Slumming it

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.


The poppadom incident

It started with an introduction, involved a poppadom, and ended with a late night phone call.

Surjah seemed like a nice enough chap when he introduced himself at a Nagpur bar. I was there finishing a story chronicling the interesting time the New Zealand cricket team was having during the world cup. Surjah seemed fascinated. He was young and drank whisky with fanta. That should have been the first warning.

I had left my hotel key on the table – a hotel that was located across the road. It was close. I ordered a beer and some chicken tikka. Surjah sat down after the tikka had been devoured. He wanted to know my name. Where I was from. What I was doing. When was I leaving. How did I like India. How did I like Nagpur.

After each answer he countered with a head waggle that is endemic across the entire Indian population. It is a piece of body language that is strangely indecipherable yet entirely understandable. If an auto rickshaw driver knows exactly where you want to go, he will waggle his head. If an auto rickshaw driver has no idea where you want to go, he will waggle his head. Surjah waggled his head a lot. So it was difficult to tell exactly what he was thinking. Maybe I didn’t want to know.

He asked if I wanted a poppadom. I said I had just eaten. He insisted. I said ok. Those particular snacks have a habit of sticking in your teeth. I picked at the residue and I said that I had to leave.

“You are handsome,” he said.

I smiled awkwardly. I waggled my head.

He asked if he would he see me tomorrow. I was vague.

I toddled off across the road to my hotel. Tucked myself in and was disturbed by a phone call. It was reception asking for the third time that day if I wanted room service. I replied for the third time: “No”.I tucked myself in again. And then another phone call.”There is a Mr Surjah downstairs. Shall I send him up.”I rubbed my eyes, picked the last of the snack out of my teeth and replied: “No.”


No more poppadoms for Charles.

In my mind camera a burning body lingers

In India’s commercial hub where almost 14 million people are squeezed into 400 square kilometres, what you do defines you.

Mangesh Sawan burns bodies.

I arrived in the early morning by train, as the lazy sun hauled itself over some unseen horizon – obscured by a blur of vaguely distinguishable human forms that rushed past the window of the Duranto Express.

Mumbai Central station was full of them.

By the afternoon I had witnessed my first cremation.

Mr Sawan has worked in the crematorium near south Mumbai’s waterfront for 40 years. It was quiet when I entered. An old woman murmured softly over a statue of the goddess Shiva. There was smoke in the air and yellow flowers on the ground. There was the crackle of burning wood.

Mr Sawan led me to a large iron grate.

“Camera?” he asked.

I said I did not bring one.

He nodded.

“Mind camera,” he said.

In my mind camera lingers the body of a burning corpse. He was brought here two and a half hours ago. In three they will take him away.

“Or four if they are fat,” Mr Sawan says.

Only the torso is left – a chunk of white hot ash – vaguely distinguishable.

When someone dies alone, on the street, with nothing to their name, they are brought here. Their passage to the other world is secured.

A Hindu undergoes 16 rituals during their lifetime. First they are named, they become students, they get married, and then 15 rituals later, on death, they are burned.

The burning of a body is not a disposal, says Pitar, a teacher that accompanied me to the crematorium, it is the union of Atma, the soul, with the Paratma, the universal spirit.

That union takes 300kg of mango tree wood and a bottle of kerosene.

A rich family will use kerosene, Pitar says. A poor family will use coconut oil. A rich family will make the 2000km journey to Calcutta and the Ganges Delta – the bridge between the people of the earth and those of heaven. There they will scatter their loved one’s ashes.

A poor family will make the journey across the road and scatter their’s in the Arabian Sea.

Mr Sawan does not count. He does not count the bodies he has burned or the hours he has waited to collect the ashes in clay pots then to place them in a small wooden hut kept shut by an old padlock. He does not count the hours he has waited until families come to reunite their loved ones with their final destination.

To ensure the passage during its voyage to the otherworld, Pitar says, an eleven-day ritual called shraddha is performed. During these days, the soul makes the journey to the heavens, or the world of the ancestors.

On the twelfth day it reaches its terminus.

Mr Sawan has watched that passage thousands of times.

“Is it sad?” I ask Mr Sawan.

“This place is not sad,” he says. “It is the end of one door and the opening of another.”

There are times when tears are shed. When a family brings in a child. They are not burned. They are taken through the crematorium, through the place where they store the mango wood and to an area which is segregated in small, brick lined plots.

In each are six small mounds.

“This is when it is sad,” Mr Sawan says looking at the ground. “The family they cannot bear to see their children in the fire.”

The fire in the grate has almost burned out. It flickers and dies and bursts back into life, licking at the last of the man that was brought in three hours ago.

The family cried then, Mr Sawan says. They spent time watching him being loaded onto the grate and then wood loaded onto him. They stayed for the beginning of his journey. They will come back tomorrow to start the end of it.

Then they will crack the man’s skull and release his soul. They will take him to the Ganges.

I left Mumbai by plane, as the weary late afternoon sun slunk over the megalopolis. Somewhere out over the fading horizon line a family finished scattering their father, brother, husband and friend into the river of heaven, turned, and did not look back.

Surviving India’s Youth Bulge

When I first meet Manjot Singh he looks like a bandit. Behind the seat of his blue rusted auto-rickshaw he jabbers in incomprehensible Punjabi. He wears a red woolen beanie pulled down over his forehead. A grimy yellowed white handkerchief is wrapped around his face.

The only thing that reveal anything are his eyes. Thin, dark, conniving looking things.

He pulls over to the side of the road and tells me to get in. I do.

I tell him I want to go and see where the cricket bats are made. I tell him I want to go to one of the hundreds of factories dotted around Jalandhar’s “Football Chowk”. I tell him all this is English. But Manjot Singh does not speak English. Not really anyway.

Yet by way of pseudo-charades, trial and error and persistent questioning of street traders we find what I am looking for. We find India’s cricket manufacturing industry tucked away in side roads – in cubby holes with Kashmir willow blocks strewn across floors, with young men furiously carving those blocks into something that could conceivably be called a bat.

I give Manjot a thumbs up.

Across the road we find another factory that has been operating since 1937. After Manjot politely asks the owner if I can have a look around I meet him. Surjit Singh Jolly fires the names of two New Zealand cricket players at me.

“Do you know them?”

I say that I do.

“We make their gear here.”

I give Manjot the thumbs up again. He pulls down his handkerchief and smiles, with what is the beginnings of an impressive looking beard. He quietly waits outside.

After a tour of the factory Manjot and I walk back to his blue, rusted auto-rickshaw.

“Chai?” he asks. “My home?”

I tell him “why not?”

So we sail deeper into Jalandhar’s outlying village. We pass street vendors selling cell phone sim cards, vegetables, and bicycle wheels. We drive until the vendors are replaced by homes.

We pull into an alleyway. Manjot tucks his vehicle into a dark corner and we walk through narrow streets with exposed, overhanging wiring. We turn corners in the fading gleam of the Punjab sunset. We walk until we arrive at a door.

It is emblazoned in cast iron with the words “Wel-Come”.

Manjot knocks. His mother answers. He tells me he has a New Zealand journalist who wants some chai. At least I imagine that is what he said.

His mother, a woman with subtle wrinkles and the same thin eyes, smiles, straightens out her sari and ushers me inside.

Sitting in the family lounge, through stuttered, on reflection impossible conversation, Manjot tells me about his life.

Manjot is 23. He works as a garment salesman along with his brother. Three years ago his father died – “expired” as he puts it. Money became scarce so to fill the gap Manjot started driving rickshaws. He wears the handkerchief not to look menacing, or to protect his lungs from the exhaust fumes pumped out from Jalandhar’s less than sympathetic trucking community, he wears the handkerchief because he is ashamed.

Manjot does not want anyone recognising him as he drives passengers in his blue rusted machine that he starts with a piece of rope around the streets of his home town. And that is why he parks it in the dark a five minute walk away from his cast iron door.

He rents the rickshaw for 500 rupees a day. Some days he will make enough to cover his costs. Somedays he won’t.

Manjot’s mother arrives in the lounge with samosas and cups of sweet, milky chai tea.

She sits down and smiles again.

Manjot wants a better life. He wants better work. He want to know about New Zealand and whether they need garment salesmen there.

The work is not here.

Manjot is part 51 percent of India’s 1.1 billion people that are under 25. He is part of what experts call a “youth bulge” that could become the country’s greatest asset or a demographic disaster. That challenge is up to the Government to produce education and jobs for its burgeoning workforce.

We eat together and his mother offers me another samosa then leaves the room.

Manjot pulls out a faded Punjabi to English language book with torn corners and scrawled blue pen marks from a previous owner.

He reads from it – lesson six, day three.

“How are you?” he asks.

I answer. He corrects my terrible Hindi with Punjabi.

“How is your girlfriend?”

I answer.

“How old are you.”

I answer.

He nods, faux knowingly.

The lights go out. Power cut.

Manjot’s mother comes back, somehow in the pitch black, with a lit candle.

In the orange glimmer Manjot writes his entire family’s names in my notebook. He writes his email address, his phone numbers.

I say I have to get back. He tells me I have to wait for his brother, “Bobby”.

Bobby rides a bullet, he says, and he will want to meet me.

You can hear Bobby coming home with a roar and a sputter.

We go outside, the bullet is a motorcycle. Bobby shakes my hand furiously.

Manjot tells me to get on. I thank his mother in the Punjabi I have learned and I get on the bike behind Bobby. Manjot jumps on behind me. Then we sail back through the same alleyways, now dark save for a blueish glow from the sparing street lighting. Soon we are back in the corner where Manjot’s rented, blue, rusted rickshaw sits.

He puts back on his handkerchief and takes a weathered grey rope from under the rickshaw’s seat. He wraps it around the motor and with two jerking pulls the vehicle splurts into life.

Manjot takes me back, past the factories and the sim card sellers and the vegetable vendors, and back to my front door.

I say farewell and try to pay him for all his help. But he won’t accept it. He puts up his hands in protest. I have to shove the money into his pocket.

It will at least be the rent for his rickshaw tomorrow.

*As printed in the Nelson Mail

My Black Hole of Calcutta

This is my Black Hole. 

As much as I like the idea barricading myself in some dingy cafe, bidi cigarette smoke hanging in their, eyes stinging, tapping away on a keyboard for hours, trying to finish the articles I came here to write, unfortunately, I always end up in the Starbucks of India.

As much as I would love to channel the spirits of great writers that have found inspiration on India’s eastern seaboard – Kipling, Twain, Theroux, unfortunately I feel they would spit at my choice of locale.

Cafe Coffee Day is really quite a horrible place. It plays strange down beat Hindi techno music. It serves weak, over-priced cappuccinos that taste of boiling milk. It has chairs that have arm rests too high and thus not particularly conducive to typing. It serves overly sweet chocolate goods drizzled with crude oil sauce.

But it’s open plan. It has air-conditioning. And this one In Kolkata happens to have an outdoor area.

I tried hard to make the power point in my Sudder Street backpackers charge my laptop. It’s green light flashed for a second and then faded. Again and again. It can bring a television to life so I can watch The Hills Have Eyes 2 in the early hours of the morning. But it can’t resurrect a computer.

So now here I sit – in the tiled floored, faux marbled table-topped wonderland of the sort of drinking establishment Indians only recently decided they enjoyed. Oh, and it has free internet.

When Mark Twain visited here in the 19th century he wrote of monuments – “cloud kissing monuments”, “fluted candlesticks” that reach 250 feet into the sky.

He wrote of the The Black Hole. A prison “a cell is nearer the word”, eighteen feet square, the, the dimensions of an ordinary bedchamber. Into this place the victorious Nabob of Bengal packed 146 of his English prisoners whom he captured after the city’s fort was overrun in 1756. “There was hardly standing room for them,” Twain wrote, “scarcely a breath of air was to be got; the time was night, the weather sweltering hot. Before the dawn came, the captives were all dead but twenty-three.”

Kipling wrote of dense smoke that hung low in the chill of the Calcutta morning. “Over over an ocean of roofs, and, as the city wakes, there goes up to the smoke a deep, full-throated boom of life and motion and humanity.”

But here I sit in a cafe chain, the logo of which, is an apostrophe. Or an open quotation mark. It’s hard to tell. It is largest coffee chain in India. It’s worth almost a billion rupees. The bass is the stuff of early morning Swedish house fiends chomping at their mouths with glow sticks in hand. It is relentless. At present there are four other patrons. Two waiters. Sure it is airconditioned but before sunset I wonder how many of us will survive this Black Hole.

In Mumbai I had a wonderful balcony overlooking the street. You could catch glimpses of life, of tourists being harassed by garment selling salesmen. Of tourists harassing garment selling salesmen. It had a wonderfully large desk where I could sprawl out notes, notebooks, ripped pages of local newspapers, reports and business cards and pretend to know exactly where I would begin.

Here? Well, I only hope that the next few hours prove fruitful. That my earphones can drown out the digital bpm boom . But most of all I hope that Cafe Coffee Day’s tagline proves true: “A lot can happen over coffee.”