June 5, 2008
Maria is from Rio, Brazil. She is a film-maker who made a documentary on Dharavi sixteen years ago. When she first arrived her project involved a comparative study of Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio, and Dharavi. She had a clear agenda. She wanted to show Dharavi’s industriousness, how relatively non-violent it was and how fast its people were developing their environment.
Instead, she was caught in a huge upheaval – the Great Dharavi ‘Riots’ of 2009 when Mumbai came to a stand still.
The Western, Central, and Harbour railway lines had been completely cut off by peacefully dissenting residents. Her camera had captured instances of police brutality after having filmed the neighbourhood in minute detail, based on two months of conversations with researchers, activists and residents of Dharavi.
Luckily the film and camera survived the violent frenzy, though she herself was badly injured. Her last footage showed an interview with a fiery man, Bhau, who predicted apocalyptic transformations unfolding in Dharavi in the next decade. He spoke on his terrace watching the neighbourhood burn.
She never forgot his words: “They say they will redevelop Dharavi, but look at what they’re doing. These high-rise buildings mushrooming all round us. People who move in are selling and leaving their flats already. They need money because they cannot continue with their livelihoods in these buildings. People living in these high-rises don’t know their neighbours anymore. The street life you love so much will be gone. They say this is development, but it looks just the opposite to me.”
Maria is here again – nearly a decade and a half later. There is a scar on her left cheek – a legacy of the earlier visit. She stares at it in her mirror, in her hotel room near Sion station. The neighbourhood has indeed transformed beyond recognition.
She glances through the widow of her twenty-third floor room, feeling completely estranged from the cityscape around her. She cannot remember ever having felt so uncomfortable in Dharavi, even at the time it was considered to be a filthy slum. In fact, even during the riots.
Her hotel is in one of the nicer looking parts of Dharavi. The well-aligned middle-class condos must have once gleamed when they were freshly built. Unfortunately, the construction methods and materials of the European consortium, which won the bidding for redeveloping this part of town, did not fare well in the roughness of the Mumbai weather. The crisp white had longed turned yellow and green. The smell of moisture floated in the air.
She comes out of the hotel lobby looking up at the row of buildings and remembers how an advertisement on her last visit had promised to turn Dharavi into a “world class township”.
Memories of the energy that electrified the small narrow street flood her mind. She takes a cab to the 90-feet road junction where some of the “Old Dharavi” still remains. To, Kumbharvada – a village belonging to one of the earliest settlers in the neighbourhood had fought tooth and nail against the forced development. They had managed to ensure that their neighbourhood remained relatively unaffected by the plan.
As she walks through the pedestrian area, she sees souvenir boutique shops. There is one advertising tours through the streets of the old neighbourhood. The cost per trip is marked in rupees, yuan, yens, and euros. A colourful billboard gets her attention. It publicizes a theme-park: “Experience the Original Dharavi”, and below “Leather, Pottery and Suing Classes. Register Now!”
Maria turns away.
She spots a few unchanged huts. Nothing could make those potters move, not even the tens of thousands of rupees per head offered by the developers. They stood their ground and now are making a fortune selling “authentic” crafts to tourists. Not to mention the revenue from the camera charge, since thousands of tourists and movie crews come every year to shoot them at work. The Kumbhar youth are no longer potters but professional tourist hustlers. There are rumours that their pottery is no longer even made in Dharavi, but farmed out to industrial potters in a far out suburb.
Apart from the Kumbhars, Maria remembers another community who had been there since before Dharavi even had a name – the Kolis. She discovers they were offered massive amounts of money and most of them have moved out. Besides, the neighborhood has changed beyond recognition. Nothing remains of the village-type houses she had once filmed.
Eventually she manages to find a few old timers who stayed behind. They say they don’t recognize themselves in Dharavi anymore. The “spirit” they tell her, is gone.
She also interviews a few aging activists from a local heritage conservation NGO called SPARC (Society for the Protection of Authentic Residential Centres). They are fighting gentrification, but it has long been a lost cause – they sigh.
Maria learns more from them. Apparently, at first a few adventurers and artists had moved in, thrilled to live in the center of the city, in what remained of the “largest slum in Asia”. Gradually the place gained in respectability and some new type of nostalgia hit the middle-classes. By 2010, in the context of rising nationalism, some intellectuals claimed that slums were the “true Indian vernacular architecture”. It became hype to live in what was seen to be an exotic endangered urban species.
Bohemian youth from Mumbai bought studios in the historical part of Dharavi and set up small shops selling street fashion items and stylish 1990s second hand furniture. Soon art galleries and trendy bars were attracting the intelligentsia from all over Mumbai. Roofs were converted to terraces and gardens. Architecture magazines in India and abroad covered ‘Old Dharavi’ in special issues. There were interviews of all those who claimed to know Dharavi from when it was still a slum.
Maria had learned this through specialized websites at the time. This was now well-known urban history. Today of course, artists were deserting the place. It had become a caricature of what it was when they had first moved in.
The few remaining artists she meets recall the fight they had to put up against city authorities to obtain permission to first organize the National Arts Festival on the streets of Dharavi. Of course, now the event attracts thousands of tourists from all over the world. Initially puzzled by the popularity of the event, the civic authorities soon understood that they could make a lot of money through the tourism economy and the rental of space for vending booths, and eventually took over the control of the festival under the pretext of reestablishing order, safety and hygiene.
Wandering through the historical parts Maria soon finds herself at the edge of the rehab zone, a grimy part of town. The proximity to this vertical slum had for long kept less adventurous settlers from moving in to Old Dharavi. However, thanks to the political pressure exercised by the ‘Dharavi Homeowner Coalition’, a strong police presence had supposedly made this part relatively secure and safe.
Maria soon discovers that the police were hand in glove with ruthless local gangs that had come up all over the rehab zone.
Her walk is interrupted. A man pushes her – and tries to grab her camera. ‘What do you think your doing Miss? This is no zoo – step off and take that fucking camera with you’.
This would never have happened on her last visit! Where are those smiling children jumping in front of her? Where are those busy people carrying goods up and down the streets? Where are those old people inviting her to their home for chai? Everything seems so dull and depressed now.
So – this is the new face of Dharavi. Most of the old residents have left. Bhau too has gone away to some remote forest according to a shopkeeper, near Sion station.
Maria takes a taxi back to the hotel. They are soon stuck in traffic. From the window she watches the decrepit middle – class buildings – most of them twenty-storied tall. They are all over the place with flyovers intertwining through them, full of honking cars. The density of the neighbourhood is extraordinarily high. Even though the population is said to have halved since redevelopment – cars and congestion have only increased.
How ironic, she thought, that old “polluting” local industries of Old Dharavi, including the dantesque 13th Compound with its hundreds recycling factories, were replaced by high energy consumption buildings and crowded roads.
She decides to get off the car and take a break in an air-conditioned Barista. Glancing at the papers she stares at a particular story. There’s a new plan being floated to set up a Mini- SRZ in Dharavi. SRZ’s or Special Residential Zones are luxury apartments only sold in Euros and Yens. This plan – also called the Dharavi Redevelopment Project II intends to raze the decayed rehab zone as well as the middle-class buildings to substitute them with structures made with new construction technology. It includes a project to construct an artificial lake called ‘Mithi Lagoon’ between four new flyovers that would be constructed as part of the project. Each new building would be a minimum of 60 stories high. All the ‘old’ residents would be given new flats in this new township – though –it was clarified – they would occupy a different enclave. They could not mix with the euro and yen paying clientele.
Shocking! mumbles Maria and then stares at the man behind the counter. She recognizes Raghu at once. He used to be her assistant when working on the documentary. It takes him sometime to recognize her but when he does, he is thrilled. He is one of the few original residents still around.
They chat all through for hours and in the evening he invites her to an underground nightclub ‘Zhopdi’ located at the boundary between the middle-class area and the rehab zone. The club was well known, along with many others in Dharavi, for its bar-dancing and raucous crowds. (Bar-dancing had been reinstated ten years ago after a group called ‘Reviving Urban Folklore’ had fought a case and won’).
Tonight though, there would be no bar dancers.
It is a special night dedicated to a flea-market called ‘Navi Chor-bazaar’ that has been a regular affair for the last five years. The streets around the market get filled up with sound systems and all kinds of urban tribes come out, Raghu informs her. Nobody knows who organizes it – but the music is fabulous. A world famous DJ Indecent, an old friend of Raghu’s comes from Mankhurd to play.
Raghu takes Maria inside the club through the back door, waving at the menacing bouncers. Backstage they meet forty-five year old DJ Indecent. He used to work in a cyber-café in Dharavi as a kid. He is the man to know in the club. Maria immediately starts talking about Dharavi and the recent changes. DJ Indecent draws a bitter portrait of Dharavi.
The nightclub is the only place that brings in the old residents back sometimes…for a few hours at a time. They use to come all the way from Khopoli, Pen and Dahanu, but the new crowd is driving them away.
Tonight Dharavi resonates with old music and remixes from the early 2000s. Maria takes out her iAll and starts to film Indecent: “Before it became so popular, I used play the real shit. The crowd was small but they knew what was up. Now with all these kids coming just to be seen I have to play the commercial things they like. You know, you got to earn a living. Really, in Dharavi if you want to listen to the good stuff you’ve got to go to another old Koli enclave. Some kids there organize the wildest parties in abandoned houses.”
The nightclub is circled by flea market stalls selling stuff that once used to be made and sold in Dharavi. From leather purses to chikki to clothes. Against the throbbing music the club comes into its own to drench everyone in a powerful wave of nostalgia. Even Maria cannot escape it.
As she walks home she realizes that the film script she had prepared for the new documentary is useless. She wanted to find the same people she interviewed 16 years ago to document their evolution in the redeveloped neighbourhood. But instead she only finds missing people and broken lives. As if the development of the striving area she remembered had been aborted mid-way. All she gets is bitter interviews, shoots of urban decay on one side, and of tourists spending their hard currencies in Old Dharavi on the other. Everyone she meets is so cynical; the reality around her seems so fake. Dharavi doesn’t belong to its people anymore, she hears herself speak.
She feels an intense disconnect and then begins to doubt her ideas. Is her memory playing tricks on her? Is she idealizing the past? The summer night is hot and humid yet she shivers. Nothing makes sense.
Bhau’s words come to her mind. Just as she is thinking about where he could be, she trips on a body sleeping on the streets. It rises. She apologizes rapidly and as she is about to start walking off, the man yells “Maria!?”
Taken aback she comes closer and recognizes Bhau’s former liftman. She is thrilled and greets the old man warmly. Her hand makes for her iAll and a long interview ensues. He soon informs her that Bhau now lives with some nomads in a forest that still miraculously exists on the Konkan coast. A sense of hope rises in her. She has to find Bhau. Tomorrow she will take the train.
She gets back to her hotel room feeling low and elated at the same time. She washes her face in her tiny bathroom lit by a flashing neon.
She falls asleep the moment her head touches the pillow. Images of her old documentary mix with the images of today’s visit in her dreams. She sees smalls crowded streets, proud people, police, riots, blood and fire, high-rise buildings emerging from dust, the thug who harassed her, his sad dark eyes staring.
She is in a forest. A laughing Bhau guides her through an environment that feels strangely familiar. It is a restless jungle, everything is moving in every direction. Trees become huts; people get in and out and flood the ground like monsoon water. She smiles in her sleep.
(Published in the Mumbai Reader, UDRI, Mumbai 2007)