A question I have been asked often is – “What is working in Dharavi like?” Once you assume that there is no expectation of dreariness, it is quite a valid question.
At the risk of generalising, most “well-off” Indians don’t dream of working or even going to the infamous slum of Dharavi on a regular basis. I will argue that they spend their lives working hard so they’ll never have to live in the slums (if that makes sense). The aforementioned question is therefore valid.
To answer it, I will illustrate using an incident. This morning while making my way to our trusted restaurant for lunch, I became fascinated by the papad making industry in the open courtyard surrounded by homes. We pass this place regularly, but it always gets my attention. I quickly took out my phone to Google something about the industry and kept walking. Obviously, I bumped into a huge iron beam poking out of the foundation of the 2nd storey of a house. I may be under average height by global standards, but tall by Indian measures and therefore, I am supposed to bend while taking short cuts. I have known it forever, but looking into your phone while walking does deserve a punishment.
Anyway, while I grabbed by now-in-pain head and walked forward, I saw friendly faces with concerned looks on them. A peculiar thing of walking through the slums is at each particular time of the day it smells a little different. Usually during the first half of the day, I tend to find lot of detergent or soap bar aroma in the area. Mid-day ish I can smell food, and to an extent I can tell which region the family inside is from. And towards the end of day, it is sort of not a very pleasant smell.
One thing that never changes though is either smiling people standing at the gates chit-chatting with the neighbours, or people walking through, always with a demeanour of purpose. The walk finally ended with “Cheap Thrills” by Sia playing loudly from a house, and we reached the restaurant soon enough.
Another aspect of working in Dharavi is that I like to look at it as a “Privileged slum”. Through decades of focus it has received from government, NGOs and businesses, Dharavi is now rising upwards with multi-storey buildings and ambitions taking flight. I work at 3 different locations on different days of the week, and an Uber can get you right to the door of each one. There is no dearth of clean and hygienic eating places, and plenty of shops for all needs.
My favourite part about working in Dharavi is the immense burst of colours every day when I step into the place. Hundreds of people in their diverse style of clothing, bustling shops and buildings, animals and also overflowing garbage dumps. Somehow it makes the scene super vibrant. Personally, for me it is much more exciting and motivating than the sterile and perfect corporate buildings.
If you don’t believe me, I invite you to come see where I work 🙂
Suman Barua joined Reality Gives in September, having left a software engineering job to pursue his passion for helping others learn. He won a place at Harvard University to pursue a Masters degree in the field, and is now our Director of Education.