Saturday, January 24, 2009

Living alongside Slumbai

- by Janaki Krishnan
Mumbai's slums have been attracting so much attention these days that we should probably rename the city Slumbai.
We have been living in Sion for the last 35 years - in an area where there is a large slum population alongside middle class residential buildings.

Our side of the street

Slums on opposite side of same street

This is a large slum area, a part of which has extended to the street opposite our house. Unhygenic surroundings, early morning brawls for water, blaring speakers during festivals...these have become a part of our life.

But living near a slum also has a positive side to it. It is a symbiotic relationship, where we depend on each other for many things in daily life. We also learn many things from each other.
As a working woman for 35 years, and as a senior citizen now, I have come to depend on my maid and cook, both of whom live just outside our building. Both belong to the Maratha community (Bhosles) and have been instrumental in my learning colloquial Marathi. They have also helped me understand their way of life - festivals, rituals, crafts, etc - all of which take place just outside our house on the street. My cook has now become an expert in South Indian dishes.

My maid's house is one of those on this street. Her grandson is at the door.

The menfolk in the slum outside our building have different types of occupations - security guard, pujari, carpenter, plumber, bhajiwala, postman...they are all ready to help us if we need it. Even at midnight, I can walk through our lane without any fear. When I need drumstick leaves for my 'rice adai', they quickly climb the tree and get them for me. When we need something heavy moved, they lend a helping hand, without any payment. I remember the time when my 10-year old daughter was hit by a car. One of the men from the houses in the slum carried her to a cot on the pavement, and revived her with water.
In turn, I think they find us beneficial too. Living near us provides employment for all the women who want to find work, without any commuting. Some mothers send their children to me for help with schoolwork. We contribute towards community festivals. We help in filling forms and writing letters, and also in finding jobs for young men. In times of water crisis, my maids fill their water pots at my house. In emergencies, we provide first aid. These are not extraordinary acts of social service, but the day-to-day exchange and accomodation that comes from having slum dwellers for neighbours.

Over the course of the past 35 years, these daily interactions have allowed us to also become part of their extended community. Although the dividing line between have and have-not exists, it has definitely blurred over the years. Another phenomenon I have observed is that a spirit of equality has emerged, very different from the traditional attitude of servitude and humility that the poor still display in villages.

My maid's neighbour, a confident and assured lady.

Having slums nearby has also opened my eyes to the lives of people who have far less in life than I do. A lesson that all of us can learn from watching slum dwellers is that of sharing and co-operation. A cup of tea is shared by half a dozen people. When a mother goes to work, other women mind her children. On festivals and occassions, even the poorest houses celebrate. In fact, the best thing to learn from the slums is their vibrant, happy and carefree attitude. I often wonder how they have so much fun and laughter when they are not even certain of where the next meal is coming from.

My maid's daughter Kartika, always smiling


kunal bhatia said...

beautiful post. i'm glad you mentioned the symbiotic relation between the two sides of the streets. too often the slum dwellers are labelled as a nuisance, without realising that we depend on them in more ways than one.

Sujata said...

How true that those of us who live in high rise apartments have much to learn from the slum dwellers... Several of my foreigner friends have often pointed out to me that the children from the street always have the brightest smiles they have seen in India...

Ms.N said...

hi there!

nice post. And a very nice blog. i landed here searching for saree shops in matunga and found some lovely posts on the locales in mumbai.

Sunita said...

Mumbai's posh homes would be a mess without the hardwork of their less-posh neighbours.
As with any society, they have their share of the good, the bad and the ugly (more of the first, invariably) but I really admire the way they always stand up for each other.

agent green glass said...

hello. wat a lovely blog. so thoughtful and serene.i love the post on the slums and the high rise apts. i agree there is so much we learn from each other. probably, that's why i cldn't comprehend why people got so angry about the slums in slumdog millionaire. they are a part of our lives, my life...and most times, in a good way. specially that line about being able to walk down your lane at night, it rang so true.
and the posts on markets. i enjoyed that good. probably because i'm one person who loves hanging around markets, matunga, khar, ganndhi market. so much fun to observe.

M Parker said...

I am doing research on slum tourism in Dharavi for a documentary and was wondering what people's opinions/stories were...

Why did you go on the slum tour?

Have you been on other slum tours? If so how do they compare?

Were there any awkward moments or extreme reactions from either the tourists or the inhabitants?

You can email me on


Meena said...

Loved your post on Mumbai's slums. Most people only view it from the outside and think of slums as dirty, filled with anti-social elements,and so on. You have so beautifully brought out the symbiotic relationship that the slums of Mumbai share with the so-called 'posh' neighbourhoods.

islandgal246 said...

Your post has been very insightful. Is it uncanny that the people with less are always happier than those with more? They are more contented with what they have and are very pleased with anything extra. When we had less and were striving for more we were happy. Now we have more we are miserable. This is a lesson to us all, keep life simple, enjoy our friends and family, love, laugh and live.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. Its a brave way to bring the positives in any life. I still cant but feel bad for the kid standing in that picture. Is the symbiotic relationship worth it for him when compared to more basic requirements like good schooling, decent meals, hygiene and medical access, clean water. Is he going to get the opportunity he deserves?

I don't really agree that the relationship is symbiotic either. By staying in Sion and not moving back - maybe to their village - they don't seem to have done much better for themselves. Cooking and cleaning for other houses is just a means of survival. The family might be worse off in the short term by leaving their current means of living and moving to another place. In the long run, out of adversity comes opportunity.

I grew up in the old Tilak Nagar area, close to KJ Somaiyya college and have seen my share of slums outside Vidyavihar station.

pg accommodation mumbai said...

What is a Symbiotic relation?

Joe said...

This reminds me of our Shanta bai.
A sincere, dedicated and honest lady. She never starts her work, without greeting all in the house with "namaste ji"

Heather said...

I absolutley adore your blog!!! For a year now I have had a yearning for India, and it's people, learning a lot. Even reading this particular post about dwelling near slums and the close relationships with it's dwellers makes me want to be there, living in your culture. Please, keep blogging, and keeping the dream alive in my heart to also come to India some day soon!
Heather - Denver, Colorado, USA

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Leah Wuliger said...

I loved your blog on slums and domestic servants. I am sooo fascinated with India and all things indian, especially indian food. The Indian sarees ( or saris) are absolutely fabulous, and all you people are so very kind. I'd love to meet a nice Indian boy, if i could and fall in love, and marry him. I am 25, with blonde hair, about 5'6", about 122 lbs, a 4th yr. medical student, hoping to specialize in ophthalmology and retinal detachments. If you know of anybody interested please email me at Thankx.