Mumbai day 4: Dharavi and Bandra
One of the largest slums in Mumbai, Dharavi was also the set for several scenes in Slumdog Millionaire and the former home of some of the child stars in the same movie. To get there we took the train to Mahim Junction and as soon as we arrived we could see the outskirts of the slums: rickety shacks built beside the railroad tracks.
From the bridge across the tracks we got an excellent, not to mention very confronting, view of Dharavi. Lines and lines of shanties around a few blocks of crumbling apartment buildings.
The stairs on the other side of the bridge led straight into the slums. A dusty cricket field was one of the first things we saw. People lined the entire fence surrounding the field. When we came closer to take a look, several people turned their attention to us. They informed us a cricket competition in celebration of Republic Day was taking place. For only 600 rupees, we could watch from the VIP lounge. We looked across the field at the tarp-covered platform where several serious looking Indians sat behind a table.
"Thank you, but we came to walk around," we said, politely declining the offer.
The whole area, including the apartment buildings and a low building that looked almost as if it was made out of limestone, were copiously decorated in India's national colors: orange, white and green like the flag. People donned flag pins on their clothes, children waved little Indian flags around. Republic Day is one of the few national holidays on which most businesses close, schools are out and government employees get the day off. Everyone was making sure to enjoy this rare day to the fullest and broad smiles were all around.
As we walked further, a group of kids surrounded us. After the usual hellos and how-are-yous they ushered us towards a flag pole that stood in front of a school building and saluted the flag, urging us to do the same. We saluted the Indian flag with verve and the children were thoroughly amused.
Neither of us felt quite at ease. This was not a tourist area and though people had been friendly, they were making it quite clear that we were treading on their territory. So we went ahead carefully, occasionally greeting people with "Namaskar" or "As-salaam aleikoum" as applicable but I felt uncomfortable about taking pictures, not knowing whether this would be met with disapproval.
We walked down a road that seemed to divide the area in a Hindu area and a Muslim area. I had reservations against entering the Muslim area and we decided to go to the Hindu area first.
There was a small but beautiful Hindu temple. An old, toothless Hindu man gestured at us, inviting us in. There he introduced us to a Hindu monk, pointing at the man and then at the ground to indicate he was the proprietor of the temple. We greeted the monk and, with gestures, asked for permission to enter and take pictures. He generously opened his hands and nodded.
The temple was dedicated to my second favorite Hindu god, Ganesha, the god of wisdom, but it also had a few large statues of my number one favorite: the monkey god Hanuman.
As we left the temple, the toothless man, the monk and several other people outside the temple greeted us amiably. This made us comfortable enough to have a look in the Muslim area.
One Muslim man curiously informed where we were going and I indicated the mosque. "Is it ok to see the masjid?" I asked in simplified English. The man indicated we could go into the Muslim area, but that the mosque was off limits.
We wandered around some of the side streets. In one of them, a barber was busy shaving a man. When he saw the camera in my hand, the barber made inviting gestures, adding: "Photo, photo!" I aimed my camera and he took a pose, holding his razor blade against the face of his poor customer while looking into the lens. I showed him the result and he was pleased, humming approvingly and tilting his head enthusiastically. I then showed the picture to the customer, face half covered in shaving cream, who didn't have much of a choice beside humming lightly.
A young boy had been watching and was now more than eager to have his picture taken. I held my camera with much aplomb, kneeling down for a good shot. The boy shyly looked into the lens.
My camera had caught the attention of several other people, most of whom were too bashful to come up and ask, but their body language indicated their eagerness. I don't know what they thought I was, perhaps a journalist?
The excitement reached a high point when we passed a row of run-down little restaurants. A group of children gathered around us, giggling nervously and teasing each other to avoid being the one who would have to ask for a photo.
The bravest two looked up at Yalong and me. "Hello sir!" they exclaimed excitedly. "Photo? Please!"
"OK," I said and aimed my camera with broad motions, waiting for the kids to shuffle around and take poses. Seeing the result on the LCD screen sent them wild. Now several adults wanted in on the fun. Some teens pointed at another teen making chappati bread and I took a picture of him.
Then one man, possibly the owner of the restaurant, smiled broadly while pointing at himself. I pointed my camera at him but he held up his hand and instead ran inside to take position behind a huge pot of boiling chai. He took a ladle and demonstratively stirred the chai, looking proudly into the lens. As I showed him the picture, his smile widened even more.
Yalong had gone inside the restaurant and met two local guys, probably early to mid-twenties. They were drinking chai at a table in the poorly lit restaurant. One of them pleaded humbly for me to take their picture and as soon as I took aim, they took on a tough guy pose and stared into the lens with a suave look.
People wouldn't let us go. More children flocked around us and even adults gathered around. We kindly greeted everyone and walked onward.
Around the corner we came into a dead end street lined with debris on the side. Three small boys were playing cricket, using debris wood for the goal posts and bats, and a plastic ball. We were promptly invited to join the game. The oldest of the boys, perhaps about eight, threw the ball as I took bat, hitting the ball any which way but straight, causing the youngest boy, no older than five, to hurry after the ball and proudly returning it. Then the older boy took up the bat to Yalong's pitches.
Of course they all wanted their picture taken. The oldest boy posed straight, arms at his side and his chin and chest forward, the younger boys just looked shyly into the lens.
Again people gathered to have their picture taken. A group of small Hindu girls in colorful saris, some older Muslim men, various children, teenagers,... If we hadn't continued on our way we could have still been there taking people's pictures.
We walked a few streets further and noticed three small boys were following us ever since the restaurant. They were much more assertive than the other children we had seen, and now started harassing us for money. We declined and kept walking.
Parked on the side of the street was a colorfully decorated freight truck, one of the countless vehicles owned by so-called goods carriers: people who owned a truck, car or even a motorcycle, and were for hire to simply transport goods from A to B. Most of these trucks, much like the taxis, are very nicely painted, in bright tasteful colors and intricate patterns. Yalong asked me to take a picture as he stood on the side of the truck, holding the hand rail on the passenger door. An older Indian man with his two sons joined us. Indicating he owned the truck, the older man and his sons posed beside the truck for another picture.
A frazzled looking old man, missing half his teeth, stood there watching. When I looked at him he mumbled something while indicating himself. So I took another picture.
The three boys that were following us still hadn't given up. We tried to shake them off by walking, hoping they wouldn't stray too far from the area where we had picked them up. It didn't help. They kept following us, asking us for money more and more aggressively.
We kept declining, trying to remain as friendly as we could, but they were really testing our patience. But what the hell can you do in a situation like this? Our insistence to not give them any money didn't work: the boys seemed to think they could make a buck if they were able to push us far enough. I wanted to slap one or two of them at this point, but it didn't seem like a good idea considering the area we were in. As friendly as most people had been, there's no telling how many locals would come to the defense of the children if we exhibited any kind of aggression towards them.
At some point they threw rocks and food at us and Yalong and I decided we had had enough. When we came to an area we had visited before, we took the shortest route back to the station, with the boys still on our tail. They threw some more things at us, disregarding the corrective shouts from some of the adults standing by the side of the road.
The boys followed us all the way back to the station, shouting at us for money. A group of teenagers came towards us and asked if the boys were bothering us. When I confirmed, the teens proceeded to push the little boys around.
"Please, stop," I said, "it's okay."
We reached the ticket office, still being shouted at by the boys and wanting to get away really bad. Yalong went to buy our tickets and the boys focused on me.
"Money!" they said, holding up their hands.
I looked at them as displeased as I could and told them no.
"Why not?" they said with a certain degree of indignation.
"Because you threw stones and food at us. Do you really think you're going to get any money now?"
Their posture changed greatly as they now looked despondently at their feet, realizing they weren't going to get anything no matter how hard they tried.
Yalong came back with our tickets. Earlier we had decided to go to Bandra after we visited Dharavi. This meant we had to get a northbound train.
The boys asked me where we were going and I lied: "CST." In a desperate last attempt at making money, they ran ahead of us to lead us to the right platform. They were at the other side of the railroad bridge before noticing that we had gone to another platform and caught a train right away.
We sighed with relief. It was good to finally be rid of the aggressive boys. The train was nearly empty at this hour. We stood in the doorway of the train once again, enjoying the afternoon sun as we headed northwards.
Bandra station was only a few stops away. The suburb was a welcome change from the slum. We headed into an area filled with shops and restaurants and looked for a place to eat. There was a fresh juice stand, an opportunity Yalong couldn't pass. We both drank a glass of watermelon juice and Yalong topped it off with two glasses of orange juice.
On the far corner of the area we found a Muslim restaurant where Yalong ordered chicken pulav and I chose the chicken biryani. Around us the restaurant was buzzing with activity but we were too busy mentally processing our visit to Dharavi to take any notice.
The sun shone mercilessly and I took out my bottle of sunscreen. Several Indians watched with great surprise as I applied the cream to my neck, forehead, nose and arms. White skin is considered a status symbol in India and for all I know the Indians around me thought the white cream is what us Caucasians use to keep our skin pale.
Two Indians sat in a car right beside me. The man on the driver's seat pointed at my sunscreen bottle and held up his hand through the open window. I poured some sunscreen into his hand. He looked puzzled at the little gob of cream, not knowing what to do with it, so I poured some cream into my hand and led by example. He followed my every move, rubbing cream on his neck , nose and forehead as I did. He didn't do a good job of rubbing it out and I had to keep myself from laughing at the big speck of white cream on his dark brown nose.
Yalong and I were not sure where to go from here so we decided to simply walk around the area. Right outside the restaurant area we passed a very polluted still-water lake. On the tiny garbage covered beach, an Indian teenager was placing fishing lines about two meters apart. He used beer cans and milk cartons found amongst the garbage to keep the fishing lines in place.
A brand new office building across the lake, housing an internationally known accounting company and sporting a dark glass facade, stood in stark contrast to the lake below it.
Several people sitting on a low wall beside the lake watched the boy go about his business. We watched in awe and disbelief, incredulous at the fact that there could be fish in the murky green, garbage filled water. One of the locals on the wall understood our puzzlement and called out to the boy. He took a plastic bag from the ground and to our amazement, took out a pretty large fish, showing it to us. The bag writhed on the ground and evidenced that the catch had been good.
As the boy started preparing another fishing line, we tried to get a glimpse of the bait he used as we wondered whether he would use trash for that as well. The same man as before called out to the boy again and the latter held up a worm in his hand.
Walking further we entered a much quieter and much more wealthy residential area. Slim but luxurious apartment towers were divided by quiet roads, lined with palm trees. Children were playing cricket on some of the roads.
We walked back along a busy through faring road where traffic to and from central Mumbai roared. As we tried to cross the road, a homeless woman came up next to us and begged for money. She carried her daughter in her arms. The girl was perhaps eight or nine years old. One of her forearms was covered entirely in horrible burns. The homeless woman held up the girl's arm to affirm her pleas and I gave her a 500 rupee bill without really thinking about it. As we crossed the road I wondered how on earth my 500 rupees were going to do anything about the little girl's burns, not the type of thought you need to be having when you're crossing a busy Mumbai street.
Back at Bandra station, we took the first train back to CST. We found a Muslim restaurant along Dr. DN Road, sporting a sign that read in huge cursive letters: "Chinese food also".
Yalong was enticed by the food on the table behind us. He tried to ask the waiter to bring him the same, but the latter didn't understand. After a lot of confusion and attempts at explaining, the waiter evaded more insecurity by humming and gesturing reassuringly. As he walked back to the kitchen, shouting out something to the people in the back, we were left to wonder what food we would get. When a young teen brought plates of food to our table, we found our order hadn't really come through like we wanted, but we decided to go with the food given to us. It was pointless to attempt any further communication with the staff.
A Muslim family, mother and father and two children, was seated at the table to our left. Something was not to the liking of the father and he vented his anger on his wife and kids. When his shouting became louder, the embarrassed restaurant staff tried to persuade them to leave. After much indignant shouting and ranting, the father ambled out of the restaurant. His family dutifully followed him outside.
Back at SB Road, near my hotel, the Republic Day festival was in full swing. I ran into the hotel to drop my backpack in my room and ran back outside with my camera.
The same drum band from yesterday was back, but now they stood in the background and provided musical decoration of the sword demonstrations going on in the foreground. Loud fireworks were lit a bit further down the road.
The crowd had gathered close to the stage, apparently too close for the next demonstration: a teenager carrying something that looked like a sabre paced around the stage, waving around his sabre to indicate the space needed. The crowd complied with haste, carefully avoiding the sharp sabre.
Two boys, no older than sixteen, appeared carrying scimitars, They performed an outlandish dance swinging the scimitars all the way against their backs with the dull end. It seemed like a self-chastising ritual but they didn't draw any blood. Spurred on by the drum band, the boys danced faster and faster and seemed to reach a sort of trance.
After a while they exchanged the scimitars for long pokers with tips shaped like crescent moons. They used the tips to pull back their eyelids all the way, thus exposing their eyeballs. They walked circles around the stage, keeping their eyelids back with the pokers.
Finally they left the stage and another man appeared, carrying a sword and a coconut. Another man knelt on the ground before him. The drum band steadily accelerated their tempo, increasing the tension among the audience.
The swordsman placed the coconut on the head of the other man and, after a few practice swings, skillfully cleaved the coconut in two without hurting the kneeling man.
I felt a mixture of awe and terror during the show. The combination of the music, the sword demonstrations, the audience, the whole atmosphere,... made me feel like I was on another planet instead of merely in a faraway country.
After the festival was over, the crowd dispersed and shops and restaurants reopened left and right.
I stood on the sidewalk witnessing the scene. Two Indians stood beside me and we exchanged greetings.
One of them asked me if I needed a taxi. "If so, my friend is the best taxi driver!" he said, pointing to the man next to him.
"And if you need a restaurant," the other man added, "go to him!"
"Where is your restaurant?" I asked to the first man, and he pointed behind him to a building with red on white lettering reading 'Manglore Naaz'.
"What time do you open?" I asked, since I was looking for a good, cheap place to have breakfast close to my hotel.
He shook his hand. "Maybe, 6 o' clock, 6:30."
"Then I'll come have breakfast tomorrow," I promised him.
Back in the hotel I was fumbling around with my room key as a western woman with dark curly hair came out of the room two doors down from mine. I asked her if she had seen the festival.
"I certainly heard it," she said. "What was it like?"
I told her about the drum band and the sword demonstrations. We talked for a while and agreed to have breakfast the next morning. "I just found a really good restaurant," I told her.