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Maximum City

I have been reading Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, his nonfiction account of returning to modern Bombay to live after a 21-year absence. Some of it is so spot-on it is hilarious. So much so, that I thought I would share some of his most astute observations about life in India. For those of you who have been, who understand the yes/no, now/never, love/hate relationship – you will totally get and appreciate this. For those who haven’t, you will be highly amused, though perhaps a bit perplexed. And it is sadly, frustratingly, altogether true. My favorite line:

India is not a tourist-friendly country. It will reveal itself to you only if you stay on, against all odds.

Bombay survives on the scam. The ethic of Bombay is quick upward mobility, and a scam is a shortcut. Anyone can work hard and make money. What’s to admire about that? But a well-executed scam? Now, there’s a thing of beauty!

All things in Bombay fail regularly: plumbing, telephones, the movement of huge blocks of traffic. For the month after my family arrives (at their new flat), I chase plumbers, electricians and carpenters. The electrician attached to the building is an easygoing fellow who comes in the late afternoons, chats with me about the wiring in the flat, and patches things up so they work only for a little while, assuring multiple future visits. The phone department has to be called and the workmen bribed to repair it. It is in their interest to have a lousy phone system.

As for my plumber, I want to assassinate him. He pits the occupants of the flats against one another, telling the people above and below me that I should pay to fix the numerous leaks, then telling me I should convince them to pay. The president of the building society explains it to me: All the pipes in this building are fucked. All this takes most of our waking time. The city is groaning under the pressure of the 1 million people per square mile.

India desires modernity; it desires computers, information technology, video on demand. But there is no guarantee of a constant supply of electricity in most places in the country. The country is convinced it can pole-vault over the basics: develop world-class computer and management institutes without achieving basic literacy; provide advanced cardiac surgery while the most easily avoidable childhood diseases run rampant; sell washing machines that depend on a non-existent water supply; drive scores of new cars that go from 0 to 60 in ten seconds without any roads where they might do this without killing everything inside and out, man and beast.

It is an optimistic view of technological progress – that if you reach for the moon, you will somehow, automatically, span the inconvenient steps in between. India has the third largest pool of technical labor in the world, but a third of its one billion people can’t read or write. The country graduates the best technical brains in the world, but neglects to teach my plumber how to fix a toilet so it stays fixed. As a result, in the “Country of the No” nothing is fixed the first time around. You don’t just call a repairman, you begin a relationship with him. You can’t bring to his attention too aggressively the fact that he is incompetent or crooked, because you will need him to set right what he has broken the first time around.

Bombay is not the ancient Indian idea of a city. It is an imitation of a Western city, and like all other imitations of the West here – the Hindi pop songs, the appliances, the accents people put on, the parties the rich throw – this imitation, too, is neither here nor there.

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A New Look at Poverty

For today’s Good News Wednesday, I would like to share something written by my friend, Deepa Krishnan.

Deepa runs the tour company Mumbai Magic, an excellent visitor tour service that shows the real India, led by insiders and locals of the city with a great cultural immersion and respect for the traditions and culture of India. In addition, Deepa donates a percentage of her profits to social organizations that work with at-risk children living in the streets and slums.

Deepa with a woman entrepreneur on our visit to Dharavi, 2007

Deepa with a woman entrepreneur on our visit to Dharavi, 2007

Deepa showed me around Mumbai when I visited in 2007 – most particularly, the Dharavi area, widely considered the largest slum in Asia and where much of the movie Slumdog Millionaire was filmed. You can read my article about my experience in Dharavi with Deepa, where I discovered that besides the two Indias of affluence and poverty, there was a third India of the hard-working class. What I found in Dharavi surprised me, and Deepa gave me entirely new eyes with which to see parts of Mumbai that I would have never otherwise seen.

Recently, writer Mara Gorman featured a review of The Weight of Silence on her site, The Mother of All Trips. Mara was so inspired by the children’s stories in the book, that she amazingly made a pledge to donate $5 for every comment left on the article, to The Miracle Foundation! Deepa Krishnan was one of those who left a comment – and I loved what she had to say.

It was a whole new way of looking at someone who is poor, and I’d like to share her comments here:

“Poverty” is a much misunderstood word. Here’s an anecdote from my personal experience – I run a sightseeing tour company called Mumbai Magic, and we had an American lady on one of our city tours.

From Mumbai Magic

From Mumbai Magic

On the tour went to Sassoon Docks where the day’s fish catch comes in. The fishing community in Mumbai has a culture where the women take the fish to the market and are therefore the ones with the money. Our fisherwomen are very fierce, they have a sharp tongue and an equally sharp fish knife, and nobody messes with them, all locals know they are independent and proud.

Now at the docks, there was a fisherwoman sitting on the ground with a basket of fish, and next to her was her young girl child. My American visitor saw them and started weeping. Oh god, she wept, why do people have to be so poor? Why does that woman have to sit on the ground like this? Why is that child not in school and playing? The lady was inconsolable and retired to her palatial hotel room.

Whereas I looked at the fisherwoman and was proud of her financial independence, of the fact that she was supporting her family, that nobody in their right minds would ever mess with her, that the tradesmen treated her as an equal and haggled as hard with her as they could. As for her child, that child would always have a full belly, she would learn the fish trade and be as smart as a button soon. The docks are open early in the morning, that child probably went to school later as well, but I don’t know that. After the fish were sold, she would most certainly go home and play.

Now this is not a perfect scenario – their home is a tiny village without amenities – but the thing is, my visitor and I looked at them and saw two entirely different realities. To me this was not a scenario with a deprived mother or child. This was a happy family, and I strongly felt that the sympathies of my weepy tourist were entirely misplaced.

Shelley is not a weepy tourist. She has immersed herself in the country she is writing about. She has invested time, effort and – I know this is really basic – but she has invested sweat. In the heat and dust, she has given of her body and mind to be with the children she writes about. Shelley’s kids – orphaned and homeless – are truly deserving of our attention. Shelley is tireless in her campaign to ensure they get what they deserve. I wish her luck.

Thank you Deepa – for your support of The Weight of Silence, your donations to help further children’s educations through Mumbai Magic, and your ability to give us a new way of looking at the world. Namaste.

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Deepa at Shaar Harahamin, The Gate of Mercy.

Deepa at Shaar Harahamin, The Gate of Mercy.

The Un-Tourist

If you have been following this blog, you probably know that I was in India this past March, researching and interviewing for the book as well as visiting my kids for two weeks in the Miracle Foundation homes.

While in Mumbai in early March, I visited Dharavi, widely known as the biggest slum in Asia. Dharavi is a bustling place, filled with cottage industries and entrepreneurs. I wrote a post about it here.

The Hindustan Times newspaper in India recently interviewed me about my experience in Dharavi, and with Deepa Krishnan who showed me around and educated me on the place. The resulting article is called “The Un-Tourist,” and it is a fascinating glimpse into a burgeoning industry, where travelers are choosing to go off the packaged tourist trail in order to meet the local people and visit the places where real lives are lived. The photos are great as well!

As Deepa wrote about the visits she takes people on to Dharavi:

There is no avoiding the poor in Mumbai. The slums are all-pervasive. In many parts of the city, there are shanties by the roadside. There are the homeless – they are dirty and unkempt, living on the pavements. For overseas visitors, the image this creates is of two bewilderingly different Mumbais – one that is rich and glitzy and safe in their five-star cocoon, and the other that lives a hellish life on the streets, begging, cringing, with no self-respect whatsoever.

There is no room for an understanding of a third Mumbai – the Mumbai of the hard-working poor. The Mumbai of the aspiring migrant, with his fierce drive for survival, for self-improvement. The Mumbai of small enterprise. The Mumbai of cottage industries. The Mumbai of poor yet strong women, running entire households on the strength of their income from making papads. Every morning, these women put food on the table, braid their daughters’ hair, and send them to schools. They have hope for the future, you see? This is the Mumbai of dreams, which I want my guests to see.

Dharavi is one place where this third Mumbai is visible. In the papad units, in the little tailoring shops, in Kumbharwada, in the kirana grain stores, everywhere Dharavi displays a spirt that is fierce and energetic. Every time my overseas visitors go into Dharavi, they come back with a first-hand insight into this third Mumbai.

I agree. In Dharavi, it was amazing to see the grace and nobility with which life was lived. Thank you, Deepa.

You can read the Hindustan Times article at “The Un-Tourist.”

The slums of Mumbai

In Mumbai I meet Deepa Krishnan, owner of tour operator Mumbai Magic, whom I have befriended over email before my arrival. Deepa introduced me to Akanksha, which she donates approximately one-third of her business profits to. Deepa is taking me to see a slum called Dharavi, built on filled-in swamp land. Although exact population figures are difficult, Deepa estimates that close to a million people live in Dharavi.

It is not a slum in the way I had imagined – not a ghetto. It looks and feels much more like a village one would find anywhere else, and not right in the middle of the huge, sprawling city of Mumbai. Industry and entrepreneurship abound. Very few people are idle. Entire cottage industries thrive here: weaving, food, clothing manufacturing, pottery. Small business owners work hard at production, and all around me is the buzz of things happening.

The children of Dharavi follow us, posing for photos or running shyly away. I see uniformed schoolchildren everywhere, and Deepa assures me that most every child here attends school. This makes me think of Akanksha and what Tina said about the government schools, which is the only option available to the children of Dharavi. None of the children speak much English, even the older ones. They smile at the cameras and tail us like sleuths, giggling, as we take our leave.

The streets are very narrow lanes and often as we drive through them we are confronted by trucks or oxen-pulled carts, at which time the driver has to reverse all the way back out to let them pass. After a while we get out of the car and walk through the lanes, instantly attracting attention. We watch women making pappadam, a thin crispy bread with bits of pepper in it. They roll the meal out on little stone tablets on the ground and then place the tortilla-like rounds on cone shaped wicker baskets to dry.

Down another lane, Deepa leads the way up a steep ladder with a rope handle hanging down from the ceiling rafters, to watch men working at sewing machines, making shirts in assembly-line fashion. One does the cutting, another sews the sleeves, another the collar, and on down the line to the finished product. The man in charge shows us a beautiful completed shirt, which he says will sell wholesale to a retail store buyer for 15 rupees, about 35 cents.

In another section of the neighborhood, clay pots are being made, a woman mixing the clay for her husband as he sits at the potter’s wheel, skillfully and intently forming the perfect urn. Kilns line the middle of the alley, their smoke permeating the air and creating a stifling heat in the already 95-degree day.

To me, this place dispels the myth that poverty is due to laziness, that the poor somehow deserve their lot in life because they are lazy or stupid or otherwise lacking in some important character trait that the successful possess. Dharavi is a resounding rebuttal to that belief. I have rarely seen people work so hard in all my life, up to 18 hours or more each day, much more so than many middle-class earning hundreds or thousands times more. Born into the right mix of circumstances – as the vast majority of “self-made” successes are – the industry-makers here would no doubt be thriving business people with comfortable bank accounts. Instead they drew the short stick in the purely dumb luck lottery of birth, born into a different world with far less access to education and far fewer opportunities to climb onto the next rung of economic prosperity, no matter how smart or hard-working they are.

I look around and find myself musing about leisure time, recreation, entertainment. Most of the residents here walk, sometimes quite far, for their families’ daily water and food supply, a process that can take hours. Between their cottage industries and taking care of a home and children, I’m certain that most residents of Dharavi work from far before dawn until night. Leisure time is a luxury, the province of the well-to-do, and just one more indicator of the abyss of difference between the haves and the have-nots of this world. To have leisure time, to be able to enjoy entertainment, is a luxury for the wealthy – as is space. My friend Dita once observed that wealth requires space, and nowhere is this more apparent than a place like Dharavi. The residents here seem to have no privacy, no moments of solitude or sanctuary. Poverty eliminates both space and leisure time, two elements that seem necessary to most of us and which we often take for granted.


Deepa (on right) showing
a woman her photo.

Read an excellent article about Dharavi in The Guardian.

In commemoration of the 39th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I would like to end this post with the following quote by Dr. King from a 1967 address:

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”

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