There are many wondrous things about India, and about Mumbai in particular: its rich history and culture, the kindness of its people, the innate spirituality that exists here, not to mention the incredible food which everyone seems to take for granted. Those all deserve their own articles, and I will write them at some point. Only one topic, however, makes any kind of sense to me for my first story here…the ride from the Mumbai airport.
The Mumbai airport feels just like any other. It’s huge, clean, and impersonal. It’s not even that crowded. But once you get your driver, load your luggage and start the journey north to your guest house or apartment, you stumble upon a different world. Barely outside of the chain link fence that surrounds the airport, lies a chasm of humanity. Trust me, you can never be prepared for this. Even if you think you’ve seen poverty, even if you’ve been warned about how bad it can be, you can never be prepared for this.
These slums are so extreme that at first, you can’t even cry. You just sit there, staring out the window of the car — in shock. It’s a crushing poverty on a scale that the human mind cannot comprehend at first. On either side of the roadway are miles and miles of ramshackle huts, patched together out of paper, plastic and corrugated tin. They are filthy, rusted out, flat-roofed shacks that use blue tarps and chunks of wood to keep the monsoons from soaking the people inside.
It’s impossible to capture this area in a photograph. It’s like the Grand Canyon that way. In fact, that is exactly what it feels like — a Grand Canyon of abject poverty. The sight of it pulls at your heart until you can almost feel it cramping up from the visceral pain of taking it all in.
After the first ten minutes or so when the shock finally loosens its grip on you, you start to look closer. If you’re very lucky, you’ll start to notice something. You’ll notice that this slum is actually a community — a functional community. You’ll see kids playing, laughing, running over and around the mounds of garbage that surround the metal boxes where they live. You’ll peek inside some of them (because some have no doors) and you’ll see a person with a barber chair, giving their neighbors haircuts. You’ll see a Biryani stand where all sorts of people, old and young are gathered around, eating that delicious rice dish together. You’ll see a man hanging his laundry out to dry on rusted barb wire fencing, while a few women wander the fruit stands that their neighbors have set up, looking for the best of what’s left, laughing with each other and talking.
And then it will hit you.
These people, these wonderful people, have built a community together in the midst of all this. They’ve rigged up lighting inside some of the huts. They work together, take care of each other. And the city of Mumbai doesn’t try to hide them. The poor aren’t invisible here. Maybe in a way, that’s progress. They are free to coexist.
I’m not saying that the poorest of the city are chronically happy or blessed. I’m not an idiot. There are people who use them, who abuse them. There’s a begging syndicate that is run on the backs of some of these people which is sinister in its brutality. (I’ll be writing about that later.)
But what makes me feel a bit better about the poverty in India, is that these people are given the freedom to coexist. They aren’t hidden away. Some are right in your face, begging for change in the middle of the street. Some set up temporary barber shops on the corner, using plastic buckets for their barber chairs and scraps of mirror hung on telephone poles so their clients can watch them work. Some have chaat stands, selling street food to their neighbors. They have a community. They work together, laugh together, do business together.
That’s the best way I’ve found to handle the weight of the crushing poverty here. You must realize that simply because they are poor, doesn’t mean that they are unhappy. If you don’t remember that…you’ll break.
A Grand Canyon of abject poverty…that’s true. That is the best way I know how to describe it. But there is beauty in the corners of this canyon. And I’m determined to find it.
#beautyintheashes #grandcanyonofpoverty #mumbaispoorest