650 million USD in annual revenue. The affable guide told me referring to the annual wealth that the commercial units in Dharavi, the second largest slum in Asia generates. Do the math and it is 30 billion Indian Rupees. Surprise. More so on the faces of the motley European group who had accompanied us on the tour of the slums. Understandable reaction; when you look around and the incredible figure seems to be lost in the filthy lanes, open drains and the toxic fumes. Where are the flashy cars and glass-front houses such wealth could build? Why does the wealth not translate into better living and working conditions for the residents and the workers? Why is the poverty advertised so blatantly for the tourists to gape at while the wealth disappear down mysterious channels. The questions haunted me as I negotiated the alleys where one has to walk sideways, heads bent. The answers oscillated between rational to disturbing, sometimes startingly simple at others extremely complex. And everytime they reminded me that Dharavi which is a universe within a city, a living, breathing organism with deeply entrenched tentacle, need more than the casual observer to unravel its layers of human dynamics. To allow you a glimpse into the soul of the citadel.
The history of Dharavi, in its present form goes back a hundred odd years when Bombay started taking its shape as a commercial hub ,inciting people to come and try their luck. They came in droves, they still do, and settled down on the edge of the marshy swamp. Zoom in on the petridish and the survival games become clearer. Where with time, the Morlocks and the Eloists got separated. The workers who kept the wheels turning stayed on. The resourceful owners built robust businesses across a few tens of square kilometres. They used the hunger of the migrant workers to fuel industries which today would be banned at several places within city limits or attract stiff fines. The highly toxic plastic and aluminium recycling units where the fumes are dense enough to prod you to move on after a minute. The Morlocks work and live here.The Eloists on the other hand have moved into highrises just beyond the invisible curtains separating Dharavi from the rest of the plush Bandra-Kurla zone. They come at times in their big cars and survey that the well-oiled machineries keep running. The workers surprisingly do not complain. The people who work in Dharavi are mostly migrants from all over India. Coming from small villages where they were dependent on the seasonal agriculture produce, this place represents good money. Indeed. The average pay is 5000 per month. Roughly between 150 and 250 per day. Not enough for them to rent a house in Dharavi- the average tenement comes at a rent of 2000 per month – but enough to send back home and ensure decent living for their families. I passed a worker calling his family from one of the improvised STD booths- he wishes them a happy new year and insisting that his wife should buy herself a new sari. The guide tells me that the workers have refused to wear the gloves and protective masks that the NGO’s have provided them with. He is not exactly right, I thought observing that several people actually wear gloves. But then the pathetic working conditions and poverty make an attractive package that the foreign tourists can lap up.
Ofcourse there are other explanations of the leakage of wealth. As I ask about the prices of the goods produced here, the jeans and the fabric and the leather bags I start tracing the long supply chain along which wealth depletes before it reaches the walls of Dharavi. A piece of fabric valued at 150 here is a pricey 2000 when it reaches an upmarket mall. There are several hands along the chain who in their interest would keep the chain from being shortened. In a disbalanced world, is it possible to pump the wealth back into where it originates? I do not think there are any easy answers.
As we move from the commercial units into the residential areas, I start feeling like a voyeur. I am seized by pangs of guilt of an intruder, as I negotiate the dingy lanes and look into the houses with the low doors and the conspicuously absent windows. Most houses have a refrigerator and TV in front of which the family congregated on the precious off-day. Several houses have air-conditioning – a luxury still in ostensibly richer parts of India. So all the wealth has not disappeared after all. The guide explains that most of the residents, unlike the workers, go to earn their living in the city.(Note how he talks of the city as another world whereas in reality it is only a bridge apart). The wages are decent there anything between 8000 and 15000 per month. There are policemen and cab drivers, rickshawwallas and BPO employees. Many of them have lived here for generations and are too entrenched in the community to move even when the government offers them alternate housing. Some are driven here by the prohibitive rents and real-estate prices in Bombay. A few are living here as first generation settlers, carefully putting their savings in bank because they want to buy a nicer house somewhere else. Not necessarily as a means of escape but as an astute investment. Many give away their government houses on rent and come back to the familiar place. You can start deciphering the puzzle to an extent. Some of the wealthier communities represented by upper-caste Hindus have spacious houses larger than the 225 square feet offered by the government. To add to this, they have many of the amenities topping the wish list of urban dwellers – municipal water, electricity, an ecosystem of 3 schools, 2 hospitals, 7 banks and departmental stores. And a thriving community where Muslim carpenters chisel out altars which house Hindu gods. The government thus have a tough job on its hands of convincing the dwellers about plans for an ambitious redevelopment project. The officials have to come down from their high altars and delve into the labyrinth of humanity at Dharavi. The official figure puts the consensus figure at approximately 70%. A vast amount of unlearning and relearning of the workings of the slum are in order before the consensus climbs up. Yet for many people living in less than humane conditions, on the periphery of the wealthy cities they help create- such a redevelopment can represent an escape route. However in a country where human equations work in strangely bizarre ways, such conclusions may be too simplistic. Unless then the giant organism will continue living and breathing – cut off from Mumbai by only a tenuous bridge.
I stare blankly at the depressing news feed. Falak dies – an inhuman saga of sadism, sexual debauchery, human trafficking. Where the sexually abused 14-year old who claimed to be Falak’s mother is a child herself. The uproar is but natural, the civilized world erupts in outrage. How long will it last? A week, a month, six months. While many Falks and their teen-aged mothers will continue going through hell while the administration conveniently looks the other way. After all what can you expect in a country where the police chief in Gurgaon asks women to come back by 8 because the state cannot protect her. Lets say the women accept the dictate because the altenative is to get abused, raped or killed on the streets. The organisations practising gender diversity put up their hands in helplessness. Women are welcome but the fact that they want to leave early will come in the way of their progress. Or even their induction into the workforce in the first place. If the police and the sex-offenders do not come in the way, the neighbours, the family, the society will. Mired in their prejudices against women. Conditioned to treat them as the silent cogs. Who play some role in keeping the wheel moving. Who get battered and bruised as the wheel negotiates rough terrains. But who do not decide the direction. And in a country scoring abysmally low on gender ratio and female development index, the fact that a large section of its population is not a master of her destiny should be a source of huge concern. Paradoxical since we celebrate the Stree Shakti so ardently in our religion. Ironical when on the morning of women’s day which also coincided with Holi, my 45 year old cook tells me that her husband still hits her. Scary when a survey conducted among low socio-economic groups reveal that a majority of these women think it is but natural for the man to hit his wife, for a wife not to control her destiny.
Ofcourse amidst all this gloom there are the extraordinary stories of courage and strength – many a time co-authored with the help of men. The fourteen year old Beena, living in a remote village in Bengal,who thwarted efforts to get her married and has now created self-help groups which voraciously campaign against child marriages. The man from Chennai who battled social stigma, many a times from women, to create inexpensive sanitary napkins for rural women. The societal changes accelerate as you climb the socio-economic ladder. There are more girls getting education- though the ratio of male to female secondary students is an abysmal 2:1. There are more women entering the work force. Yes they are till mostly employed at lower paid jobs but as the numbers increase, these women will gather the courage to demand better deals. Which start with better pay and include things like cribs at the work place, longer maternity breaks, provision for paternity leaves and opportunities to get re-inducted back into the workforce. I remember a friend in London. A doctorate and a chief researcher at a large corporate there, she was given several options including flexi-hours, work-from-home so that she could be cushioned back into work after delivering her lovely twins. Too much to ask in a country where women strap on their infants to their back as they carry heavy loads balanced precariously on their head. Or little to ask in a country where women have made amazing strides despite the odds against them. I pensively look at the plastic rose they gave me on women’s day. In a fair world, we would not need the women’s day. We will be celebrating her every day. Falak can then rest in peace.
The mobile alarm screeches and screams. Despite the extent of evolution of the acoustics in mobile phones, the alarm always manages to sound like a terrible assault on the olfactory nerves. Bad noise. You wake up noticing vaguely a strange bird on your balcony singing its heart out. Good music. The songs are drowned in the noise of the traffic which scares the bird away. Bad noise. You are met on the breakfast table by an angry spouse who has a few curt words for coming in late yesterday evening- it was your anniversary. Bad noise. Which obliterates the little chap eager to talk to you. Good usic. You tune in to the television to be assaulted with a series of breaking news on violent crimes from the night that was. Bad noise. Ignore the radio playing Rafi classics in the background. Good music. As you move through the day, the pattern continues. The heated debate with the boss on the raise drowns out the thump on the backs by the colleagues for brilliantly executing a project. The deluge of perfunctory emails eclipses that one text message from the spouse saying he/ she is sorry about the morning tiff and suggesting a romantic dinner. The overwhelming desire to keep abreast with all your connections on social media shuts out the good-natured neighbour offering you juicy mangoes from his hometown. The bad noise shutting out the good music. Ensuring you are home after a long day feeling excitable, irritated and unhinged. With a swarm of noises in your head fighting to assert their importance. While the good guys – the little bird, the child, the neighbour all walk around on the periphery trying to make themselves heard. And failing miserably.
Ofcourse you are not to blame. Each of the bad noises is too powerful to be ignored. They scream, they shout, they assert themselves till they crowd out all the melodies you could have filled in. All of them require urgent attention. You are almost tuned in to respond to some of them for example emails inexplicably marked with the ‘urgent’ sign. Or even the facebook messages though they maybe from friends you barely know in real life. The information-hungry world conditions you to be alert to all these stimuli, constantly reminding you of the necessity to stay plugged in to absorb the last packet of communication or information thrown at you. Helped on by a hyperactive set of invisible elves which create a humongous amount of data that unobtrusively creeps into your life. Along with the angry boss, the indignant spouse and the noisy traffic. Ofcourse the sources of noise do not always wear angry faces as in the example of Facebook solidarity I talked about. The relentless emphasis on networking make you concentrate on building huge lists of superficial relationships which have to be sustained by less than meaningful interactions throughout the day. We live in a pseudo social world where we choose chatter over meaningful interactions, measure our social worth in terms of breadth rather than depth. No wonder when we are home we gloss over dinner table conversations and skip over the playtime with the child. We are saturated by the time in terms of conversations and information to be further bothered with parent-teacher meetings and anniversary plans. With the inadvertent effect of straining the more meaningful interactions we could have had. Worse all the bad noises also crowd out the moments of solitude, the few seconds of introspection to compose your own notes from the snatches of tunes being played around you. Ensuring you live your life as a hyperactive social animal going through the motions of the day without pondering on whether any of it makes sense. Where you involuntarily prioritize noise over music. Can this pattern be changed?
I have been conditioning myself recently to spend several minutes of silence everyday. I spend the minutes in the local park which has a secluded bench among a bushy thicket. The birds chirp in the background. There is a small stream which gurgles and gushes in a hypnotic rhythm helping me focus my thoughts, aligning them into symphonic waves. I then go onto accentuate the moments of harmony in my life. The dinner table conversations with my husband, the sessions of stories with children of an NGO, positive interactions with friends I cultivate with care. I am moving away from hunting connections to farming bonds. I also refuse to be drawn into the information vortex by creating a neat list of what I need to read and what I have to respond to. Does not stop the spontaneous outburst but does enough to preserve my sanity. So I have less clutter and chatter yet more powerful interactions which make me feel more enriched at the end of the day. I also literally add music to my life by creating a composition of the most soothing melodies loaded on to my personal music devices. By far the most powerful change I have brought into my life is to create a music within. A repository of happy sounds: my favourite songs, laughter, happy chatter; which I delve into when I need to obliterate particularly harmful noises. I manage to, for example, block out chunks of defeatist interactions by delving into my inbuilt library.
Ofcourse none of it is easy. The persistently ringing mobile or the ping announcing a new email on your smatphone will obstinately interrupt romantic dinners. Switching off or ignoring the urgent interruptions take powerful self-control. However unless you do that, the music will continue eluding you.