Armed with questions like – is there a market out there, are they different from us, what do they dream about – I spent a day in Dharavi early this year. Despite my preconceived notions, I was ready for a shock to my system. I was, however, surprised. Now, why does that sound so strange? I expected to see hungry, sick, unhappy, dissatisfied people driven to the end of human endurance – instead, there was an amazing feeling of acceptance with children being hope for the future. Starting from a four-year-old, a considerable sum of money is spent on tuition fee as the free education in municipal schools is not considered up to standard. There was great pride in owning the ‘house’- single or double storeyed structures ranging from 100 to 200 sq ft housing as many as four to eight people. Status symbols are; ownership of ‘house’, a tap within the house, LPG and a steady source of income.

Purchases were made daily and everything from cooking oil to atta were bought loose and for the day. Water was had straight from the tap- no filters. And yet I did not find houses full of sick people; very efficient immune system or, contrary to excpextation, very low levels of contamination.
As my scientist friend explained to me –‘ the water is unsafe largely during the monsoon when the potable water gets mixed with sewage. So maybe what is needed is a litmus like paper to test the water everyday that will show when the contamination has reached unsafe proportions. A sterilisation tablet on those days could ensure safety from jaundice and other water- borne diseases’.

The most affluent household was that of a lorry driver- who had a refrigerator, a colour TV, LPG, pressure cooker and a music system. The poorest was a leather worker (polishing ‘kolhapuri chappals’) on daily wages operating a pushcart when the supply of ‘chappals’ dried up. It was sometimes difficult to make both ends meet, he told me, but he was watching an old Hindi film on a rather run down black and white television set when I went to interview his wife.

The population is largely made up of immigrants from different parts of the country, namely Tamil Nadu, UP, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat. Maharashtrians too form a significant proportion of the population. And it truly is a secular place with 40% Muslims. Most of them are on daily wages. They include scrap dealers, potters, collectors and sorters of plastic, those involved in ‘papad’ making, printing,
garment exports and making of leather products. Usually a single community controls an industry. The largest number of households is employed in pottery making and export of garments.

The narrow, labyrinthian lanes are seemingly difficult to negotiate but there is a method in the madness. The only eyesores are the open drains and women sitting washing clothes in the narrow lanes outside their homes. The ‘houses’ inside are ordered and clean. As I walked the narrow lanes the fresh aroma of cooking reminded me of home. I saw a housewife cooking the evening meal of rice, ‘dal’ and brinjals. The sight of hot ‘chapattis’ made me hungry. I could hear little children asking for ‘sabzi’ and ‘roti’. The mothers spoke to me happily as they kneaded the dough.

It is another world out there – on second thoughts, is it? The motivations are the same from Malabar Hill to Dharavi. A population of half to one million (varying estimates) – offering so many marketing opportunities.