On the fourth day we went to India's largest slum, Deravi. The decision to take the trip came after a frank discussion about the ethics involved. We wondered whether we would be assuming the role of colonialists, taking a glimpse into the lives of the underprivileged, exposing them to a judging foreign eye, simply for our own gratification. However, after speaking with Dilip, a man who had lived in the slum for years, we were convinced that it was looked upon positively. Much of the profit made went back into the slum and the people were eager to show how hard they worked. These points, combined with our own eagerness to make the visit it must be said, meant that we agreed to set off for Deravi on our last day in Mumbai.
Our tour guide was called Anthony, a young, cheery man who had lived in the slum for years after leaving Goa to find work and send money home to his sick father. The more we got to know Anthony, the more his life sounded like an Indian movie waiting to happen. He had made his way up from Goa, into the slum and then out again ,working as a tour guide for Dilip, and harboured dreams of running his own cruise ship. Meanwhile, our hero was of course caught up in a difficult and seemingly ill fated relationship. After having slowly pursued the girl on his bus for over a year, he was now ready to propose after six years of dating. However, he was from a poor background, she a middle class one. He was catholic, she was Hindu. Her family therefore did not approve the match. Anthony had a vision that by working hard and rising up the social ladder he would eventually win them over and his life would be made. Cue Indian dancing.
As Anthony finished telling us about his life, we arrived at and entered the slum. It should be common knowledge that any attempt to say something poignant about a slum is destined to result in cheap, meaningless and inaccurate cliches. All I can say is that it shattered my expectations, formed from watching a few Hollywood films and reading a couple of books. There were not hoards of beggars groping our trouser pockets, the place did not smell disgustingly foul. This might have been because we were taken to an area deemed suitable for the delicate sentiments of tourists. Regardless, the most emblematic aspect of the slum we saw was work. Everyone was working. And they were working in an interconnected system which had helped create a slum economy. Nothing was wasted, unwanted bits of scrap were simply given a new purpose. Such ingenuity took the form of fake designer brands as leather bags and purses were tagged with well known names such as Gucci and LV, because the name Deravi obviously wouldn't sell.
As well as an economy, the slum now also had a health centre, shops and schools. As we walked around Alice and I were frequently addressed in perfect English by young Indian schoolchildren who wanted to know how we were and where we came from. It was easy to get sucked into the belief that maybe things weren't too bad after all but, whilst stating the people were happy, Anthony also impressed upon us how difficult the work was and how poorly it paid. So not a life to be pitied but not a life to be envied either. (There's your over simplified cliche).
Having stopped briefly for a beer and byriani, Anthony took us to Crawford Market. This was definitely an experience but by no means an enjoyable one. The sheer amount of people sardined between stalls lining the narrow alleyways meant you could not browse at a leisurely pace. Instead, you were forced to dart, squeeze or otherwise bully your way through.
In the end we only visited two stalls. The second involved my first attempt at taking on the Indians in their favourite game of price negotiation. As the archetypal British shopper I did not fancy my chances at all but regardless, the match was set: one pashmina at a starting price of 1600 rupees. Showing a slight interest in one particular article, as I absorbed the price, seemed to suddenly send the boarding spinning before I had even registered the game has begun: two pashinas for 2800 rupees. I hadn't even opened my mouth yet.
I decided to get involved. I had no use for two was my response. 750 for one. ‘Only one? Please, you give me good luck, low season, I offer you very good price: two for 2700. You see, first I offer 2800, now 2700. Very fair price,’ came the rejoinder. I took a wry shot and asked to see the other, cheaper scarves instead. It worked. ‘No, no you take pashmina, 2650.’ continuing with my approach I finally managed to get the price down to 2000 rupees for two. I had no real need for a pashmina so I still declined his final offer and left the shop feeling like I had won, and rather easily. Maybe my Indian blood was stronger than I thought after all. But as I turned back I saw that Anthony had been kept behind. When he reappeared there was a relieved look on his face: ‘I thank God you did not buy' he said, ‘ I tried to sign you but luckily your heart must have heard my heart. Those pashminas you nearly bought, they were fake'.
It had been a long day so Alice and I returned home, promising to see Anthony later as Saturday night was the night to drink in Mumbai. And so when night came, Anthony made sure we experienced a proper night in Mumbai by taking us to a local club. Looking around it was the first time we'd seen large groups of Indian girls in one place, not the worst discovery in the world. All rich girls, Anthony informed us. Conservative social codes did not apply to them. In the end it was not much different from a small, quirky club in London. The drinks flowed and hiphop, house and rnb got people up dancing. But the seediness of an English club was completely absent. Kissing in such a place was not a thing. There were no boys eyeing girls from behind and slyly stealing in for a grope and a grind. Not that that's what I get up to when I'm back home hitting the club in Kingston…
Maybe it does go on and we just didn't see it. Either way, Anthony took us to Harbour Drive to show us where the action definitely did happen. Where the day before it had been pretty much empty, now the place was buzzing with couples, friends and even families enjoying an after party by the sea. After a couple of photos, Anthony, a little worse for wear, called a taxi and took us home, eventually leaving with the parting message that we were not to forget him. I won't forget him in a hurry and I hope his movie like life has a happy ending. To paraphraseAnthony's own words: we have only to wait and see what God has written.
Next stop Goa.