Scrubbing off layers of dirt can be addicting, once you start at it you simply find layers of aggregated dust formed upon every inch of skin, and if you are ever to finish such a fastidious project, you soon find that the patch of skin where you began has been coated with another layer of dust, waiting to be scrubbed.
Being in India makes any reasonably clean person feel like Sisyphus.
On the train to Mumbai, India’s CIA factbook statistics come alive, concretized in the masses of tenebrous shantytowns, prodigious slums and gated suburban housing. India contains 1/6 of the world’s population. Only 7-15% of that population works in formal employment. 70% is rural. At least 40 million have been displaced by big dams that generate little electricity and frequently fail to supply water to the villages that need it the most. These dams are almost uniformly funded by investment from western companies and the World Bank.
The sale of emergency contraceptives increases by 50% every month.
In Mumbai, 53% of the population lives in slums, but unlike Delhi, the casual traveler could venture throughout the city without ever having to face the real faces behind this harrowing statistic. The slums here are segregated into blocks mostly in central and northern Mumbai.
I visit Dhavari slums with a guide from an educational NGO. It is the largest slums in the world, sandwiched between two railways; it is the heart of Mumbai, as the shape of the slum from a birds-eye view appears in the shape of a heart.
Rent here ranges from $25 to $4 a month. At more than one million people per square mile, that adds up to some prime real estate. According to Mike Davis, the slums began when the French began erecting walls and sewer systems around the poorest areas of their colonies to keep sickness away, as germs had yet to be discovered.
Now Dhavari is a 21st Century stain, a heart-shaped hole in the Universe where mankind’s soul has been substituted for cheap leather, clay, plastic, tin, aluminum, and other raw materials that the toxic factories of Dhavarti produce. Here, the leather for Gucci bags are made for about sixty rupees apiece, just a bit more than one U.S. dollar.
The incredibly small, smoky stone-walled factories make the world of Charles Dickens look like a British tea party. The men here work hard for a few years, die of poisoning or lung cancer, and are replaced all too effortlessly from the convenient surplus population of 2.5 million slumdogs. The superfluous, supernumerary people who drop like lemmings.
This is called the informal sector.
The residences are even more appalling. By day, children play atop mountains of garbage, unzipping their pants and excreting whenever and wherever nature chooses to call. At night, these same streets are a malaise of moving death, invaded by hoards of gigantic rats at the bottom, while at eye level the smoke from the lit cotton of the pottery kilns blind the residents in thick black clouds.
To walk through Dhavari is to recall the story of the three little pigs, as you pass small houses with the smell of animal feces, each built of straw, tin or brick.
And the big bad wolf comes in many guises. He is in the government of Mumbai, who blithely rezone Dhavari a bit more each year, forcing residents out and jam-packing the people into every tighter quarters. He is in the foreign banks, who fund gigantic machines to help produce larger quantities of raw material, only to garrote the slum dwellers by keeping them infinitely in debt. He is in the slum lords who refuse formal housing contracts for their diminutive family rooms, and, when the rent goes unpaid, are known to dip cats in lighter fluid and set them aflame, letting them run through the houses where everything easily catches fire.
Dhavarti is one out of an estimated 2,000 slums in Mumbai. Just south of the slums, real estate is more expensive than in Manhatten, and the wealthy live in lofty thirty story condos made with glossy contemporary architecture. But on the rooftop of the slums, among the piles of garbage and the toxic fumes spewing out from the factories, I cannot help but notice an aberration: satellite televisions upon the tin, hollow rooftops. This is Mumbai, I remind myself.
Let them eat Bollywood.
In a pensive mood I take the train to Central Mumbai station, perhaps to visit the Samos shopping mall for a taste of air-conditioning, perhaps to wander in whatever direction the stars see fit to guide me for the night. When I arrive the streets are dark and full of silhouettes, but the Mumbai skyline is too bright to see any stars. Tonight the moon becomes my alabaster; I follow it with no reservations.
I pace upon the shadowed streets for nearly an hour, gigantic bats flying above me and stray dogs howling all around me. I imbibe the smoked corn from a street stall. Suddenly a hand grabs me, it is soft but punches me and I see that it is a girl in a red sari, her face divinely made up in matching blush. Sir, sir, she says, smiling. I begin to assess my surroundings. Dozens of demure women in brightly colored saris line the street, smiling towards the passing cars and Indian men. Some are more slattern, they wave at the men from the window sills, from every street corner, from every block and down every alleyway, cooing, grabbing at my belt.
Oh, the red light.
As with all of India, it is the amount of people that leaves me particularly disturbed. The streets filled with these sex workers seems to never end, like a funhouse where you believe yourself walking down a long hallway, only to find that you’ve been on a conveyor belt. I walk purposefully, expecting the lines of Indian women to end, and soon I am convinced I have gone in circles, but no, I am on the same street. There are thousands of them.
The women must think of me as an object of fun, for they begin to call from the windows and streets, some grabbing my hands while others crack jokes and point at the traveler who has somehow wandered so far off the beaten path, into their effete world of Johns, drugs and human trafficking. Just as I begin to see an end to the trail of women, a Muslim man in a white robe screams American! and I flee towards the nearest intersection, followed closely by a gang of ruffians.
Is it my accent? The backpack I carry? The Ipod bulging from my pocket?
When I sense them just behind me I turn to my trusty last resort: appearing so incredibly drunk, that to do me any harm would not actually cause me any harm, and therefore defeat the purpose of harming me.
I stagger, do my best John Belushi impression, gaze at them in a simple stupor. They say something in Hindi and leave me in the road.
Where the red light district ends, night markets fill the streets, and at midnight they are filled with bodies sleeping on the curbs, families under green mosquito nets. After half an hour wandering through the labyrinthine alleyways, another gang of boys are following me.
What am I so worried about? Could it be that they just want to say hello? Am I totally absurd for fleeing from every gang of men who take an active interest in a traveler?
I look back, see them with their arms crossed, advancing quickly now, and I, craven as ever, flee again, so thoughtlessly this time that my foot ends up lodged in someone’s blue tarp rooftop. I am again lost, on the edge of a shanty town. The boys fall down laughing as I attempt to repair the makeshift rooftop.
I spend a week in Mumbai, in utter exhaustion.