It's darkness at noon at Dharavi, the world's biggest slum. And hope trickles like wounds simmering inside the labyrinth of hopeless inner lanes
Prabhat Sharan Mumbai
An actor reaches out a hand, the sun is there, a cloud moves and the whole story is changed- Orson Welles
Up above the sun-drenched pebbles and rags strewn 90-feet road, a huge canvas banner proclaims, "Dharavi glachit nahi hai, Dharavi Slumdog nahi hai...yeh udyogik nagri hai aur isko udyogik nagri ghoshit karna hamari maang hai," (Dharavi is not a hovel nor is it a Slumdog... it is an industrial area and we demand that it should be declared an industrial area.)
Like a corpuscle with a multiple cellular realities, the three main roads jostle with innumerable entry and exit points where even pale susurrations of agitated light tip-toes on cat's paws and uncertainly enter the hovels of Dharavi houses. The diesel smoke creeps along the dusty road swirling ridges and flickering dust on people's slippers, gratings and shutters. The air, a featureless curtain, greets everybody and everywhere, even in the dark as a tomb, the century-old Dhareshwar temple from which Dharavi, the hovel of Mumbai, derives its name.
The hot air makes the eyes water and carries the smell of tobacco, curry and sweat with rotting carcasses of living people who now hardly worry about rising prices (don't the?), rushing along like shadows on the rocks clutching desperately at the distances. The people here have homes everywhere and strangely they have no home to speak of. Ask anybody an address and no one knows it. A blank gaze with an amused look greets you, but with a genuine attempt to help you locate the address in the intricate geometry of the place.
The houses, like a patchwork box of rags, hover precariously along the gutter water, blackish, reddish and stale green. Call it tombs of poverty, worse, tombs of death, or call it the tomb of a spirit fighting against all odds.
Unlike the people who jump out of terminal stations like lost souls, for decades, the roads, dead-ends and inner lanes here are weighed down by bristling souls from so many regions. Life pulsates even as the stink of the fish from the fish-mongers half-chewed brown plank battles it out with the garbage stench and a million drops of sweat which explode on foreheads like grains from a shotgun, dense, heavy and itchy.
Every road, every lane is dotted with all kinds of workshops. Clichés acquire a reality and ‘Dharavites', if they can be called as such, have no time for romanticising their lives. Walking along the roads, reminds of a scene in Tolstoy's Cossacks, when mosquito bites suddenly becomes glowing love bites and the sportsman strides happily through the forest of his own self-reliance."
Twenty-year back, people from the suburbs used to take a detour, avoiding Dharavi. The media had given it an image of the Wild West with its citizens as "raving lunatics", who at the slightest ripple of annoyance, plunged knives into anybody's fragile body. The place was termed as haunted, and rumours of stabbings and killings abounded even as it attracted morbid tourists desperately seeking adventure only to leave the place puffed up with an undiscovered Columbus complex.
Strangely, during the 1992-93 Bombay pogrom against the Muslims, except for arson in the small-scale industrial units which abound, violence hardly occurred around the humble huts and thatched tenements, even though the localities continue to be divided into regional and linguistic grounds.
If the road on the northern part of these protozoa is occupied with the Kolis of the fishing community, then the western part, where the trains curves like a yellow river along the canal leading to the sea, houses the Muslim populace. The central part of Dharavi, which has the maximum population density, continues to be dominated by the lower classes and castes from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. And people from northern India, especially Bihar, even though unregistered as voters, live in the sweat shops which have fulminated and mushroomed after the demise of leather tanneries and country liquor distilleries.
The swamp and wet lands which used to surround Dharavi have disappeared and in turn a garish concrete jungle has come up in the form of Mumbai's swankiest, high-end business park -- the Bandra-Kurla Complex. But the glossy buildings have not been able to infuse any inferiority complex among the ‘slum-dwellers'. Spindle-legged children peep in from the dark corridors where an uncertain sun sometimes trickles in and the red glow of cigarettes hardly reflecting on the churlish dark sluggish water flowing out from the complex layers of inside and outside drains.
Cult horror writer HP Lovecraft wrote that certain gravestones are keys which could unlock the infernal regions of space. Entering the dark under the three-feet narrow lane, with music streaming out as reliable as an advertisement and shadows curving like a vertebrae, you can see a small child like a brown rain idol with a round hole in his mouth and a skull glaring like a headlight watches with a world-weary indifference.
The moans, the sighs, sounding like a recorded tape filtering from the wafer thin greenish walls, mingle with the sweat of lust and smell of diesel. The peacock shadows of the curtains and a woman's dress sways in the hot turbid air and men crawl out like worms out of the oven. Bars of darkness and leopard spot darkness light up the shadowed wall, and the women, icons of prison, play with drops of blood. A picture boldly greets you displaying lust and rage along with a swirling smoke of uncontrolled human appetite for the forbidden, for outrage.
The doors carry a name plate ‘Massage Parlor', with mobile numbers etched below. Ladies with numbers, ladies like ants, sit near the white-grey froth of dark sluggish liquid outside the door. Smoking a bidi, the woman in an unadorned dress with not a stitch anywhere to spare, blushes, looks quizzically at the men scurrying, with a smile. The look betrays amnesia, hardly remembering them, while men may have remembered her and possibly discussed her with each other like anthropologists arguing for the superiority of one's own culture, tradition and norms.
Their eyes dart in the darkness as if searching for abuse and melancholy which now drives the swollen blood in their veins. Everybody knows everybody and wave at each other. The women don't offer a modern smile jumping out of the cover of a glossy magazine. The smile which plays on their lips is archaic, a smirk, a revenge.
The massage parlours or brothels in disguise have always been a part of Dharavi and people here have never looked down upon its practitioners or the customers. Be it from the Koli community, Telegu or Tamil or Kerala-fold or Nepali or UP or Bihar, the women are treated as half-whore and half-wife. While crossing over through one end of a wall green with mould and black waters dripping from above, there is hardly any difference between the liquid sloshed path and the cramped toilet with the water in the lavatory bowl agitated as if it's a tide in a sea.
Inside the bowels of most of the houses the sun hardly peeps in and once out from one galli (lane of tenements) the sun explodes into the eyes like flames. It is said that a dew drop is not an analogy for the ocean but then it certainly reflects the light of an infinite universe and walking from one galli to another is like walking in concentric circles where choice seems endless and tiresomely circumscribed. The gallis just don't lead to thatched huts with concrete walls jutting out like a hairdo on a punk's head; they also house the smoky liquor drinking joints where waiters in black trousers with gaping patches swat flies and serve listlessly.
Sunken in old broken chairs, like their dreams, the guzzlers patronising the joint for years, along with waiters, curse the fan for not being breezy and disinterestedly watch wavering images on the television screen. A few youngsters wanting to graduate into manhood with hands-off mobile phones plugged into their ears like a hearing device for the stone deaf or electrodes attached for the brain-damaged, fill the beer mug in a rush; and soon a sheepish look and white beer froth spills over in tandem.
"The only change... earlier, the tannery workers used to frequent the country liquor bars; but with the Bandra-Kurla complex coming up, the Kolis have shut down their liquor distilleries and ‘aunties addas' are now a thing of past. Today the workers from shops and other cottage industries like to drink beer... after all, the hoardings and television channels declare that drinking beer is fashionable," a waiter says, his chain and bracelet rending the calm gold darkness of the beer bar with its gleam.
So the cottage industries are doing good? "No, in fact, the tanneries have now been replaced with junk food and papad manufacturing units. They employ only women and children. While women involved in papad manufacturing are somewhat better off than the other workers, the children are like bandhua mazdoor (bonded labourers) from Bihar. They work for over 12 to 14 hours a day and are paid not more than Rs 3-4,000 a year," says comrade Vasant, a full-time party worker of a Left-wing ‘parliamentary'political party.
A copper light plays out shadows in the party office. Comrade Vasant rues the changing scenario and helplessness over the impotency of anger. "Nobody comes to the union office. What do we do? We need a yeda (a Mumbai slang for a mad man) to be after them... and how do we tackle the children? They are all unorganised workers and they are poor. The problem is of karuna (compassion) and law. If we try to stop it, they will die of hunger. And if we try to organise them, there are hundreds waiting in line seeking work."
There is a silence in the communist party office and the twilight creeps in with stale tobacco smoke. Outside, the sweatshop-workshops which dot every corner and is slowly enveloping the old small-scale manufacturing sector is no different from the earlier ones. The place still reeks of furnace fumes day and night with rats running and scurrying all over.
Even as the headlights glare, the joyous screams of children seep in. An old communist party worker with an unshaven grizzled face full of ridges, loiters around with a rolling gait. Beads of lifeless sweat stand out as he trudges ponderously, dragging his feet as if in a quagmire, towards a liquor joint in the night. It looks as if blood has halted in his veins and reality has receded from him into a darkness with a dying face. Predictably, his mates have disappeared over the years, imperceptibly.
Inside the bar, in a fish aquarium guppies swim in green-molten gold water and a stale smell permeates every table and every corner. A teenager walks in with eyes glowing furiously like phosphorous in the dark. The wooden flooring creeks with people walking in and the veteran, die-hard communist, says, "Very soon, everything will be in custody of a few corporate houses who will bind everybody in lumpish corporate humanitarianism. The exploitation will continue."
The teenager's eyes continue to glow and the words of Orson Welles strike me, "An actor reaches out a hand, the sun is there, a cloud moves and the whole story is changed."