Eighteen hours of travel, one stop-over in Dubai, a beetroot and carrot juice, five rectangle aero plane meals and here I am. Zipping through the deafening Mumbai traffic on route from airport to hostel.
The heat stifles my brain, so I feel like a stoned, jet lagged zombie, happy to sit and see the streets wizz by me as I perch on the hard seat of Mumbai’s version of the Knight Bus.
Then, I feel the thick felted cloth that has been the last year of my life be cut, and fall off me. The year that has had me live inside my head, swirling with grief, shame and in-articulated thought, drops, suddenly in this bus. I am now in Mumbai. The seemingly uphill efforts to get myself here are all but inconsequential, perhaps trivial. Stopped at a unexplained congestion of traffic, I see people asleep clutching bare bottomed babies. On the road. Just one meter from Sydney’s version of the M2. This is their reality, what happens for them on an average Tuesday night. And here I was worried about feeling sad. We arrive at the hostel in tack. Hit the mattress to sleep a dead man’s sleep to the lullaby of the overhead fan.
So, with rest and fueled by a liquid sugar chai from a street vendor, we brave the day. Stares follow us, but what is to be expected, two white 6” chiccas, cargo pants, maps, and a slight look of terror on our faces. Day one was a replica of Sydney, shopping, an art gallery, and then an art gallery opening featuring a German painter to top off the evening. Very safe.
Day two. We spend four hours in the biggest slum in Asia. Dharavi. I sit here and my fingers hover over the keys, to put this place into words is, well tricky. It was amazing, uplifting, terrifying, mortifying. Incredible, perhaps best sums it up. We were taken by a guide, Ganesh, the coolest funniest guy I have met in Mumbai, who has been showing foreigners around the slum for six years as a full time job. Quite a feat in 32 degree temperatures. My trepidation and fear of (EVER) entering such a place was mainly based on ignorance. Us and Them. How do you handle the shame of your white western middle classness?
Ganesh shows us the industrial area, where bog standard jobs of removing paint from the inside of tin cans via fire, gets done, in one room, sans ventilation. We are shown recycling and aluminum molding areas, then are lead over a street that is one of the main arteries of the slum. Lead over the street, whilst being told the recap of the time when Ganesh saw a boy get decapitated when trying to run and jump on a bus. The look of terror and the cargo pants on the 6 foot girls remain intact. We are then taken to the residential area. Full of families and children, shouting ‘Hello!’ with mega watt grins. Happiness!? Here!?
I did cry though. Walking through one of the many alleyways I passed a dog. Apart from having the standard skin diseases, malnourishment, and general look of despair, this dog had a gaping wound on the seat of it’s back. I mean gaping, 5cm across, and 10 cm down, it held a pool of fluorescent yellow mucus. Burned in my mind is that colour. It was drinking from a infested basin of water, as a dog who is not going to last the next hour might; with gasping agony.
I walked on, unable to stop or else lose the guide. We had to wait in a open square as Ganseh fetched the keys to show us inside a classroom, and the absolute unfairness of this misery hit me. This dog has properly never had a day in it’s life when it felt good. It probably did not know what good felt like. And that is just the dog. The reality of the major issues that this slum faced is evident, the lack of sanitation, access to clean water, the hazards within the workplace, and even construction of the buildings and electrics makes day to day living seem to have a fair base in luck.
However, in four hours my perception completely flipped, and wonderment and admiration for these dwellers replaced any feeling of pity. They have an incredible comradery between them, and the feeling of community and family pours out of the sun filled squares.
After a quick nap, and a bungled double taxi ride, we arrive at a Concert hall to see some Classical Indian music. Three acts, two vocal and one instrumental played, and it was mesmerising. Whilst I felt like some cool new age hippy to be at such a concert, we were nestled between an audience with an average age of sixty five. Major head wobbles and hand gestures told me they were loving it as much as I did.
And then I cried for the second time that day. Mid forty minute rendition of a instrumental piece, that was said to be made for such 42 degree weather days, I had a vivid image fill my sight. My grandfather, I called him Pop. He was meeting me at the door of his Port Macquarie villa, his 6”4 frame, hunched slightly with age, in his uniform of bond singlet, under a white collared polo shirt, and tan shorts. He squeezed my shoulders and gave me a twinkling cock-of-the-head grin, and said nothing, like always. My Pop committed suicide not two months ago. And so I sat there, in a Mumbai concert hall and balled my eyes out, smiling every now and then at the little girl who kept turning around in her seat and shyly staring at me (if that is such a thing).
Now, to sit here and cry and cry and cry about my Pop, who I love and miss made me think. The shit that the last year has been full of for me is no less real than what is going on for people here, half way around the world. Although I concluded that my dramas are just that, dramas, as I sped along that expressway to down town Mumbai, I now realise that my life is both everything AND nothing. To explain; the best thing about the slums is the family’s, and the best thing about me, is my family. What is going on in the world is no different anywhere, perhaps we have a different roof, a different window, but we still drink chai with our friends, chat about how stinking hot it is and cry about our pop’s.