Santa Claus Aa Rahe Hai

Slum tourism in Dharavi

The following is an excerpt from If It’s Monday it Must Be Madurai: A Conducted Tour of India (Penguin India, December 2013).

In his book of travel essays Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, Geoff Dyer writes: “All visitors to the developing world, if they are honest, will confess that they are actually quite keen on seeing a bit of squalor: people living on garbage dumps, shanty towns, that kind of thing.” He goes on to describe meeting a Swede in Mumbai who had visited “one of the worst slum districts,” where a beggar woman had “shoved her dead baby in his face.” Dyer writes that the half dozen foreigners listening to the story were “all horrified and, I think, more than a little envious.” Of course, that baby probably wasn’t dead. It’s a common enough experience in Mumbai or in any Indian city: if you look like you have a rupee or two to spare, you can have a baby shoved in your face at any traffic signal. Sometimes these babies have been acquired on hire; sometimes they are sedated. It’s likely the Swede saw one of these babies asleep and believed what he wanted to believe, or was tempted to embellish the story to elicit exactly the sort of envious horror that Dyer describes. After all, competition among travelers is intense, and a story like this is a lifelong trump card at dinner tables in hostels and guesthouses across the world.

Near the beginning of the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire is that much-talked-about flashback from the protagonist Jamal’s childhood in which he is locked into a slum’s hanging latrine by his brother just as his idol Amitabh Bachchan’s helicopter descends in the vicinity. Jamal desperately wants Amitabh’s autograph and there’s no way out of the latrine except for jumping down into the pit. He emerges dripping with shit (simulated in shooting with peanut butter and chocolate) and makes his way through a gagging crowd to get the autograph. The events that lead to Jamal being locked into the latrine feel so contrived that the whole point seems to have been to somehow get a boy covered in shit into the film.

The Swede’s dead baby and Slumdog’s shit-covered boy are both instances of a gaze that transforms squalor into spectacle. The worse things are for the objects of this gaze, the better it gets for the spectator. Here, the dominant response to poverty and human suffering is not pity or sorrow or compassion, but a kind of self-enchantment with witnessing or depicting it. It might seem bad enough that babies are used as begging accessories, but to raise it to a delightfully horrific pitch, there’s nothing like stumbling upon dead babies in the street and being in the presence of poverty so abject that a mother in her grief will shrewdly hold up her dead child’s body to score a few rupees. And it’s a matter of concern that open defecation and manual scavenging are alive and well in India, but how much more fun it is to personify this state of excretory affairs in a boy who glistens with shit from head to toe.

The travel writer Paul Theroux writes in his 2008 book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, “In Mumbai: a tourist would have been in a temple or a museum. I had been in a slum.” The boast is one that an increasing number of tourists can make today. If visitors from the developed world are “quite keen on seeing a bit of squalor,” the developing world indulges them readily through slum tourism — pay money to go and look at the living conditions of those less fortunate than yourself. There are organized tours of the favelas in Brazil, of townships in Johannesburg, of garbage dumps in Mexico, of slums in Mumbai, Jakarta, China, and plenty of other places across Asia, Africa, and South America.

Slum tourism began in what is today the first world, when affluent 19th-century Londoners began venturing into the seedier parts of town for a Dickensian fix. It wasn’t long before the activity spread to the other side of the Atlantic. Here’s the New York Times of September 14, 1884: “‘Slumming,’ the latest fashionable idiosyncrasy in London — i.e., the visiting of the slums of the great city by parties of ladies and gentlemen for sightseeing — is mildly practiced here by a tour of the Bowery, winding up with a visit to an opium den or Harry Hill’s.” The post-slumming chitchat feels remarkably contemporary:

A quite well-known young English noble, returning from a tour of the east side the other night with some club friends, observed over his brandy and soda: “Ah, this is a great city, but you have no slums like we have. I have been in rickety condemned buildings that it was absolutely dangerous to go through! Found six families living in one miserably ventilated cellar — 24 persons, 16 of them adults, living in the one room. No such slums here!”

The article goes on to defend New York’s honor by claiming that there are indeed such slums, places of “misery, multitude and vice,” and “of the same squalor and suffering as anything ever seen in the
English metropolis,” but the inexperienced guides simply hadn’t explored those routes. There’s mention of how slum tourism led to charity work in London. Only one specific work is mentioned, and that seems utterly cosmetic and almost apologetic: “The flower charities have done much good work among the poor in the tenements by distributing among them floral gifts. What a pleasure it must be to a sufferer imprisoned in one of these tenements to receive a flower, with its color and its green leaves and stems!”

One may want to go see a slum because it is edifying to see how people poorer than oneself live, or because it presents a more complete social picture of the place one is visiting, or because, like Gandhi, one may at times want to recall the face of the poorest and the weakest person whom one has seen and ask oneself if the next step one is contemplating is going to be of any use to that person. A survey conducted in Mumbai’s Dharavi by a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania found that most tourists who came to do a slum tour were motivated by simple curiosity, but though they were curious, they weren’t interested in interacting with residents. In other words: they came to gawk. As the report states, “the slum tourism experience was one of leisure rather than self-discovery.” The tour organizer was Reality Tours and Travel (RTT), founded jointly by an Englishman and an Indian in 2005 (and the subject of much media attention since).

RTT runs two tours of Dharavi — one long and one short. The Dharavi sections of the tours are identical, but the long tour starts in South Bombay and makes its way to Dharavi via the red light area of Kamathipura and the dhobi ghat at Mahalaxmi. The walking tour of Dharavi aims to emphasize the economic vibrancy of the community and dispel myths about poverty and slums. Criticism that it’s only a vehicle for first-world voyeurs crops up from time to time, but RTT counters this by saying that they use 80 percent of their profits for the benefit of slum residents. In 2009, RTT consolidated their social work by starting an NGO — Reality Gives. Between them they run a nursery school and a community center in Dharavi where locals can learn English and computer skills. They also support other education- and sports-related activities. (We’ve come a long way from the token absolution of handing out flowers.) Tourists may well arrive at Dharavi with a keenness for squalor, but RTT aims to show them a different side of the slum, and in a way that ultimately benefits the community.

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