In late September, I finally found myself in India, wandering the streets of Kolkata and Mumbai; camera at the ready, getting to know people along the late wet season laneways. I visited the slum from the novel Shantaram, and the slum from the film Slum Dog Millionaire. Penned by Australian author, Gregory David Roberts, I had read Shantaram, and like many, absolutely fell into each page. I didn’t want to read the next of the four books in the series until I had returned from Mumbai, and post release of my very own story on the streets of Colaba, Shantaram’s haunts. So I started The Mountain Shadow just two days ago, and it too is brilliant! However, my main reason for traveling to the subcontinent was to gain a better understanding of the poor treatment of India’s women, while acknowledging the kindness of many of its men.
You can read my free picture-story ‘AS LIFE GOES BY IN INDIA’ by web-searching: ‘Ian Browne Academia.’ Below is part of the chapter on the slums of Mumbai:
Visiting the slum from Shantaram: I stood on the outside of the Navy Nagar Slum, made famous in the novel Shantaram. As I watched goats feed on heaped debris, I wondered if this was the vacant lot adjacent to the slum where Shantaram, and his close friend the Iranian gangster, Abdullah Taheri, fought a pack of savage dogs. Groups of men and children sat along the ruined concrete fence line, overlooking the wasteland of human refuse, as children moved towards me, willing me to take their picture. This was a day that would make my heart sing high, the journey through this slum the highlight of my trip to India.
I stopped to take a photo of two gorgeous children, their siblings being washed by mum as she proudly smiled at the moment caught on my camera. This slum, where Johnny Depp, Madonna and even Oprah Winfrey had wandered through with Shantaram himself, would completely enchant me. I had a personal guide for the day, and I would be the only Westerner in the slum that morning, so I relinquished the friendly attention I received. Much of Shantaram’s story is fact, but the sections I thought to be too far-fetched, yet not impossible, I discovered were from the author’s imagination. Shantaram is a novel, not an autobiography, after all. I visit the Laundromat, the middle-aged gentleman kind and happy. Next stop would be the extensive courtyard where they dry the community’s laundry, which I remember immediately from the novel. I asked my guide before we made our way into this coastal slum if I should reframe from sharing my cash with the inhabitants, he stated “yes”. There was no begging in the slum, no humbug at all, but a group of young boys cheekily sung out “money!” from the courtyard. I also asked my barefoot guide if he thought my sharing of dosh with the poor of Colaba was the wrong thing to do. He replied gracefully: “It’s from your heart, your choice.” As we entered Shantaram’s slum, I also enquired if it was safe here, more curious than concerned. His reply; “These people are already ruined; there is no need to cause you any harm.”
I am excited as I look around the slum and its colourful laneways, hanging fabrics, places of business, and people waving to me from small abodes along sheltered laneways. This is the actual place where a fire swept through, killing many, and where the vile spreading smell of faeces attributed to a cholera outbreak, all occurred. Men dig in black soil under the large paving blocks within the narrow pathway running along the empty allotment, hoping to clear drainage areas of the late monsoon downpours. The air smells clean. My camera tries its best to capture moments in the bright lights along the laneways within the slum, as the grey haze of wet season fogged its way into each shot, spoiling any sense of quality. I stop to grab each moment but wish I can stay longer to chat to people who approach me with their gentle smiles, wishing to grace me. It is a beautiful feeling to be so welcomed into a place that captured my all when reading about Shantaram’s life here.
We stop outside a cottage perched beside a small laneway, meandering away from sight and into the front porch of home. Besides the home and cottage as the laneway opens into light is a tree and a small Hindu prayer site. This is where I would meet Shantaram’s friends. The Khare family also run tours here themselves, and to other regions depicted within the novel, they are indeed the real ticket item suggested as the family that looks out for the one-time Australian advertising-media man turned criminal. The wee cottage is where Shantaram sent himself into a drug-state- slumber to escape from his emotional pain, the prayer site is where he slept under the tree …I’m guessing during the dry season anyway, as the ground is very damp here by the harbour. The Khare family do not gloss over anything; they share the warts-n- all of Shantaram’s stay, no bollocks entered into! Through stages of his life, Shantaram was a druggie, plain and simple, and this is where he laid his weary bones to escape life’s torments. I am sad to hear that the lady Shantaram so dearly loved in the novel, Karla, too was a junky (no disrespect to people suffering from drug addiction meant here) where she died on Mumbai’s streets during the AIDS epidemic of the late 80’s. I have seen television shows portraying this sad event, where a woman nabbed from the streets of Bengal is forced into prostitution in Mumbai, and left to live out her dying days from AIDS in a cardboard box in the street! Is there no justice in this world?
Invited to chai, I ask Shantaram’s friend, who features in the book himself, and whose brother Prabaker is Shantaram’s loyal entourage throughout the novel, if the small cottage next to his house is where Shantaram slept with his first aid kit, acting as a nurse in a slum clinic while treating his newly extended family. Sadly, Prabaker did die in similar circumstances as suggested in the novel, and as to my question about the kit, his brother replies: “The first aid kit was stolen along with his guitar.” On the Wikipedia Shantaram page, it states that the clinic never happened; so perhaps the kit was real, but not the noble act of treating others. “Is this the place (cottage) where Shantaram lived?” I am told that he lived in many places within the slum, dossing wherever he could. Perhaps due to his numb state, he may well have slept out under the tree in monsoon deluge, after all.
A large Alsatian arrives down the short laneway from the Khare home with a small boy. The dog is old and his hips have almost given up on him. The father calls out to the small boy who had returned inside once again, arriving back with a large photograph of Shantaram. In the photo the much younger Alsatian is on a leash being held by Shantaram, it was taken at least ten years earlier. Shantaram looks to be about 40, and is as tall as me, but bulked in muscle and dressed in black shiny clothes and army boots. A dangling gangster style key-ring coils down from beneath his tight-fitting silk shirt. Later, I would curse myself for not taking a photo of this step back in time. In the photograph, he is a probably a few years younger than I am today. Though Shantaram is ten or so years older than me, he looks oddly familiar. He also looks different to the photo taken of him, the one being represented in the book. I’m a gypsy, I move about a lot, so people always look familiar to me, and they usually are!
I want to see where a very peculiar moment takes place on Shantaram’s first morning in the slum. The site from where this takes place looks nothing like how I had envisaged it to be. In fact, the view I had built up in my mind was more reminiscent of the sea wall out the front of the Taj Mahal Hotel, just down from the Gate of India, in Colaba. Anyway, this very amusing event (don’t judge me here please) was when all the children in the slum wished to watch Shantaram pass his morning ablutions from the sea wall. I hope they all got over this after the first morning. However, in the dim-hazy light, I found the spot a great place to take in the character of the ocean view. An amusing rooster, typical crows, and busy geese, all merge amongst the marine tip which the tide laps upon. The stone shipway foundation, now a walkway, leading out into the ocean, grabs my interest and the whole area nestled amongst the Indian navy docks must be worth a mint. My guide points up to a high rise block beyond the slum, stating that it’s where Shantaram is coerced by the seductive Karla into a transaction with the Mumbai Mafia, high above the night-filled docklands. I know the moment well, having wondered where this building might be. All in all, the views here by the ocean ain’t – ‘alf’- bad, even more so if the sun was out!
A group of boys are aching to be photographed, and I am happy with the shot, as are they. I show the boys a photograph of a Hindu lady peering out from a dark prayer room along the side of the slum, and one child proudly announces “mother!” On return, passing by the Khare family home, the large dog now seems intent on either having me for breakfast, or at least winding up the tourist disrupting his day, and is lead back in doors. I snap away at the morning ritual of young women carrying vessels upon heads, filling them from communal water wells – as spoken of in the book. I am mortified when a trio of interesting Hindu women, all in garb and red-dot foreheads, pass me with the tall steel water-filled canisters above their heads. This would have been priceless, but they pass by, and it is too rude to push past others along the narrow, water-sodden concrete tiles, to race in front of the ladies, recapturing the moment.
Cute kids in freshly-worn school uniforms, ready to leave the slum for the day, as more young folk head my way with their big smiled welcomes, hoping for a chat. I feel so loved and wish to stay for a spell as my eyes stray down a laneway; the flashing lights, tall fire sticks, and music, anticipating the coming Diwali and other Hindu festivals leading up to the ‘festival of lights’. Yes, the homes are tiny, but the community spirit is infectious, and how it must feel to leave such a loving community! Yet the developers do wish to remove such places where the poor in monetary wealth, yet rich in culture, must live, condemning them to the isolation of council tenancy, dispelling any sense of identity, while the ‘fat cats’ build their high-rise office space and luxurious hotels. The National Sample Survey Organization surveys of 2008-09, state there are 49,000 slums in India, and the “beautification and seizure of urban land for real estate, industrial or retail projects, or for building infrastructure” has led to an acceleration of slum evictions. There exist slum eviction boards, where the middle-class believe that crime runs rampant in India’s slums. A good example of the cultural and economic harmony occurring within the slums in India can be seen in Kevin McCloud’s series related to this topic, showing families and their businesses working in harmony, in a nurturing community environment, albeit the open sewers running past toddlers playing!
It has been suggested within some circles in Indian that the slums are “dens of crime and squalor which threaten both social peace and public health.” This has been ‘hugely exaggerated’ where the Dalits and other low castes are victimised to line the pockets of the ‘globalised’. Though I am not a stranger to Asia’s pungent moments, my olfactory received a hefty dose from time to time, even seeing me subtly dry-reaching in a Kolkata marketplace. However, without sounding too mean, as they were harmless enough, but the strangest thing I saw during my short time in India was by the expensive hotels in Colaba, where a seriously wealthy English couple; 20 something’s, the lily-white woman wearing brown paisley sari-Hindu wear, the man dressed ever so pleasantly, as if readying himself for a fetching 1940’s riparian dally of croquet-n- OD of cucumber-a- Red Leicester sandwiches.