Incredible India, Controlled Chaos

Mumbai, India (Part 1 of 3)

Hands. Hundreds of millions of Indian hands, providing virtually free labor, power this complex, contradictory country.

A man rows his boat across the harbor in Mumbai as dawn breaks.

Dawn breaks over Mumbai harbor revealing a man rowing his boat, skirting the anchored ferries. The harbor opens to the Arabian Sea.

In the ninth century, Chola rulers commanded their people to carve granite into towering temples in Tamil Nadu, the southeastern Indian state. In the 21st century, Indian hands created the newest temple, a 27 story private home in South Mumbai for the country’s richest man. A skyscraper hanging over a slum. Inspecting the ancient ruins, the working and living conditions seemed better 1300 years ago.

India’s hands doggedly perform both the dangerous task of scavenging and separating garbage and the intricate work of artisans fashioning the delicate luxuries the developed world demands.

Most of these hands live in squalid conditions without  sanitation — Mumbai’s toilet seat-to-human ratio is one-to-600 — or clean air to breathe. Without these hands, India could not function and the developed world would not have cheap fashion or car parts.

An alleyway in the Dharavi Slum in Mumbai where an estimated 300,000 to one million people live. This so-called informal economy creates millions of dollars in goods much of it will be center to the U.S. and Europe.

An alleyway in the Dharavi Slum in Mumbai where an estimated 300,000 to one million people live. This so-called informal economy creates millions of dollars in goods much of it will be sent to the U.S. and Europe.

Mumbai, which is tied in third place, with Mexico City and Sao Paulo, for most populated city in the world after Toyko and Dehli, is expected to top the rankings by 2050. Most people will continue to live in slums. In Dharavi, made famous in the movie Slumdog Millionaire, a long-established slum, we found Indians sitting in dark, airless, concrete, condo-sized storage lockers sorting plastic. Tiny blue bits from tinier clear bits.

Mumbai produces 9,000 tonnes of scrap per day, and 7,000 tonnes is reclaimed. Collected in bags, carried on backs and pulled in hand carts.

“Everything in India is reincarnated,” says our guide, Hemali Talsania, of Bravo Bombay, a scientist-turned-entrepreneur, specializing in revealing the real Mumbai. “It looks haphazard,” she says, “but it’s organized.”

Next to the plastic recycling stalls, old tires are melted, the rubber is poured into molds. The man in this concrete tomb, operates a wood press. The long hard muscles across his shoulders tighten, as his hands squeeze rubber into shiny black gaskets bound for the United States. No machine. No robot. Human power only.

Next door, men sit hunched over bronze souvenir coins. Calloused fingers carving and polishing with small razors.

Gnarled Indian hands sew pin-sized crystals onto saris and ball gowns. Bare hands dunk leather into toxic vats of dye.

In this denim factory in the Dharavi slum, this man is sewing panels together to create jeans.

In this denim factory in the Dharavi slum, this man is sewing panels together to create jeans.

Pedal and hand-power sewing machines whir in the dim light, creating jeans from stacks of denim panels. We saw one computer-assisted operation in the slum. The machine was embroidering women’s tunics.

An Indian entrepreneur is creating a marketplace on the Internet for the slum’s skilled craftsmen.

Wandering down an alleyway, the pungent air, a mixture of cow dung and rotting garbage, was pierced by a sweet smell and a whirring sound that took me back to my childhood. Ink. Ink from a Gestetner machine, a 1960s mimeograph. This relic, a man’s entire business, was furiously spitting out printed pages.

On Mumbai’s streets, heavy construction is handmade. Shirt-less, barefoot men swing sledge hammers, pulverizing concrete, preparing the way for new pipes.

In air conditioned Fab India, a well-known department store featuring traditional Indian fashion and textiles, “white-collar” hands shuffle paper. Five people work the checkout. Using carbon paper, receipts are issued in triplicate next to the credit card machine. One inspects the merchandise, one folds it, one writes the bill, another swipes my credit card, asks me to sign and hands me my copy of the receipt. On the opposite counter, the last person demands to see the receipt, the same one that was handed to me by the person standing two feet away from him. Then he relinquishes his grip on my souvenirs.

In the Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai’s open-air laundromat — dhobi is the word for washer and ghat refers to a washing place, historically a river — 3,000 pairs of arms smack clothing against concrete. The ancient laundromat’s infrastructure, like India, is simple and complex. And made by hand.

Clothing is slapped on concrete to clean it. A human agitator.

A hereditary Dhobi, a clothing washer, slaps clothing on concrete in Mumbai’s ghat to clean it. A human agitator.

Dirty clothing is collected daily, including our bundle from the Hotel Suba Palace, and shuttled to the ghat, where each piece of clothing is tagged with string and masking tape. Our tags had Suba 106, the hotel and room number, written on it. The clothing is divided by color and type — there are also specialists for silks and chiffons — whites to one section, denim to another, reds to another and the process begins.

The pressing room at the Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai. All clothing, including t-shirts and underwear, is returned to its owner hand pressed.

The pressing room at the Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai. All clothing, including t-shirts and underwear, is returned to its owner hand pressed.

“The Dhobi’s,” says Hemali, “do not believe that even in 100 years that machines will put them out of work.” There are a few rudimentary tumble machines, one with a 1960s looking computer-like panel and some spin dryers for the denim.

A washer’s life, and job, is designated by birth. There are schools in the ghat for both boys and girls, but only a man can be a washer. And most washers believe that if you are born a washer, you will die a washer and your sons will be washers. Wives wash their washer-husband’s clothes. There are 2,000 support jobs, pickup, tagging, sorting, drying, ironing, folding, packaging clean clothes in white paper, tied with a string, and return delivery.

This arduous job pays $5 a day for a 14 hour day with a few hours off on Sunday.

Our next stop is the Sassoon Docks, built in 1875, one of the few docks open to the public, where fishing boats are readying for the next voyage. Three tonnes of ice is dumped into each hold, roaring down a canvas chute held in place by a half dozen men. While the Dhobi’s live where they work, the fishers’ women walk 30 to 45 minutes to the docks from the slum, to clean shrimp, earning $2.40 per day, not enough to put a child in school. The fishers earn up to $15 per day.

Human power operates the Sassoon Docks. Fish and supplies are ferried by hand carts.

Human power operates the Sassoon Docks. Fish and supplies are ferried by hand carts.

In the Dadar Flower Market, with its sweetly fragrant air overpowering noxious diesel, flower sellers, clutching bouquets of different sizes, live in the market area, under the overpass. An offering chain of marigolds fetches six cents. There are no kitchens, no toilets, no running water.

Stringing flower garlands in the Dadar flower market.

Stringing flower garlands in the Dadar flower market.

Lack of income does not discourage the poorest Indians from purchasing flowers to offer to their favorite god. In the slums, and the ghat, even on the street, Hemali says, luxury is buying beauty to share with one’s favorite god. Indians do it happily.

A simple marigold garland, a typical offering to an Indian god, is 10 rupees, about six cents. Our guide from Bravo Bombay told us that the poorest of Indians do not begrudge the money spent to make an offering.

A simple marigold garland, a typical offering to an Indian god, is 10 rupees, about six cents. Our guide from Bravo Bombay told us that the poorest of Indians do not begrudge the money spent to make an offering.

Educated, affluent Mumbaikers, admit Indian middle-class is hand-to-mouth. Maybe to protect themselves they hold a Pollyannish view of the co-existence between the many who have nothing and the few who have everything.

We found those at the bottom of the income scale less accepting of the widening income gap.

The taxi driver, a man in his 60s, who drove us to the airport, says he sees his wife and family every six months because they live 600 miles away in Tamil Nadu. He works in Mumbai to make money, likely sleeping in his car, to support them. He could barely contain his disgust with India’s richest man. He stopped his taxi below the infamous skyscraper, called home by Reliance Industries chief Mukesh Ambani. He insisted we get out of his taxi to appreciate its ridiculous size and photograph it.

This 27 story building is Mumbai's most controversial home. It was built by India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, and it cost more than $2 Billion. It looks down upon millions of Indians who live in slums.

This 27 story building is Mumbai’s most controversial home. It was built by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, and it cost more than $2 Billion. It looks down upon millions of Indians who live in slums.

“A photo, a photo,” he demanded. “Five people live in that house,” he complained. “The man, his mother, his wife and two children. More than five people live there.” He pointed at hovels and a small cinder block building of 250 square foot apartments across the road.

A tour car driver told us that he and eight members of his family live in the Dharavi Slum in 250 square feet and pay $133 a month rent.

We heard the faint sound of change during our time in India. Indians with income, education and travel in their lives, say that expectations, attitudes and practices are changing. Slowly.

One married Indian man we met in Kerala, a Christian, who has lived in Europe, complains that women in India “are like slaves.”

“She looks after her parents, his parents, the children, the cooking, the washing and then she works,” he said. “The husband is a good Indian man. He does nothing.”

We heard surprising attitudes about arranged marriages. One of our drivers was quick to clarify that his daughter, studying accounting in Chennai, had an arranged marriage not a love marriage.

But a tour guide in Mamallapuram, said he had five daughters, and supported five love marriages. “I am a poor man,” he told me. “I have no government job, no pension. I only have money when there are tourists.”

The cost was prohibitive for him, he said, so he became an enlightened Indian man.

Issues familiar to Westerners are percolating to the surface — income inequality and political powerlessness.

Foreigners who live and work in India say corruption continues to plague the country. Educated Indians are frustrated by their inability to create real change.

Twice our car was stopped by police in Trichy, an industrial city in Tamil Nadu. It was election day, and police were looking for cash being brought into the city to buy votes.

According to the New York Times, India is booming, growing at seven percent a year while China and Brazil and other developing nations are lagging. India’s potential is enormous, but it’s problems equally horrendous.

Tourists at the beach in Kerala see human poop in the sand. More than half the country has no access to toilet facilities. Education levels are low. Wages are too little to pay for school. Garbage lines the roadways, even in Kerala which has an active “avoid plastic, save the earth” sign campaign. Choking brown air hangs in the cities. Highways are clogged with trucks, buses, cars, motorized and hand-pulled rickshaws, motor scooters, bicycles, elephants and people. Residents along the National Highway outside Coimbatore commandeer portions of the lane way to dry their rice. The Internet is unreliable. And everyone, from the very young to the very old, works at something.

In New Dehli’s local February elections Prime Minister Modi’s party was decimated by the upstart AAP, in a result that shocked and thrilled another taxi driver. This new leader, yet again, campaigned to fight corruption. He now carries Indian hopes and dreams with him.

Our eyes stinging, our throats raw after three days in Mumbai’s dense, smoky haze, we headed south to Kerala, where we found a unusual recipe for capitalism.

Gallery: Mumbia, India

6 thoughts on “Incredible India, Controlled Chaos

  1. Thank you for the incredibly informative post. I couldn’t bare to visit there since the smells would have me gagging and sick to my stomach. What is ‘an enlightened Indian man’ quoted in your post?

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    • Thanks Toni. The enlightened Indian man is our tour guide at Mammallapuram. He’s enlightened because in a culture which still promotes arranged marriages, he says he let all five of his daughters choose their own husbands. The decision relieved him of the economic responsibility that goes along with arranged marriages.

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  2. A tremendous insight into how things really are away from the luxurous hotels. It is amazing how many people go to an area like this and see only the “touristy” spots.

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