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India Part I – Dharavi

July 28, 2011

Originally posted 3January2008

There are many words. many contradictions, to describe India. Beautiful, hideous, amazing, horrifying, inspiring, depressing, magical, seething, wanting, needing, generous… the list goes on and on. Having just returned, I am still trying to absorb and process – something that feels like it could take years to do.
I struggled with many questions the entire time I was there, but the one that seemed to be most prominent is, Why was I born into my life and why were you born into yours? I felt like I was silently asking this question to every person with whom I came into contact. One can either see great order or complete randomness in the reality of life in India. Do the Hindus and Sikhs believe in reincarnation and karma as a means to explain their lot in life? Is accepting that the life you are born into is completely coincidental just too much to bear? Perhaps the belief that there is meaning and reason behind being born into a Bombay slum or the grandest apartment on Malabar Hill is what makes it manageable. Perhaps it is what makes it allowable, as well.


I spent one afternoon in Dharavi slum in Bombay, which is home to over a million people. The slum is very industrious, doing about $650 million a year in business. One hears this figure and then looks around, and wonders how it is possible that there is raw sewage running through the streets and children playing a game of cricket on a 3-story tall garbage heap without shoes or even underpants? There are plans to destroy the slum and build more acceptable housing for its residents. Two-hundred twenty-five square feet structures will be given to each family who can prove they have been residents in Dharavi since before 1995. The rest will have to find another place to live, as the land will be given to developers who will build for-profit housing and shops and cafes and malls. The slum is a prime bit of real estate, and the land will make many people a tidy bundle. None of the current residents, of course, many of whom will have to find some place else to call home, someplace other than where they’ve been living for the last 13 years.


The narrow alleys filled with human and animal feces, the low-ceiling cramped rooms that house 10-15 people, the sheer and utter filth – it’s not how people should live. That much is true. But where will these people go? We were greeted by smiles when we entered the slum. It took no time at all to realize that these smiles weren’t directed at us necessarily, but at everyone. I have never seen so many happy people all at once in New York or anywhere else. The children that were squealing with delight as they ran shoeless and without hesitation through the winding dirt paths which they seem to know like their own hands, were an absolute joy to watch. Within moments all you notice is their smiles, as their surroundings melt away. They are simply happy children, enjoying a Sunday afternoon. Their parents are simply people, working hard, trying to feed their families and to enjoy their days. We are them and they are us, the only differences between us a few thousand miles and dollars.


And yet to say that the only things that separate us are miles and dollars is absurd. As I look around the slum I wonder how many Westerners, if given the choice to end their lives or to live their lives in these conditions would choose life. These people, the residents of Dharavi, choose life each and every day. They wake up every day into poverty that is almost unimaginable, they work hard, they live and they love, and then they go to bed on a hard floor with a dozen other people and the next day it starts all over again. There is no end in sight and no reason to believe that things will get better in this lifetime, unless they are “lucky” enough to have lived like this for more than 13 years. And even then, how much better will it be? One could say that they don’t know any different, but one would be wrong. These are not isolated people. These are residents of Bombay, the most populous city in the world, a center of commerce – the 10th largest in the world, and they are smack-dab in the center of the city. They know much different, and they see how the other half lives each and every day.


I was expecting to feel guilt upon entering the slum. Guilt for being white, born into a rich country, having had a good meal available to me every day of my life, having an education, an apartment bigger than what I need, and money to spend on a weekend movie, among other things. I did feel guilt, though my overwhelming emotion was admiration. You cannot help but admire their dignity, their strength. It is rare in the world I operate in daily to see such fortitude in the face of overwhelming hardship. I also found myself appreciating their ability to find purpose and significance in their lot in life. In their suffering there is meaning, and in each day a new opportunity to add to the good karma that will be their eventual ticket out of this life.


Appreciation for their belief system and the positive effect is has in their lives is one of the many things from India I want to wrap up tightly and put into a safe place and hold onto forever. I hope to be able to find meaning in my own suffering, slight as it may be in comparison. I hope to be able to face the hardships in my life with an equal measure of strength and dignity. Mostly, I hope to smile as broadly and as often.


More lessons to come …
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