm of the east terminal, seen from Google maps, looks like an amputated stump. As the passenger traffic into Mumbai grows, the stage is set for a showdown. As Abdul Rahman again bluntly puts it, “People will die”.
A plane with “IndiGo” shrieks and bellows in for a landing above the shack tops. Stray dogs dozing in the gutters hardly move. Women chatter in doorways, stunning in purple and gold saris, or jet black hijabs. The men gather on the street, drinking tea, doing business, leaning, sitting, crouching. Machines grind sugar cane into thin strips, men pound axe handles into axe heads, the street is a cacophony of horns. Buzzing Hondas, sputtering tuk-tuks, rumbling buses and Royal Enfield motorcycles. It smells better than I ever would have expected — full of spiced food, and incense.
Children’s laughter rises and falls from all around. This is a community of people. This is a community of people who work, who have families. This is a place that actually doesn’t feel too far from home.