Located in the centre of Mumbai, characterised by its heart shape when viewed from above, Dharavi is commonly referred to as ‘the heart of Mumbai.’
And sure enough it’s not difficult to see why it has been honoured with such a title. With its commercial production informally adding millions and millions to India’s economy each year, (Dharavi’s unorganised business sector accounts for production of approximately $665,000,000 worth of goods annually), work in Dharavi is not only a vital lifeline for it’s residents but an economic powerhouse in its own right.
For me though, what earns Dharavi its title as ‘the heart of Mumbai’ is not its economic contributions nor is it its physical shape. For me, Dharavi deserves this title because of the people that live within its walls.
Now, you may be expecting me here to run off some humanitarian spiel about how my heart ached for them, how sorry I felt about their squalid (at best) living conditions. How privileged I felt about my own life and how I left feeling so blessed and grateful for the what I have. Well, I’m not going to say any of that. What I actually felt was something far different – I felt envious.
Among all the extremities of a poverty stricken environment that exist in Dharavi – the dirt, the waste, the lack of basic sanitation, the hardship – what was evident to me was what the residents lack in material and facilities, they made up with heart. What stood out for me more than anything else was what these people shared; a real, genuine, unshakable and undeniable sense of community, or what I like to call ‘bonds of the heart.’
This spirit of community that was rife in Dharavi is something that, in my opinion, is lacking in most big cities, particularly in the West. In London for example, where I grew up, there seems to be a prevailing culture, particularly among the youth that glorifies isolation, a life lived fending for oneself. You’ll often hear comments like, ‘it’s me against the world’, ‘you can’t trust any-one’ and ‘I have to watch my own back.’
And I am not here to say that this prevailing attitude to live isn’t justified for the individual, that people don’t have a reason to think or feel like this. What I am saying is that it is a damn shame. A shame because I believe that this attitude is built on a false premise that all we really have to depend on in life is ourselves.
As the English poet John Donne once famously proclaimed, ‘no man is an Island,’ and so it is that as people we are sociable beings and aren’t made to exist in isolation.
I believe that even as individuals, we aren’t designed to just look out for ourselves. We can’t function wholly nor be our best self without others. As much as at times we don’t want to believe it, we all need others and function better as a collective.
Dharavi is a place where a shared humanity radiates and triumphs over all adversities. For me, it epitomises the human spirit in all its glory, a shared sense of hardship where the struggle of a single individual is the struggle of many.
If a person’s wealth was attributed to kindness and hard work, then the residents of Dharavi would all be rich tenfold.
Before I left for my first visit to India I met a stranger in a post office in London. An elderly immigrant man from India whom I told about my upcoming trip to India. With a sweet smile on his face he told me that he wanted me to do something for him. Dubiously, I asked him what this was and in a voice full of nostalgia for his home he replied, ‘find out why they still smile’. I didn’t understand what this man was talking about at the time, but standing among the squalor of Dharavi, the heart of Mumbai, I think that I’m starting to get it.
The edited version of this post was originally published on The Better India.