It is the biggest slum in Asia, home to more than a million people. It’s also the setting of Danny Boyle’s vibrant new film. But what’s it really like in Dharavi? Eight boys talk about life as slumdog millionaires
Gethin Chamberlain, for The Observer Magazine, 21 December 2008
Amid a narrow warren of side streets close to the mosque that dominates the skyline on the edge of the mega-slum of Dharavi, in the heart of Mumbai, a young boy tilts his head back and stares up at the narrow strip of blue which is all that can be seen of the sky. Rickety warehouses crowd in from all sides, their high sheet-metal walls and overhanging asbestos roofs blocking out the sun, plunging the dirt streets below into a gloomy half-light, though it is nearly midday.
Far, far above, the vapour trail of a plane is breaking up, fraying at the edges and drifting away. Ten-year-old Anwar Khan watches it for a while, thinking about the question he has been asked. Eventually he gives his answer: ‘A pilot,’ he says. ‘I’d like to be a pilot. I’d love to know what it feels like to be in the air. I’ve never been in the air. I want to be closer to the sky.’
Like most of the 1m people who live in Dharavi – Asia’s biggest, and probably its most vibrant, slum – Anwar has never been in a plane; but like many of those crammed into the 535-acre former fishing village, he doesn’t waste time wallowing in self-pity. Anwar is a boy with a plan.
That, at least, is something he shares with Jamal Malik, the central character in British director Danny Boyle’s critically acclaimed new movie, Slumdog Millionaire (which is released on 9 January). Set in Dharavi, the film has been attracting rave reviews and is already being talked about as a serious Oscar contender. Based on the novel Q&A, by Vikas Swarup, the film is at heart a love story that revolves around Jamal’s appearance on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Somehow he gets through to the final question, only to be arrested and interrogated. How could an impoverished teenager from Dharavi possibly know the answers?
Dharavi gets a terrible press. Most reports focus on the grinding poverty, the open drains and the rats skittering over the rooftops. There are even guided tours of the slum, so visitors can marvel at the misery.
The Dharavi of popular perception is a Dickensian hellhole with gangs of feral children running wild; a place of despair and misery and want, where hope is dead and the light at the end of the tunnel is a train.
The real-life Dharavi of 2008 is indeed a shock to the system, but not because it conforms to the stereotype, rather because it defies it so dramatically. The reality for most of the inhabitants is a well-ordered community where the majority are in work, children go to school and families try to make a better life for themselves by dint of sheer hard work.
In interviews, Boyle has described Dharavi as an ‘amazing’ place, both self-reliant and self-sufficient, and has been keen to make clear that he was not interested in producing a piece of ‘poverty porn’.
‘It’s not a pitiful film,’ he has said. ‘Sure, there’s not enough water or sanitation or electricity. But in India a slum is a geographic reference more than a value judgment.’
Dev Patel, who plays Jamal in the film, said that in Dharavi he had expected the worst emotional experience of his life, a place peopled by malnourished children and beggars with stumps for hands. What he found instead was ‘a sense of community, hustle and bustle’.
There is no question that the place is cramped, with about 1,800 people crammed into each acre. Average earnings are low, with few families bringing in more than Rs15,000 (15,000 rupees is around £200) a month. Most earn far less. Neither is property cheap: rents start at about Rs1,000 a month for a single room that must house an entire family.
But Dharavi is also home to a thriving recycling industry which has been estimated to be worth £700m a year and which employs about 250,000 people in 15,000 single-room factories. And when the city authorities announced plans to raze the slum and replace it with blocks of high-rise flats, they were met with fierce opposition from those who regard it as their home.
Poverty and misfortune may have pitched many people into the slum, but the exits are not locked. More so than in many places in India, there are ways out for those who want to leave.
For Jamal Malik the way out of the big-screen Dharavi involved a little bit of knowledge and a good sprinkling of Hollywood and Bollywood magic.
For the real-life slumdog millionaires, the boys growing to maturity today among the dirt and deprivation, knowledge is also the key to a new life. Freedom for them lies in education – in the belief that if they study hard, they too can escape to the other Mumbai, the vibrant modern city growing up around the slum.
And maybe get a little closer to the sky…
Raju Lodhi, 18
The stink of plastic fills the blackened walls of the room which is both Raju’s workplace and his home.
By day, he and the other six boys who work in the recycling workshop chop up plastic rubbish with a large circular saw which screams loudly when switched on and has no safety guard. Once the plastic has been cut up, Raju and the others feed it into a shredder, which turns it into granules. The granules sell for Rs3 (about 4p) a kilo and the boys can produce 600kg a day. They take them up to the roof and spread them out on sheets to dry, before cramming them into sacks. The sacks line the walls of the room.
At night, Raju and the others sleep on the sacks, while the owner sleeps in a bed in the room above.
Raju arrived in Dharavi four years ago in search of work. He comes from a poor family; his father has a small piece of land which he farms in Uttar Pradesh, but with four brothers and three sisters to feed there was not enough to go round. Raju was sent with an uncle to Dharavi to find work.
The boys eat one meal a day – usually dal and rice, and maybe some vegetables – which they cook themselves either first thing in the morning or late at night.
Last month, Raju had one day off. He went to watch a movie.
His first priority, he says, is to earn enough to get his sisters married off. He has sent about Rs9,000 (£125) home in the last seven months, keeping just enough back to buy food and clothes.
Raju will only think of his own marriage after his sisters are married, he says. He would like to get out of the plastic business, and maybe become a driver. But first he will have to learn to drive. And that will have to wait for the weddings.
Anwar Khan, 10
The doors of the mosque open and a horde of small children tumble out, clutching their books and chattering excitedly. It is midday on Sunday and classes are over. The rest of the day is theirs to do with as they like.
The mosque is at the end of a noisy street packed with recycling workshops. Workers sit in semi-darkness sorting through trays of broken plastic household items, smashing them up into smaller pieces to be fed into grinding machines like the one operated by Raju. Others are hammering out oil drums. It is two weeks before the terrorist attacks that will rock the city, raising tensions between the Muslim and Hindu communities. For now, the two mingle comfortably – though this is a mainly Muslim part of the slum.
Anwar is in the centre of the group of children. He lives with his parents, two brothers and three sisters in a two-room house a short distance from the mosque. The family also owns a plastic-recycling business. It’s not such a bad life, he says. His day does not start until 8am. He lies in bed while the others get up, then he has a breakfast of tea and bread. When he is not at school, he likes playing cricket, modelling himself on Irfan Pathan, the Indian fast bowler.
One day, he says, he would like to be a pilot. ‘I’d love to know what it feels like to be in the air. I’ve never been in the air but I want to be closer to the sky. I would love to see the sky.’
His father takes him to school on his motorbike, handing him Rs10 a day in pocket money, which Anwar promptly blows on tamarind toffee or Lays crisps. He quite likes Dharavi, he says, though it would be vastly improved if there was no school to get in the way of the cricket.
Vilas Kale, 12
Vilas stands glumly outside the railway station serving Dharavi, a fistful of deep-red roses clutched in his hand. With his mass of curly hair and tight leopard-print shirt, he is hard to miss. Those who pour through the station see him standing in the same spot every day, from dawn until dusk. The face of Vilas is the face of those who will never escape the slum.
Vilas does not go to school. He does not appear ever to have been to school, nor does he think that is unusual. ‘Nobody goes to school,’ he says.
The station is the place where the most desperate of Dharavi’s inhabitants hang out, though they are often chased away by the city authorities. Today, there is not a beggar in sight and only a handful of children hawking flowers or vegetables at the side of the street.
Vilas and his family lived in the slum until they were moved out and their shack was demolished to make way for a new apartment building. Dharavi may be a slum, but it is a well-located slum and developers are keen to get their hands on the land. Now the family lives in Mankhurd, on the outskirts of the city, where his parents sit in their shop every day, selling flowers.
Vilas and his four brothers are not so lucky: every morning, they must get up at 5am to go to the station, where they stay until 7pm. The roses they sell fetch Rs10 or 15 a bunch and each must sell about 50 bunches in a day. In return, they receive about Rs30 or 40 a day – about 40p to 50p. That must buy them their ticket to the station and their food. Vilas’s one luxury is clothes: ‘I love buying clothes,’ he says. He buys at least two shirts a month.
Apart from that, his life revolves around the roses. When he is older, he says, he would like a flower shop of his own.
Devendra Tank, 21
Dev, as he likes to be known, is the antithesis of Vilas, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who has used his education to drag himself out of the poverty trap.
He had no special breaks: he was born into a poor family of potters living in a one-room shack, the only boy in a family of three girls, who are still at school. They all sleep on the floor of the narrow room, which also serves as kitchen and living room. He gets kicked out of the room when the girls are getting dressed. There is a TV in the corner, beneath which Dev sits to study. The family owns a pottery shop and Dev still helps out sometimes at weekends.
But by the standards of Dharavi, Devendra Tank is already a rich man. He is pulling in about Rs15,000 (£200) a month working for international finance firm JP Morgan, drafting legal documents. The firm snapped him up on a recruitment drive at his college: 200 people applied, though only eight made the cut. In his spare time, he is studying for a masters degree in commerce; once that is under his belt, he plans to move on to do an MBA.
Though his career is taking off, he has no plans to leave Dharavi. ‘Why would I want to move out now?’ he says. Houses in Mumbai are expensive and he would have to pay rent, instead of staying for free with his parents.
People who live in Dharavi don’t find it easy to get loans, he says, so he must save up. He will need about Rs2m(about £27,000) for the house, on top of the money he needs to save to pay for his education.
What cash he has left goes on travel, food and books, and the formal shirts and trousers that he must wear for work, except on dress-down Fridays. He does not smoke or drink. but likes going to the movies and playing cricket. One day, he says, he would like to work for the World Bank somewhere outside India. Until then he is happy to stay in Dharavi, though he could do without all the smoke billowing down the narrow lanes from the cooking fires and the kilns.
Afan Shafi, 12
Afan is sitting behind the scales in his family’s vegetable shop, with its counter piled high with ginger, chillies, potatoes and onions, dreaming of chicken. Afan loves chicken, but chicken is expensive, and a small vegetable shop is not a route to riches. Instead, he will get by with a little dal, some rice and a roti (Indian flatbread), as he does every day.
When he leaves school, he says, he is going to college to get the qualifications he needs to be a pilot. Afan has no doubt that this will happen and that his life will be transformed. ‘I’m going to stay some other place and I’m going to keep 10 servants,’ he says. ‘When I wake up they will give me juice and cook my favourite food. Every day I’ll eat chicken.’
It is 7pm and Afan has been here a couple of hours. Each morning, he gets up to go to school, then comes home for lunch, and goes back out to study Arabic. Later, he does his homework, then heads off to the shop.
‘I can run the shop on my own,’ he says proudly. His father pays him Rs50 a day. He’d quite like to be able to afford some toys. He has made an effort to dress up, putting on a silvery polka-dot shirt, but it has a rip in the side.
Nikit Lad, 13
Nikit is hanging out with his friends on an open patch of land behind the main road. Stray dogs trot across the bare earth beneath a tangle of electricity cables, which cascade down over the path in alarming fashion. The lowest cables are brushing the heads of those passing underneath.
Nikit has put on his best shirt – a smart black long-sleeved number which he has purchased with the few rupees’ pocket money he receives from his parents, Kanti and Meenal.
It is Sunday afternoon and Nikit and his brother are enjoying a day off from their classes at the South Indian Education Society high school. He’s laughing, but he doesn’t like Dharavi. When he leaves school, he is going to be a doctor or a scientist, he says: anything to get out of Dharavi. The people who live there are too rowdy, he says. It is not a good place to be.
Once he has the money, and once he has moved out, he’s going to treat himself to a Ganesha idol – his favourite god – and lots of electronic goods. One day he will make it to the United States to study. That’s going to be his way out.
Dayan Nehus Devaliya, 12
Tugging on the kite string, Dayan sends it soaring up into the early evening sky to join the others bobbing above the rooftops. He is standing on the roof of his parents’ house, reached by climbing up a rickety ladder and through a hole in the ceiling, then out of a small window.
This is where Dayan goes to escape the claustrophobic living conditions. In the house, three generations of the family are squeezed into a single room. Cooking pans and dishes gleam in racks on the wall, packed neatly away when not in use. The street outside is slicked with the droppings of animals that run loose among the houses and from the young children who play naked from the waist down, but the family and visitors to the house remove their shoes at the door and the room is spotless. Like most other families, they share a communal toilet.
If Dayan is not flying his kite, he’s playing Super Mario on his games console or cricket in the streets with his friends. He got the computer game about a year ago as a present. It is something of a rarity in Dharavi; certainly, none of his friends has one. It seems incongruous, though a few doors away another boy is typing on a computer on a shelf beneath the TV.
Dayan’s father is a carpenter, by no means a rich man. He gives Dayan just Rs2 a day to spend on food. Dayan has loftier ambitions. He wants to be a doctor: ‘I want to cure people when they are ill,’ he says. But he doesn’t want to move out of Dharavi, ‘because I get to play here, and there is a lot of space for cricket and to fly my kite.’
In the evenings, he watches TV, though his mother has the final say on what is on, and she likes to watch romantic serials. Dayan is not a fan of romantic serials.
Rahul Damodar Bagad, 18
Not everyone wants to escape from Dharavi. Some, like Rahul, are simply resigned to making the best of their lot in life.
Rahul was still quite young when his father died, leaving his mother Vandana to bring him up along with his younger brother Rohit. The three share the ground floor of a shack near the edge of the slum, taking it in turns to use the one bed.
For a while, Rahul went to school, but it is seven years since he left. ‘I was not interested in studies,’ he says. ‘Better to work.’ At 11, he was working as a welder, before trying his hand as a carpenter’s assistant. Neither job appealed, mainly because his employers failed to pay on time.
Now he is standing in a busy tailoring shop, clutching a tray of steaming tea which he has fetched for the men working on the machines. Rahul is the gofer, though he sometimes gets to help out doing the overlocking stitches.
In return, he receives about Rs2,500 (£35) a month, a low salary even by the standards of this poor neighbourhood. Most of his money goes to his mother, though he keeps about Rs50 a month for food, bus tickets and clothes. The jeans he is wearing cost Rs100, the T-shirt Rs60: it took him a long time to save up enough for the five pairs of jeans he owns.
His mother has made enough money from selling fish to buy a TV. On Saturdays, Rahul hangs around the Hanuman temple and on Sundays he plays cricket or football with friends. He’ll marry eventually, he says, but will let his mother choose a bride for him.
Somehow, he doubts that much is going to change in his life. In 10 years, he says, he’ll still be here. ‘I like the place,’ he says, simply.