A flourishing slum

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Around 6am, the squealing of copulating rats?signalling a night-long verminous orgy on the rooftops of Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai?gives way to the more cheerful sound of chirruping sparrows. Through a small window in Shashikant (?Shashi?) Kawale’s rickety shack, daylight seeps. It reveals a curly black head outside. Further inspection shows that this is attached to a man’s sleeping body, on a slim metal ledge, 12 feet above the ground.

With maybe a million residents, crammed into a square mile of low-rise wood, concrete and rusted iron, Dharavi is a squeeze. And in Shashi’s family hutment?as slum-dwellings are known in Mumbai, where half the city’s 14m people live in one?it feels like it. As the sparrows stir, so do the neighbours. Through the plank-thin walls of the tiny loft where Shashi, a jobbing cleric-cum-social-worker, lives above his parents, come the sounds of people bumping and bickering.

On one side is a family of 12 living in a 90-square-foot room?about half the size of an American car-parking space. On the other, eight people share a similar area. Night-sounds suggest they include a man with a painful cough, a colicky baby and an amorous couple. At least they can squeeze inside, unlike the man roosting behind Shashi’s hutment?and unlike Parapa Kawale, a 22-year-old friend and neighbour, who had dropped by the previous evening to share a spicy bean curry.

Parapa, a semi-skilled electrician, lived with his parents, two brothers, their wives and two children in a room of 48 square feet. If half the family members slept on their sides, they could just about fit. But as the only single male, Parapa felt a dreadful gooseberry. Like Shashi, he is a member of the local branch of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which tells Dharavi’s youths not to marry unless they can support a family. Wretched nonetheless at the nightly coupling around him, Parapa began sleeping in the alley outside?and drinking heavily.

A month ago, explained Parapa, a strapping, beaming, Chaucerian fellow, he chased one of his brothers and a wife from the hutment in a violent, drunken rage. They fled back to the remote village in southern Karnataka that the family emerged from three decades before. Parapa then fixed a man-sized plank to the hutment wall, so that while his father and brother made love to their wives below, he could stay chastely on the shelf. Still, he sometimes sleeps outside, beside an open sewer, in the blissful quietude of the street.

During a four-day stay in Dharavi, as the guest of Shashi and his friends, your correspondent heard many such tales: of hard times, facing up and getting by. The narrators were sometimes bitter or suspicious, but mostly friendly, almost invariably courteous, and occasionally, like Parapa, very funny. If poverty can seem dehumanising from afar?especially in much reporting on it?up close Dharavi, which is allegedly Asia’s biggest slum, is vibrantly and triumphantly alive.

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Source: The Economist (link opens in a new window)