He parted the dull grey curtain with a flowery print. Inside, a group of men of all shapes, sizes, ages shuffled as images of entwined couples moaning flickered on a bulbous old TV screen. The moment some light slithered into the room, it was startled eyes and hands akimbo, almost in a ceasefire pose. I wanted to laugh, but Muthaiah motioned them not to bother about me. I wasn’t a cop. Cops too visited, watched the show and extracted money from these poor guys.
In the nineties, video parlours that showed blue films were big business. Muthaiah was the entrepreneur of Dharavi, a hero-villain. It was easy for him; he was once a henchman of Don Varadarajan. His parents had moved here from a village in South India decades ago when the place had developed from marshland to tenements that began to spread like a gathering storm. His father had left them after producing three children. By the time he could walk, talk and demand cheap plastic toys, he had to become a man to fend for the family. His first job was with a bootlegger. “I was good and cheated my boss, that’s why I got to join the gang.”
If a metaphor for Dharavi is needed, it would be found in his persona – poverty, spunk, drama, power, fear and a hierarchy that makes sure poverty is not a leveller.
Soon enough, one-storey houses had an extra floor, like a pack of cards and just as precarious. The airless rooms were reached with a ladder placed inside. These illegal constructions had the blessings of slum lords who collected hafta (illegal tax) every month.
I sat with Farhat bi in a room lit by a naked bulb even in the afternoon. Her husband worked as a junior artiste in films. He was at home. “Kaam nahin mila (I did not get any work),” he said as he brushed his teeth with a twig. Farhat was a seamstress. Her clients were from lower middle class homes outside the Dharavi belt. As the machine creaked, she recounted her life story, brief and yet telling. “Bachchon ke liye sochna padta hai. Lekin yahaan koi danga-fasaad nahin hota (We have to think about the children’s future. But there are no communal riots here).”
There is no place for communal disparities. In fact, what the residents worry about are do-gooders. When I cornered Satish, who carried a cycle repair kit, his first question was, “Woh didi waali tau nahin hai? (I hope you are not one of those sisters from a NGO)” We went into a tea shop and sat on a rickety bench. “Aye, kya bolti tu?” was the song that captured the Bambaiyya patois and bravado; it seemed like an anthem here. It played at full volume. Satish ordered kadak chai (strong tea) and bun maska (butter). He asked for a thanda (cola) for me, imagining I’d prefer a bottled drink. I would, but he wanted to have an upper hand. Dharavi is about such arrogance. I chose tea. He slurped it from the saucer and queried, “Tu kya karti idhar? (What are you doing here?)” I was amused by his comfort with lack of respect in addressing a person much older than him.
Child labour. I was writing about it. He was disgusted. “Kaam nahin karega tau peit kaisa bharega? Bada ho ke sab ko karneka, tau abhi se ich shtart kar liya. Taim nahin. (If we don’t work then how will we fill our bellies? After growing up everyone works, so why not begin early? There is little time)” He seemed busy. I went to the tanneries and found young boys surrounded by the smell of burning animal hide. Furniture factories showed similar scenes. Hands were calloused with age as faces retained a frayed innocence.
Their creations are displayed in fancy stores and they don’t know about it. Recently, I drove past the area. It was late evening and bright tubelights hid the filth of illicit liquor made in greasy drums as gutter water seeped in and used batteries added the extra zing to nasha (stupor). What shone were bags and antique chairs through glass fronted shops that had names like Enigma. Today, it is as fashionable as distressed jeans, the slits deliberate.
Dharavi has now lost out to Karachi’s Orangi as the largest slum in Asia.
Orangi has always had ‘town’ suffixed to its name. It has neat divisions and is surrounded by areas that might be quite similar, like Gulshan-e-Iqbal or Gulberg. There is a bond of demand and supply. Orangi supplies labour, space and a cosmopolitanism similar to Dharavi. It is essentially mohajir dominated, the dregs of Karachi finding place here. But Pathans too came in, partly as a result of the needs of a city that required gun protection and a poppy high.
It was the push of poverty that made the residents enhancers of their own destiny. The town status was granted only in 2001. It has resulted in several development measures, and therefore lacks the canniness of dirty streets. Vazir Ali’s family had moved to Nazimabad after Partition and brought along their leather business. “Small-scale,” he says. His workshop is in Orangi. “It is expensive in the main areas and I only manufacture so it does not matter.” His products won’t have a ‘Made in Orangi’ label, though.
It appears like lower middle class chawl areas in Mumbai. Perhaps because it does not have a history as long as Dharavi, which is a century old and has reinvented itself to the lowest depths till it became a celebrity. Travel operators run a ‘real Bombay’ tour to show how people here live and work.
Orangi might not fall for this. It is a hidden township surrounded by respectability; even the little boys scurrying with tea seem to defer to your presence. I asked a woman for directions. She gave it impassively. There is an acceptance and you don’t see much status variations. Conversation is difficult, unless you want to buy something. I opted for pirated CDs. The young man would not tell me his name. He refused to acknowledge my Urdu and spoke in broken English. He recognised a tourist from afar. “Software?” He had all possible software available. And music, the covers garish, plenty from Hindi films. Any qawwali? I asked. He shook his head. “Not selling.”
Elsewhere, close to a small shrine, they do sell qawwali and Sufi music. Strings of flowers smother other smells. Orangi needs a camouflage to justify itself as a Karachi township.
Dharavi hits you in the face as you drive to the east part of Mumbai, the greenery stinking of turd dropped in malnourished pellets. It isn’t Danny Boyle’s chocolate soufflé version.
FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based columnist and author of A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan, Harper Collins, India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org