MUMBAI — I’d heard it was the place “Slumdog Millionaire” was based on. Perhaps that was the draw for some visitors, an air of film-induced mystique that hung about the slum. Perhaps it was the promise of seeing some underside of India, something tourists might not usually be exposed to. Perhaps it was simply the opportunity to learn.
I ventured to Dharavi, on of the largest slums in Asia, on the recommendation of the couple my friend and I were staying with in Mumbai, parents of a friend who were kind enough to house us in the middle of our 3½ week journey through India.
On the train to Mahim, where the tour met, my companion and I sat across from a woman in an orange sari. As I put sunscreen on my face, she touched her cheek and smiled, showing me where I needed to rub it in. This moment was one of the only times I was smiled at, not stared at, in India. A good omen, I thought.
At the meeting point there were primarily other North Americans and Northern Europeans there for the tour — several from the United States, one from the United Kingdom, one from Norway. It made me uncomfortable; I didn’t want to feel like a light-skinned Westerner peering into a poor Eastern world. But the feeling was inevitable, and I felt embarrassed by my attempt to repress it.
The tour was led by a company called Reality Tours & Travel, whose website assures they will provide “experiences that you won’t normally find in your guide book.” Their approach seemed to be the draw of the rugged, of the exclusive, of the road less traveled; their logo is in a military-esque stencil font and their homepage is bordered by images of ripped pieces of cardboard.
I had never been to a slum before, and I realized that I didn’t have any idea what one was like. I found I was full of preconceptions I didn’t even know I had, of a dismal world of cardboard houses filled with people who were dirty and hopeless and miserable.
So I was surprised by the reality of Dharavi. A slum by definition is an overcrowded urban area marked by poverty and disorganization, but Dharavi was definitely not disorganized, at least in the parts of it the tour went through.
Sometimes referred to as a city within a city, the slum is home to more than a million people. What we saw on the tour must have been only a tiny fraction of it. It was indeed dirty, with one bathroom for a thousand people and rampant disease when the monsoon comes. It smelled of sewage, and children were playing in piles of trash. But the homes had televisions, gas stoves, and electricity, and the city was bursting with industry.
Our guide took us through the maze of shanties, flies, goats, and small-scale industries. There were many different kinds of manufacturing — leather tanning, pottery making, and recycling among them. It is self-sufficient and legal (not all slums are technically legal, I learned), and I was surprised by the organization that existed within it. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder, was I really learning about another way of life, or were these discoveries merely a symptom of ignorance and an attempt to assuage my own guilt? Did tourists feel good just for seeing the slum even though we weren’t actually doing anything?
My guilt was partly assuaged by the fact that Reality Tours & Travel does give back to Dharavi’s residents. The organization operates as a fund-raising enterprise that reinvests into the community, giving 80 percent of profits to their sister organization, Reality Gives, which runs local development projects, and supporting other NGO-run projects in the area. They do not allow any cameras, forcing tourists to look for more than just a memorable photo.
Naturally I wondered if this sort of information was provided to make visitors, too lazy to dig any deeper, feel like they were participating in something. Another NGO, Community Outreach Program, has criticized Reality Tours for operating much more like a business than an NGO that cares about the community. Which may be true, but not inherently evil.
One of the main objectives of Reality Tours is, the website states, to “break down the negative attitudes that many people have toward people from less developed communities — particularly the slums,” and change the media-enforced stereotype of idle and criminal slum dwellers. Through the tour they claim visitors will see the “real India” and see why Dharavi is “the heart of small-scale industry in Mumbai.”
While the company’s claims of authenticity are confusing and there is something vaguely problematic about touring a slum in the first place, it is difficult to deny that I learned about a community I knew nothing about and I was able to reconsider misconceptions I didn’t even know I had.
It’s worth considering that most people don’t have the time or the energy to “do something” about the problems they see in the world, and it is perhaps better to learn about an issue than be ignorant of it. While I’m not sure what the “real India” is, I felt closer to figuring it out after setting foot inside Dharavi. I would recommend any visitor to India do the same, if only to be in a better position to consider the issues of voyeurism and authenticity that go along with it.Jodi Bosin can be reached at email@example.com.