To prepare for the field trip we went through the initial stages of research, understanding the situation of Dharavi as best we could, without being there. And so began the monotonous endeavor of reading and understanding the political climate, regulations and parameters, plans and policy, actors and negotiators for Dharavi. And then experiencing Dharavi, talking to people and doing the interviews made everything come alive. Meeting the people behind the institutions, seeing their attitude and approach, and having an opportunity to interact and clarify our questions with them was a great experience.
The field work was the most enjoyable and it was done with a lot of improvisation and inclination, we took liberties and deviated from schedules…. And it worked very well for us. On the first day we interviewed two Muslim households, talking to the men about their daily work and life. Mr Fakir Ahmed Azaad was particularly interesting and we chatted about Lucknow and the Immambada there which he visits every year. He was particularly emotional in his responses and reminded me of an era or generation of people that I usually find in books. He spoke about the time of the communal riots and how a lot of his neighbors, Muslims mainly, left and how his family stayed. “Kuch nahi hota hai. Hum yahi the aur kuch nahi hua” (Nothing happened. It was quite safe and we did not go anywhere). Talking to him made me realize that when you go into people’s homes, one has to treat the information gathering less like an interview and more like a social call… people are awkward otherwise.
The second day, we began by interviewing women, also in the Muslim area. They invited us in to their homes, showing the old Hindustani hospitality. The lady, Bilkisji offered us the mat to sit on and then served us cold water. Their warmth and openness left us in no position to refuse. They even sent us off with a bottle of water each which was greatly welcomed by all of us. The experience was humbling but also made me realize how deep the sense of hierarchy in Indian society. What struck me most about this house was how much work they put in to everyday. The older daughter gives tuitions classes to local kids, is learning to do mehindi, also does embroidery in the house and works as a compounder with a local doctor.
By the second week our exhaustion was quite apparent. The heat and humidity had taken a toll. Since the last few days in the field were taken up by the urban analysis, I opted to go to Bharat Janata. The age group we tried to target was between 16 and 19. But most of the youths were busy or away. May is when everyone is away, traveling and going back to their villages. The young girl we spoke to was very cordial and patient with us. We were wondering about the possibility of tensions between Hindu and Muslim families living so closely and sharing the communal spaces. She eagerly explained that all neighbors got along well clarifying that her own family shared close relations with their Muslim neighbors. It seems there was no tension between people of different religions and the usual festivities were partaken collectively in the society.
As we walked around we were on exhibition… to a certain extent because of the non Indians in the group we were far removed, impressive, “hailing from London” and here to study how people live in a place like Dharavi, trying to convince them we were here to learn from them. By the first two times in Dharavi I was so used to approaching people and asking about their lives that I ended up having random conversations with complete strangers around Bombay. Subconsciously trying to find a bigger picture in the puzzle that we were trying to piece together and questioning random taxi drivers, hotel doormen, the vendors on juhu beach etc. It seemed like everyone had a story to tell if I just probed them a little. The amount of knowledge that one can get from such people is amazing. They live everyday what we are trying to understand from reading articles and book from people like Kalpana Sharma.
I have spent a lot of my childhood in Bombay. But it now it seems like I saw everything from a distance passing by everything but never getting off the car, walking on the streets, talking to the people, knowing where the sabzi or bhel wala lives, how they live, wondering about their lives and why they aren’t able to bring their lari’s into the suburbs anymore. From the very beginning of the trip, I was struck by how charming the kids were, finding ways and times to play even in the most pathetic conditions. After that came the awful realization that many, physically underdeveloped for their ages, appear to be much younger than they are. We have seen children who seem to about 8 years old but are actually 12 or 13. Poverty is still clearly an issue here…. Poverty and education.
One of the things that concerns me most about the DRP is how they envision people for different classes living together in such close proximity. I cannot imagine this working in the Indian society that I know. Knowing how the government thinks and works, there will be no effort at harmonizing or creating a process of community building. Either gentrification will not take place or eventually, prices will rise so high that it will be difficult to maintain and run low income households and the original residents will find it more lucrative to sell and move to more affordable places. This is of course if the current proposal takes place given the tentative nature of Indian politics, economic climate and the possibility of a strong solidarity by the community of Dharavi.
Social differences, also mentioned in the presentation today are very seeped in to the living and social culture of Dharavi. It acknowledged but one can’t help but wonder how long it will be before these absurd ideas of caste and like will be removed and governments, institutions etc will spend more time and effort on funding socially useful works that are badly needed in India. the activists that promoted confrontation more than compromise. That was probably a more radical attitude but something that we need to consider knowing how democracy works in India. Everyone who is not in a slum turns a blind eye… the indifference of the upper and middle classes is apparent… There are problems everywhere and everyone is will willing to complain. But what you see in Dharavi is an attempt at providing solutions when needs are more overwhelming everyday and people learn to adapt and rely on themselves for solutions.