26 March 2008

Slum Lord

In overcoming the petty adversities of daily life, I find it useful, howsoever trite, to reflect on the miseries of others--not for the sake of schadenfreude, mind you, but so, when socks go missing, plans unexpectedly change, or bags are stolen, I spare myself the indignity of freaking the f*ck out. In that spirit, I signed up for a day-long tour of Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, and the heart of Mumbai. I read about Dharavi in a few places, including The Economist, so I wanted to have a look for myself. Luckily, a company called "Reality Tours" makes this possible. I have to admit, the last "reality tour" I went on was a Seinfeld tour of New York City guided by the real-life Kramer. I wonder if the Mumbai branch is aware of this connection. Anyway, a slum tour in 96 degree heat is probably the last thing most of you rich people would want to do, but Dharavi is actually a fascinating place. Contrary to most slums--which are ruled by the triumvirate of crime, substance abuse, and desperation--Dharavi boasts an air, however fecund, of prosperity. Residents of the slum collect plastic trash from all over the city and process it for recycling; they engage in various kinds of manufacturing; they make pottery and cook up pappadams. Altogether, Dharavi has an economy of $665 million/year. It's still a dirty, stinky, makeshift, claustrophobic slum (though with nary a plastic bottle in sight), but it's a slum with power and dignity. The people there have won the right to their homes and businesses, all of which squat on government land, and the city even provides water and electricity. All is not well, though. The Indian government would like to eliminate all of its urban slums, including Dharavi, and redevelopment schemes have already begun. This raises interesting ethical questions--should the slum dwellers be left as they are, poor but productive and with a strong community, or would they be better off shunted into new apartment blocks where their quality of life would increase but their industry possibly suffer? My friends, I am grateful that it is not left to me to be answerable to such questions.

After visiting Dharavi, I planted myself in one of the Starbucks-esque cafes sprouting up in Indian cities and which I have grown shamelessly to love. Finding myself next to an Asian woman, I asked her if she was Japanese. No.. American, as it turns out. When she produced a Lonely Planet guide to India, I became excited, wide-eyed, dare I say lustful. Tongue dry, palms moist, my voice twittering with anxiety, I asked her if I could borrow it. Sure! she said. I could even photocopy it! Which I did! And now I am basically back to where I was before my bag was stolen, except I lost my address book, so I wouldn't expect any postcards from me anytime soon, my friends.

When I left the cafe, I thought I was going to meet Charlie for the taping of Yeh Hai Jalwa (actual name). I was keen to go, because I saw the celebrity I "met" the previous night on at least 50,000 billboards around the city. Pop culture is still culture, isn't it? Any of you Indians sitting around reading the Ramayana while doing yoga in intense states of transcendental meditation? Didn't think so! Alas, twas not meant to be. Charlie's cell phone couldn't get a signal inside the studio--unairconditioned that day, so just as well--and I couldn't get through to him. So no live television taping for me. And I didn't even get to be an extra in a Bollywood movie like every other whitie tourist I met here. Instead, I walked along the shore up to Chowpatty Beach, across the city to Breach Candy, past the Parsi Towers of Silence (where vultures pick at their dead), and on to Mahalaxmi Temple (where folks worship money?) and this cool mosque that's on an island way out in the water. OK, the mosque isn't so cool, but it's white and floodlit--a mesmerizing sight from the shore at night, as is the city skyline when you walk out to it and look back. I read about these places in "Midnight's Children" and possibly "The Satanic Verses"; I enjoy a good literary walk. That was that day.

This afternoon, I am taking a night train to Agra. Yes, I was originally going to visit Ellora and/or Ajanta, but after talking to people about them, seeing pictures, trying and failing to book tickets there, and assessing my own reserves of patience and wherewithal to continue sight-seeing, I decided to chuck it in and just see the damn Taj Mahal. I hope the slots are loose, because I've been overspending lately and could use a big score.


Michele Rig said...

oooh, look at me, I read the Economist.

Sorry Steve, just catching up on your blogs now. Don't even know if you'll see this. Not sure how this newfangled blogging works...

The Steve said...

Ego omnia video.