The Things I Shouldn’t Miss

It wasn’t until my sandal-clad toes were covered in a thick brown mud and my voice was tired from responding to greetings from all of the adorably dirty street children that I realized why I suddenly felt so lighthearted: I was home.

My new “home” happens to be Asia’s largest slum. Somehow I had managed to talk my three friends into spending part of our weekend vacation in Mumbai in the Dharavi slum with an interesting social enterprise called Reality Tours. The organization  aims to provide tourists (Indian and foreign) with a new perspective on these strange two square kilometers in the center of Mumbai that are home to close to a million people and turn over approximately $665 annually through small scale industries. In 2008, the congested mass of homes, tenements, workshops and alleyways of Dharavi gained fame as the setting of Slumdog Millionaire.

So why would something like this feel like home? Clearly, I’ve never lived in anything close to a slum and I probably never will. But the incredible industriousness, the welcoming attitude and the tangible community spirit reminded me so much of Niger that it was all I could do to stop myself from giving up my fancy apartment in New Delhi in favor of a small tin shack.

This is not to go the route of “oh look at these happy,smiling, poor Indians.” Only one in 1,000 local residents has access to a toilet and the area is prone to flooding, fire and disease. As we learned on the tour, many of the women can only go to the bathroom at night as they are unable to pay the small fee for the public toilets and, unlike children and men, it is not appropriate for them to just squat down wherever during the daytime. Additionally, many of the small-scale industries such as recycling and leather tanning produced noxious fumes that made it only too easy to imagine the type of damage the toxins must be wrecking on the bodies of Dharavi residents.

Recently, as Indian real estate prices have skyrocketed, the movement to bulldoze Dharavi has been gaining traction. According to an article in the Guardian, officials claim that the project could  generate £3bn that could be generated for the municipality while the profits for major construction firms could top £8bn. While I’m hardly an expert on the issue, the idea of tearing people out of the place where they live and work and putting them in large high-rise apartment buildings where they wouldn’t have space for their home-based work seems rather horrible and conducive to breeding drugs/crime. Slum-upgrading–as has been done relatively successfully in Indonesia–seems like a much better alternative.

The more I’ve read about the debate over the slum, the better I’ve been able to understand the debate going on in my own head as to my new life in New Delhi. Hypothetically, I should be overjoyed to now be living in a city where I have electricity, running water, internet and access to as many fruits and vegetables as I can stomach. In all honesty, I often miss my old life. Despite the fear that I sometimes felt while sitting in my mud house late at night in utter darkness,  I miss not having electricity. Without electricity people actually talk to each other. Instead of sitting in front of a computer, I spent my days walking around my village, greeting people and working on projects. At night I used to sit under the stars with a group of friends, drinking tea and chatting about life in Hausa. While I enjoy hot showers, I miss my daily trip to the village pump and the perpetual shock that my villagers felt when they saw me carrying water on my head. The internet is an amazing tool but it is also amazingly addictive. I miss having nothing better to do in the hot hours of the afternoon than write postcards and read books. Having access to fruits and vegetables still never ceases to amaze me but sadly my new city-girl life leaves me little time to cook.

At the same time, there are many aspects of my new life that I love and I’ve made some incredible friends just in the short time I’ve been here. But somehow I think that there will always be a small part of me that feels at home in a slum.