Oliver is…

He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man

…slumming it

Officially, Mumbai is the fourth most populous city in the world with 12.5m inhabitants. Unofficially, it has an estimated 9m more living the the slums of the city. Taking the official numbers, Mumbai has 20,694 people living per km². For comparison, London has 4,863 per km².

If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, or at least the opening few minutes, you’ll probably have seen what a typical slum is like.


One of the main slums used in that film was Dharavi and it was there I went on my last full day in India. Our tour guide, some eccentric alcoholic who we bumped into on the street, took us on a clever route there — past a mosque undergoing $45m renovations, by Jaguar and BMW showrooms and to see Antilia Tower, valued at around $1bn. The 27-floor tower has five people living in it.

When we got to Dharavi, I was surprised. Not so much by our tour guide’s insistence that we stop in a bar so he could get some brandy (a recurring theme of the day) and not by how grotesque it was, but more by how nice it all was. Sure it was cramped, ten people calling a room smaller than my bedroom ‘home’, but everyone seemed happy with what they had.

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It’s often said that those with less money and fewer possessions are happier, as they focus on friends and family rather than material goods, these people epitomised that saying. In a country where it seems to be a natural instinct to beg, steal or scam money from a white man, only one boy in the slums asked me for any money, and even he did it with a cheeky smile that made me wonder if he really wanted it. Instead, the people there, especially the children, cared more about taking the time to interact with us — practising their English (‘twinkle, twinkle, little star’), playing cricket with us or posing for photos. When shown their picture on the digital display, they seemed to be pretty excited by it all.*

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Through amazing NGO work, these slums are more than just the crowded housing estate I was expecting. We went through an area full of restaurants and cafes just like any other part of town (although much cheaper). We also went through an area of production, where teenage boys baked pastries for the hotels of Mumbai and men turned hides into leather goods for worldwide distribution. I’ll let you work out the mark up price on your ‘made in India’ merchandise. The slums are also a place of great recycling, where objects are washed for re-use or are re-shaped into something new. They’re also home to possibly the world’s largest laundry service.

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Having actual paying work has improved the lives of these people immensely The crammed conditions and some of the hygiene issues may not be great (I didn’t see the toilet area, but the ‘river’ we crossed stank like nothing else I’ve smelt) but they’re catching up on the luxuries front — I saw satellite dishes, TVs and an internet cafe in my brief visit.

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DSCF1162Later on I saw someone on YouTube

Maybe these people have been taught that having white people coming through is good for them so please be nice or they’ll stop coming. Maybe if I didn’t have an Indian tour guide to speak to the locals I wouldn’t have been so lucky. It is entirely possible that I was taken to affluent area of the slums, and not the real, gritty, dirty section, and that I completely missed the true suffering of so many people. A class system within a caste system; wouldn’t Gandhi be proud?

*Something I wondered later: these people have computers, TVs and who knows what else. Surely someone there has a digital camera?

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Filed under: asia, , , ,

5 Responses

  1. Dave says:

    I don’t think people are always necessarily happier when they get to focus more on family – probably most people, but not miserable ones like me. I tolerated my family until I was able to escape thanks to the student loan system, not coming from a slum and other unfair advantages I was born into, and I’m still mostly embracing the opportunity to isolate myself because I can, with no desire to create new family to get in the way. But obviously my mindset would be completely different if I’d grown up in that culture, so maybe I wouldn’t feel like this and you’re just right. Pointless comment then, really.

  2. Lynsey May says:

    Sounds like you found a fun tour guide, did you join him for a brandy?

    • Oliver says:

      Nah, we weren’t too impressed with him in general. The stuff he showed us was ace, but he was a bit off.

      Stopping off at a pub before any sites was one thing, asking to go to a pub between every stop was another and forcing us to a pub (‘just so you can sign my book’) when we were cutting the tour short because my brother was feeling unwell was another entirely. Add to that his stories of how he used to be an alcoholic (now he only drinks two bottles of brandy a day!), how he almost got into a fight with a taxi driver and how he aggressively asked us to pay more than our arranged price at the end left a bit of a bad taste in our mouth. Maybe if we just got hammered with him and gave him all our money it would’ve been better.

  3. Ila Calderon says:

    The Indian government has angered many citizens by endorsing plans to tear down Mumbai’s largest slum — the setting for the Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire” — in order to make way for luxury housing and commercial areas. As part of the slum rehabilitation project, developers will bull-doze the crowded Dharavi slum and move existing residents into modern apartment buildings. They say that clearing the slums and making way for more upscale real estate will help usher in India’s growing economy. Community activists and slum dwellers argue, however, that the million people who call the slums home do not want to see their homes, businesses and community give way for the new developments. National Slum Dwellers Federation member John Bai says that while he is not against development, he notes that many Dharavi residents run businesses out of their homes and would not be able to work in the new spaces. “Everybody wants [redevelopment], but not at the cost of our bread and butter. See, most of the people, they are earning a living in their house itself. They’ve got small home industries. Now, if we are displaced from this place, in buildings, we can’t do all these businesses,” he says.

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