Janya took us to Dharavi to meet some of her family. This slum has been known as the largest slum in the world. It’s not anymore as Neza-Chalco-Itza in Mexico City apparently has surpassed it. Dharavi was then known as the largest slum in Asia (a fact I put on this blog not too long ago). That title now belongs to Orangi Township in Karachi, Pakistan. To say Dharavi is the largest slum in India is still probably accurate, though a few slums (including the one we stayed in) rival it in size and number. I only write all this to note that Dharavi’s reputation precedes itself, and due solely to its population (even if it is not the largest slum in Asia or the world), which is routinely estimated at over 1 million residents, people from all over the world know about it. The fact that a movie like Slumdog Millionaire was partly filmed there (and a few of its children played important roles in the movie) only adds to its celebrity status. For these reasons, when people visit Mumbai, they invariably want to “experience” a slum community. It’s easy to see where they turn. Most of the other poor communities get somewhat overlooked by NGO’s in favor of Dharavi. Tourist agencies have also found a niche to exploit this “market.” Google “Dharavi Tours” and you will see what I mean.
It is certainly difficult to be discreet anywhere in India when you are walking with 4 other pale-skinned people – Bella and Brian’s freakish hair only makes it worse – but today as we walked through Dharavi, we generated a commotion on “90 foot road” (supposedly named for its width) like we have on no other road we’ve walked down so far. Indians with an inclination to try out their limited English boldly yelled what they knew: “HELLO!!” …”Whatz ur name!?”… “From what country?!” The commotion made us feel as foreign as we looked.
We are encouraged that some “Dharavi Tours” are not intended for people to gawk at the poverty of people living in a famous slum, but to come to appreciate what goes on there and hopefully change the perception one might have of an Indian slum. But, I think the point we are trying to make is that tourism is the opposite of living incarnationally. Most of the people probably assumed we were tourists and treated us as such. That is reason enough for our hosts to rule out trying to live and work in Dharavi. A while back Randy White described himself as an “anti-tourist.” It caused us to think about our true motivations for wanting to come to Mumbai, and particularly to a slum community (like Dharavi). Are we just a tourist here? We didn’t take pictures in Dharavi, and didn’t spend much time outside the homes we were there to visit. As we walked, Janya wanted to hold Bella – we think because she genuinely loves her, but more strategically because she would seem less like a tour-guide (and us less like tourists) if she were holding the white-skinned blonde girl. But I couldn’t get over feeling like I was perpetuating wrongful attention in Dharavi. We truly hope there are folks out there who would like to live incarnationally and build relationships with the people of Dharavi (and other slums in Mumbai); rather than simply tour the area and, worst-case scenario, gawk at their poverty. We are some of the people who wanted to “experience” a slum community – so it is crucial for us to continue to search our own hearts, to ask if we have just come here as tourists, or if we genuinely care about the people and want to live incarnationally, as Jesus did, in this world.