Beyond Slumdog Millionaire: Discovering the Dharavi Slum with Mystical Mumbai

Dharavi Slum visited with Mystical Mumbai

Made famous by the film Slumdog Millionaire, Mumbai’s sprawling shantytown of Dharavi is much more than as “personified” in the hit movie. Bordering in the neighborhoods of Sion, Bandra, Kurla and Kalina, it was founded in 1882 during the era of British rule. It now covers an area of 1.7 km² and is home to 600.000 to a million people, making it the second largest slum in the world and the biggest of Asia. A city within a burgeoning city, I was fortunate enough to discover this important piece of the Mumbai puzzle on a fascinating tour by Mystical Mumbai, a collective of a local resident students trying to show the real spirit of their community while at the same time giving back.

Nikesh, a student guide of Mystical Mumbai

The company was started in 2013 by Sailesh Jethva who came up with the idea as a means of  university paying for university. Today he’s working on his Ph.D. in Chemistry and has a team of 12 guides, all university students living in slum and getting through their studies thanks to income earned from the tours, like Nikesh, Sailesh’s brother pictured above who led my tour. They also donate their time to an after school program which is subsidized by a portion of the profits of the tours (more on this below).

Meeting outside a subway station next to the slum, our tour started with observing the vastness of the community from the heights of the train tracks overpass: a sea of tin roofs interrupted by the occasional temple or mosque tower, underneath which flows the spirit of a strong community. In fact, the tour is focused on illustrating the resilience of its residences as well as the income generating side of Dharavi, in an effort to break the out-dated or false stereotypes of the area, exemplified in popular culture like in Slumdog Millionaire.

Dharavi is abuzz with a number of different grassroots industries. As we walked through the narrow laneways we got to witness the various industries that fuel the area’s economy like pottery, plastic recycling and production of quality leather goods.  knowing what was going on, it might seem like the community was piled high in “garbage,” yet much of these masses of bags are items to awaiting repurposing. Small workshops line sectors of streets where you might observe the transformation of tires into building materials, the renewal of TV sets and giving new life to a broken wheely suitcase. Since many of these workshops employ women, it assists with their empowerment.

snacks during Mystical Mumbai tour

About halfway through the tour we stopped in a very local bar for a snack and beer. This was a nice chance to get to know Nikesh, hear his views of the community, daily life, as well as his aspirations and fun stories of his life in a general way. It’s not often that visitors to a destination can have this personal connection and learning directly from locals is always the best way to truly understand a destination.

We proceeded to venture deeper and deeper into Dharavi, the lanes becoming smaller and darker. There’s no way an outsider would be able to navigate these alone. Nikesh pointed other things out that one mightn’t normally notice, like the water pipes which run all the sides of the streets, bringing running water to the houses, albeit reduced to a few hours of set times per day.

Dharavi Slum after school program with Mystical Mumbai

At the end of our tour we stopped into their after school program which is also an NGO, Support Dharavi, created four years ago with the help of Paolo and Francesca Landolfi, an Italian couple who discovered the plight of the area’s youth and their reduced access to education. They now welcome 85 students, offering free computer lessons, English classes (which I spied on) and different school and college subjects. A percentage of all tour revenue goes towards supplies for the program and donations can also me made directly through website here.

Their Dharavi tour was both insightful and informative. It’s a great way to explore a different side of Mumbai, to see the real life of this community and make a difference. In addition to this tour, Mystical Mumbai offers other private tours of Mumbai and day trip excursions in nearby sites of interest. The price for the two hour tour is 2,500 for a group tour and 7,000 for a private tour. Tours can be booked directly on their website here or contact Shailesh directly with any questions (shailesh@mysticalmumbai.com).

I was a guest of Mystical Mumbai, however, all of the opinions expressed above are my own.

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