Barely five minutes into the tour, and we knew that we weren’t their target audience. A clueless (and underage) guide who should have been attending lectures in college at the time, a smartly planned itinerary where issues like child labour and basic hygiene were sidestepped, and a (very) clear intent to woo the fair-skinned Westerner with the sympathy card were all on display.
Years before the Slumdog Millionaire wave had hit the West, slum tourism was making early inroads into Dharavi. So, a few days back, when we read that a tour company that promotes such tourism had won an international award for running a sustainable tourism business, we weren’t surprised entirely. The obsession with a certain India seems to continue, clearly.
One recalls, how at the start of our tour, we were treated to plenty of incorrect information. The ill-equipped guide doled out mispronunciations, got his geography all mixed up, and wasn’t aware of certain basics about the city. The non-Indians in the six-member tour party were lapping it up, nevertheless. Once we reached our destination, there was more of the ‘show’. The dialogue delivery subtly tugged at the heartstrings, and purse strings too. Frames that included snot-faced children, emaciated cattle and gutters were key pit stops to these trigger-happy folk. At one stop, a woman who sold papads for a living, nearly shooed away the guide, explaining angrily to him (in Marathi) that the last time he brought these ‘phoren log’, their photographs had reached a certain authority leading to the end of a neighbour’s livelihood (nobody wants to eat papads that are made in a slum, right?). At another point, when one of our group members enquired about leather tanneries and child labour, the guide brushed it aside, saying that such cases weren’t around any more. Throughout the tour, the guide kept dropping claims about the support that their group had offered to people in these slums.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a tirade to shove things under the carpet about Dharavi or stop people from saluting the spirit and the drive that keeps this place running despite the odds and the large-scale poverty. India is a free country, and hence, everyone is entitled to earn their livelihood through rightful means. Marketing poverty is one thing, but to portray a sanitized, rehearsed version reeks of an insipid game plan.
This recent acknowledgment at a global level is reaffirmation that even today, many sections of the West retain the imagery for India as a place filled with poverty, and glorified versions of it. But surely, there’s more to India. It might be interesting to gauge whether Dharavi’s residents are elated with this recognition. Until this perception gets balanced out in a well-rounded manner, and we hope it’s in this lifetime, skewed frames (and mindsets) will remain. So will the idea of Mumbai, and India too?
The writer is Features Editor of mid-day