Located in the centre of Mumbai and characterized by its heart shape when viewed from above, Dharavi is commonly referred to as ‘the heart of Mumbai.’ And sure enough it’s not difficult to see why it’s been honoured with such a title. With its commercial production informally adding millions and millions to India’s economy each year, (Dharavi’s businesses account for annual production of approximately $665,000,000 worth of goods annually), work in Dharavi is not only a vital lifeline for it’s residents, it’s an economic powerhouse in it’s own right.
For me however, what earns Dharavi it’s title as ‘the heart of Mumbai’ is not it’s economic contributions nor is it its physical shape. For me, Dharavi deserves this title because of the people that live within its walls.
Amongst all the extremities of a poverty stricken environment that exists in Dharavi, the dirt, the waste, the utter hardship, what was evident to me was what the residents lacked in material and facilities, they made up with heart. What stood out for me more than anything else was what these people shared; a real, genuine, unshakable and undeniable sense of community, or what I like to call ‘bonds of the heart.’
This spirit of community is something that, in my opinion, is lacking in most big cities, particularly in the West. In London for example, where I grew up, there seems to be a prevailing culture, particularly amongst the youth that glorifies an attitude of isolation. Comments such as ‘it’s me against the world’, ‘you can’t trust any-one’ and ‘I have to watch my own back’ are commonly spoken.
And I am not here to say that this attitude isn’t justified. That people don’t have a reason to think like this. What I am saying is that it is a damn shame. A shame because I believe that this attitude is built on the false premise that all we really have to depend on in life is ourselves.
As people we are sociable beings and aren’t made to exist in isolation. To quote a famous English poet John Donne, ‘no man is an Island.’ I believe that as people we aren’t designed to just look out for ourselves. We can’t function wholly nor be our best self without others.
Dharavi is a place where human spirit radiates and triumphs over all. There is a shared sense of hardship and the struggle of a single individual is the struggle of many. If a person’s wealth was attributed to kindness and hard work, then the residents of Dharavi would all be rich.
Before I left for my first visit to India I met a stranger in a post office in London. An elderly immigrant man from India whom I told about my upcoming trip to India. With a sweet smile on his face he told me that he wanted me to do something for him. Dubiously, I asked him what this was. In a voice so warm he replied, ‘find out why they still smile’. I didn’t quite understand what this man was talking about at the time, but standing amongst the squalor of Dharavi, the heart of Mumbai, I think that I’m starting to get it.