#6 Mumbai, India

Still days 3 & 4

Not sure how to even talk about Dhavari. If you look at Wikipedia, you will read that is is the largest slum in Asia with a population density of up to 600 people per sq acre. There are not enough toilets (one per 1440 residents in 2006) and not enough room. Still, the children go to school, cottage industries thrive and people who could live elsewhere choose to stay.

We were introduced to Dhavari by Faizan, a young man who was born and still lives in the community with his family. He is in pharmacy school and earns extra money as a guide. Dhavari is bordered by two main railway lines. We met Faizan outside the area and walked in, stopping on the main road for an introduction and some guidelines. We were asked not to take pictures, watch our step and please not to make faces of disgust or hold our noses if we find odors offensive. I think the three of us were all ashamed to think that any visitors to a community would behave that way, but if Faizan voiced the request, it was probably from past experience.

We started off learning about the recycling system. About 80% of Mumbai’s trash ends up in Dhavari. It is sorted, cleaned, melted down and reused. Faizan walked us through the process. Turns out, there are about 5000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories. We saw an embroidery unit, bakery, pottery and textile production and cardboard box production. We were invited to join a group of boys playing rugby on a street. We saw mosques, churches and Hindu temples. There are wholesale rice and grain stores, schools and restaurants. There is a self sustaining economy connected to the global economy. Levi Jeans are cut and sewn in Dhavari. Container ships that would have returned to India from the US empty, are now returning with recyclables to be processed in Dhavari.

Toward the end of our walk, we went through a residential section. Dwellings are single rooms, separated from the walkway by a curtain. The walkway is 3 feet wide at most, covered, low and dark. Still, everyone has water and electricity. Just outside the residential area is a makeshift playground, a canal filled with waste and a few piles of burning trash. Ironically, it was there that a woman stopped Faizan and asked if the smell didn’t bother us. Faizan showed us the place where a part of Slum Dog Millionaire was shot. A few minutes later, we were in the leather production area. Obviously problematic, the leather is never cowhide, there is a lot of toxic waste connected to tanning, and the product is for export.

We ended our walk in the pottery area. Families use the ground floor space to prepare the clay, throw and sell the pots. The kilns line the alleys behind the shops and the families live above them. Faizan is very proud of Dhavari. He shared childhood memories of playing hide and seek in the residential corridors, showed us the adjacent building where he now lives with his family, and talked about the close-knit, self governing community.

It is not clear what the future holds for the population of Dhavari. The land it sits on is prime real estate, and the government wants to redevelop. But local opposition is strong and powerful, so for now it remains as is.

#5 Mumbai, India

Day 3: Mumbai docks/food walk

This morning we met Freni, our driver Proshotam and left for the Sassoon Dock. As it is directly adjacent to a military installation, we were not allowed to take any pictures. The boats had emptied their load of fish, shrimp and eel hours earlier. The buyers haggling over price long gone. When we arrived, we saw scores of women and young girls sitting before huge mounds of shrimp, peeling them quickly enough to get them on ice. As we left, we drove through the military grounds built by the British and still named after British streets and landmarks. Driving to a public fishing beach, we saw families bringing in smaller fish, all by net, and selling them at the roadside.

Just before the public fishing area, we pulled over and went through a little alley. Freni did not at all prepare us for the sight before us. We entered Dhobi Ghat, probably the world’s largest outdoor laundry. There are rows of open-air concrete wash pens, each fitted with a flogging stone. 3/4 of a million pieces come in daily to be washed, dried, starched, pressed and folded. The laundry comes in from all over the city, from households, hotels, schools and hospitals.  Using a system of color coding, nothing ever gets lost. It was built in 1890 for the city’s English and Parsi population. Owned by the municipal council, washermen pay rent and maintenance costs for the troughs. Most are migrants from other parts of India. There are hundreds of them who live at the dhobi ghat with their families.

We left there for the Matunga food walk, which included the flower market and a walk through a residential Jain community. The fruit and vegetable displays were perfectly arranged, fresh and beautiful. Freni pointed out the various spices and their uses as well as produce unfamiliar to us.  Although Freni and Deepa have everything delivered to their homes, the open market is probably how most people shop. The flower market consisted of rows of tiny 2 story stalls. The merchants display and sell at table height and weave the flowers into garlands and displays in the shade on the ground level. Picture a little cave.

A block away was a Jain center. A few dozen women, all wearing white mouth masks so as not to accidentally ingest and kill a bug, were sitting together, maybe studying with their teacher. They smiled and waved to us, very much like most people we encountered in Mumbai—welcoming, curious and friendly.

After visiting a couple food shops, we ate a light lunch in a local shop—again everything was delicious. After lunch we had to say goodbye to Freni. We were off to the slum tour. Freni was instrumental in training the student guides and knew she was putting us in good hands. I’ll continue tomorrow…

#4 Mumbai, India

Day 2: Mumbai

Today we met our guide Freni and spent the day seeing the city and tracing the three Jewish communities in India and their presence in Mumbai. Freni is of Zoroastrian background, around my age and delightfully well-read. We connected with her immediately, finding her warm, honest and forthright. She is so generous with her knowledge and is doing her best to help us understand the complexities of life here—local politics, religion, education, history, British influence…

We walked the Fort Heritage District, the Art District and visited 3 of the local synagogues, each one under strict Indian military protection (after the 2008 bombing) There are few Jews left in the city, but the synagogues are still in use, at least for now. The Jewish influence here is diverse and interesting. In the 20s and 30s, the highest paid movie star in India was a Jewish woman from Pune, Ruby Myers, also known as Wildcat of Bombay (movie of same name). You can google her and watch clips…

The Sassoon Family’s influence started with the arrival of the Iraqi Jew, David Sassoon, in 1833. “He started business in Bombay with a counting house and a small carpet godown. His business acumen soon made him one of the richest men in Bombay… By the end of the 1850’s it was said of him that “silver and gold, silks, gums and spices, opium and cotton, wool and wheat—whatever moves over sea or land feels the hand or bears the mark of Sassoon and Company”. If you remember Sassoon Jeans, or Vidal Sassoon hair products, you know the family.

Over the generations, his family built schools, libraries and hospitals, erected monuments, and built the city’s main fishing dock. (Going there tomorrow)

Lunch today deserves a note. Called Soam, we stuffed ourselves with veg dishes. Oondiyah, appam among other dishes, masala chaas to drink.

The highlight of my day was our visit to Mani Bhavan, the home turned  museum where Gandhi lived for 17 years, from 1917 to 1934. His room is preserved just as he used it, with a charkha—the spinning wheel he used to represent the non-violent struggle for Indian Independence. His books remain in the shelves in the library. There are dioramas depicting momentous events in his life, made in painstaking and loving detail. (I kept thinking about the 4th grade California Missions all our kids made.) There are photos with Nehru and Charlie Chaplin, photos of the famous Dandi salt march. Being in this space, I felt a quiet, powerful reverence.

Our day ended with an invitation to dinner at Deepa Krisnan’s home. Deepa owns Mumbai Magic, and it is her company we are using on our travels. Ronni and Pinchas had booked their Northern India trip through her last year. Anyway, I had mentioned to Freni that I wanted to take a cooking class in Mumbai, so when we got to Deepa’s, she invited us into her kitchen to help cook dinner. She has three servants, and one of them was there to prep and make sure we did not screw up!

We arrived really early, around 4P, so we had a chance to sit, see the city from her balcony, meet her daughter who is studying sociology and economics at the university, make Chai and relax.

Pinchas took the opportunity to grab a much needed nap, and we sat down on the floor in a spare room and learned about saris. Deepa has the most beautiful collection and pulled out one gorgeous example after another until we could tell the difference between block printed cloth, cloth where threads of different colors were woven and a most extraordinary process where the warp (lengthwise) threads are dyed along parts of the length of each thread to create the pattern.

For dinner we made a potato dish, paneer with vegetables, dal, chapatis and rice. The theme was cumin—added to every dish. The only dairy product Deepa buys is full-fat buffalo milk. From that they make butter, ghee, yoghurt and paneer. We managed to taste almost everything. On Freni’s suggestion, we brought a boxed confection made of ground cashews. Looked like silver coated diamond shapes and very delicious. I’m learning here not to stray from the advice of our guides.

Eventually, we said our goodbyes and our driver delivered us back to our hotel.