Saturday, December 4, 2010

Tales from the Slum

Namaste! Well the past week or so hasn’t all been about the slums, but they did play a big part of what I saw in and around Bombay. Saturday was a “picnic” for my NGO to celebrate our founding. We were going to a place called Aksa Beach, which is about an hour away from where I live. The e-mail said we could leave the office no later than 8 am, so I showed up at 7:56, exhausted from having seen a late Harry Potter showing the night before (amazing). The bus, of course, did not leave until 8:42. We got to Aksa Beach and were told that we shouldn’t go anywhere near the water because it has sinking sands and a terrible undercurrent. They made it sound like they didn’t want us on the beach at all, which would have been terribly sad, since it’s the first semi-clean water I would have stepped in. We didn’t listen at all and ran across the beach to the water and played until we got called inside.

Wonderful beach! The doggie liked it too.

Coworkers prancing around in saris. I'll actually miss this when I go home.

My friend Nikki from Nigeria, who's on a fellowship for maternal healthcare.

In typical Indian fashion, they planned a day at the beach and expected us to spend most of it inside. I wasn’t that happy about it until I got inside and saw that the DJ had started spinning some Bollywood, and an insane, 2 hour dance party ensued. The great thing about Indian dance parties is that everyone knows the dances to the songs from the Bollywood movies. Well, everyone except the gori, which is Hindi for “white person,” with the same sentiment as goyim, I guess. I was feeling a bit left out that I had missed out on the choreography, but I also wouldn’t take the time to memorize all the moves by watching YouTube for hours. I felt better when they started playing random Sean Paul songs. Bet nobody knew they were attempting to do some bhangra to “From me love how you fit inna you blouse and you fat inna you jeans and mi waan discover..Everything out you baby girl can you hear when me utter...” Lyrics courtesy of

This is me and Kalpana, one of my favorite coworkers. She's a community worker who is also from Dharavi, and one day invited me over for chai.

This is the dance party. That awesome looking lady in the background happens to be my boss.

These are the rest of my coworkers. They're counselors in the crisis centre.

I left the picnic early because I had to get to Powai (other side of Bombay) in order to meet the gang to go to the country! Unfortunately I had to climb a fence to get out my jeans got stuck on a spike. I have ripped my only pair of pants. Good thing there are 7 tailors on my street. After an hour long rickshaw ride, part of it through a dairy colony, I reached Powai! Niket, my friend featured in “Am I From Here?” is making a reappearance this week. He, David, Ava and I were planning on spending Saturday night at his country house in Lonavala, about an hour outside of Mumbai. Powai is a really weird place (no offense, Niket). It’s a newly developed part of the city, filled with the offices of international companies, like Deloitte. The buildings have a distinctly Greco-Roman feel, and there are random Ionic columns at intersections throughout the area. Niket lives on the 23rd floor of his apartment building, so we got an aerial view and a better understanding of how megacities emerge and the complete lack of urban planning in Mumbai.

When Powai was developed, it was planned to accommodate those who could afford to live here. The impressively tall buildings around Powai lake are for wealthy families, but there are no legitimate accommodations for those who support the wealthy families. The domestic worker is certainly not offered low-class housing here; such plans don’t exist, so what happens is that slums creep up on unclaimed swaths of land. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that from the road, the slums are hidden behind rows of trees:

It’s only when you look from above that you even notice the thousands of people who cannot afford to live in Powai, yet make a life here because they have nowhere else to try. The real estate boom in India hasn’t burst yet, and all over Mumbai, but particularly on the highways on the outskirts, there are lots of billboards advertising planned living communities, called “Sobha Turquoise” or “Crescent Lake Homes,” with models of communities as they are desired, but never as they actually are. Covering the slums on the ground will obviously not make the issues of migration, exploding populations, and endemic poverty disappear, but this tends to be the philosophy of a government whose Parliament has been unable to function for 16 days, so far, in the aftermath of the 2G scandal. But, I digress.
Lonavala was great, but I’ll skip that. We saw stars, ate egg masala sandwiches, and bought fudge.

This is what Maharasthra looks like. Well part of it. We were really excited for the greenery.

Yesterday at work we had a rally to celebrate 16 Days of Activism for Violence Against Women, an international campaign from Nov. 25-Dec. 10. A lot of women, and some men, gathered at the police station in Dharavi to begin walking through the slums with signs.

This was a symbolic moment in itself, since the police are often hesitant to helped resolve issues of violence against women, considering them to be private matters. This was also the first time I was allowed to use my camera in Dharavi. Generally, photography is strictly off-limits according to municipal law, because tourists started walking around after Slumdog Millionaire and taking pictures of the infamous Dharavi. But, since I was with an NGO, I broke out the camera! I didn’t take pictures of anything that was not part of the rally, but the backgrounds of some of the pictures might give you an idea of what slums in India look like.

The rally was great, and we got a lot of people to participate. As some women marched with signs, others handed out pamphlets with our NGO’s contact information and put up signs against domestic abuse.

Then some youth from the community put on a play in the street. They acted out scenes of a father subjecting his daughter to unfair and unequal standards to showcase a less obvious form of gender violence, and it was well received.

Now as far as slums in India go, there are a few different kinds of housing. Most people think slums are just tent cities, which they're not. "Slum" just means that an area is overcrowded and lacks access to several forms of infrastructure, including sanitation, water, electricity, schools, etc. In Mumbai, houses are either kutcha, semi-pucca, or pucca. A kutcha house is made from crude materials, so the roof is a tin sheet or a tarp and the walls are made from similar materials. They look like the ones in the background of this picture:

They're also not part of established chawls, which are individual units in a shared living compound, if that makes any sense. They're built on the sides of streets and seem to be more recent developments.

Then there are semi-pucca houses, which might have concrete walls, but not proper roofs. That looks like this:

This is also a Muslim neighborhood, hence the minaret and flags.

Lastly are pucca houses, which are just normal housing situations.

The last super fun event of this weekend, totally not slum related, was Hanukkah. We couldn't get our hands on a real menorah in time, so I decided to carve one out of styrofoam.

Unfortunately, the menorah didn't make it the full 8 days. Must not have been worthy of a miracle. We left it outside to burn brightly and I looked out on the balcony to discover that the hot wax had burnt through the styrofoam, so I guess that's the end of that. I tried.
I also found random Thai chocolate coins that can serve as gelt. It doesn't taste the same, but it will do. Also the menorah says Hanukkah Mubarak, or Happy Hanukkah, in Hindi. At some point we'll play dreidel. That's all for now, I'm off to celebrate Ava's birthday!


  1. Namaste Samosa
    An interesting sight, a burning bush of styrofoam in the shape of a menorah to enlighten all.
    Great informative post.
    Obviously you won't be in a Bollywood movie as the visiting gori without some practice.
    Speak to you soon.
    Love D

  2. Happy Hanukkah!! Loved the pictures and glimpses of your work. It certainly sounds like you do not have much down time, since when you're not working, traveling or exploring you're carving styrofoam menorahs! As always, looking forward to your next post. Love you, EricaBoderica


    ALso, I semi resent that you mentioned Deloitte and not PwC..but not really :)

  4. Mushi Mushi Sami:
    Loved your blog..... great story telling and great pictures . Wonderful talking to you on skype . Jared is now officialy 8 !
    Grandma sends her love.

  5. Happy Hanukkah, Happy Hanukkah, Happy festival of lightssss! I wish I could hear G&G reading the Sean Paul lines, haha. So interesting about the slums and different house structures. The rally looks like it was an amazing day! And the country house - beautiful out there! Miss and love you!! XO Alissa