Fahim Vora stands on Dharavi’s corrugated iron ceiling. He is like many of Mumbai’s young upwardly mobile. He listens to the latest music and wears a checked polo shirt with a popped collar. He goes to university, where he studies management accounting.
But from when he was born to when he went to school he did not even know that he lived in a slum.
“Up until then I didn’t know any difference.”
Even now he does not see one.
Men rearrange plastic chairs into some kind of sorting system. The chairs will go downstairs to be chopped up and melted down and chopped up again and then brought to where Fahim is now standing: a roof covered in wet blue plastic particles.
“Everything in Dharavi is recycled,” Fahim says. One hundred and forty years ago it was the land that was recycled – migrants excluded from the rest of the city dried up the Mithi River and filled it with organic waste. Decade by decade, they turned it into somewhere to live.
Now one million people call this slice of land home.
“There are millionaires who live here,” Fahim says.
“They could live anywhere in Mumbai but they choose to stay here.” A local report puts the annual turnover of the slum at 1 billion euros.
From above, two worlds are revealed. Closely packed jumbles of iron roofs sit next to bright towers.
A multicoloured wall at the Mahim Train Station Bridge marks the beginning of 1.7 square kilometres where younger residents refer to all older ones as uncle – regardless if they know them.
“Here we know everyone even if we don’t,” offers 17-year-old Zeeshan Farooq.
The difficulty with living in Dharavi is fighting perception. With the word slum comes the belief that all that live in Dharavi are beggars or drug addicts.
Fahim is a blow to that perception. He is part of the 80 per cent of Dharavi’s young people who are getting a formal education. In the past he might have joined in the family business. Much of Mumbai’s business hum emanates from Dharavi’s thousands of commercial cubby holes.
But now that 80 per cent wants more.
Last year Fahim and a friend started a company to help give young people in Dharavi a job. It would also help dispel the myths they struggled with growing up. It was a tour company, where local students would show those interested in seeing a different side of Mumbai.
One year on, Be the Local Tours already has its own office in Colaba, the central tourist district of the city.
“You can close your eyes and walk straight,” Zeeshan tells me. “This is the one road that goes straight through Dharavi.” It is called Main Rd. Here vegetable sellers crowd the street.
“When the government officials come they all quickly pack up and head into the alleyways because it’s illegal to sell like that,” Zeeshan says.
“Then who is that?” I ask, gesturing to the man in the official looking uniform.
“That is just the police, they don’t care.”
Close by is where several scenes of the movie Slumdog Millionaire were filmed.
Further along the main road is the town cinema. “Do you want to see?” Zeeshan asks.
We tuck down a side road and squeak open a wooden door. Inside are maybe 20 chairs facing a flat-screen television showing a Hindi action movie. The plot line revolves around excessive gun fire, cheesy one liners and an over romaticised sub-plot. The word “baby” is sprinkled through the Hindi dialogue as often as machine gun fire is seen.
They all love it.
Except the man next to me. He is slouched over, unconscious and drooling. I gesture to Zeeshan and we leave. He slouches over more.
Further down the road, goat skins lie in a squelching heap, slimy with blood and flesh. They are waiting to become a wallet, a belt or a bag.
Zeeshan, or Zee to his friends, does not want that life – sitting in a poorly ventilated room for hours at a time working for only a few rupees a day.
He wants to be a cop.
“Whenever I see their motorcycle I just think `that is my dream’.”
But he wants to be one who cares.
“That is my dream,” he says.