Desert Traditions
…where new journeys into life, tradition & culture begin

A Community by any Other Name

I missed the first screening of Kevin McLeod picking his way through Dharavi – the community thrust into the limelight by ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. I did not see it because I was in India at the time and if local reactions were anything to go by I had no desire to chase it down. However curiosity eventually got the upper hand and I recently watched the rerun of both episodes. The movie irked me enough but not nearly as much as this story which from the outset seemed obsessed by ‘shit’ – the most emphasised (and perhaps the most repeated) word in the program. I have visited Daharavi several times over the past few years, initially because I have an interest in waste management and then to meet the ‘kumbars’ from Gujarat – the potters who continue their village traditions in the midst of the megalopolis. Besides, I’ll  take any opportunity to improve my less than average Gujarati.

When I first visited Dharavi it was in the company of one of the partners of Reality Tours in Colaba. Krishna led me into the community, not over precarious pipes, waterways clogged with sewage and tracts of waste but off a main street where we squeezed through narrow residential laneways and into the recycling zone. Nor was I confronted with children openly defecating. I am sure they do, just as I know there are tracts of putrescent waste and raw sewage at Dharavi’s edges but I have little recollection of its stench. I do recall acrid industrial fumes and the smell of freshly baked goods and most of all I recall neatly uniformed children streaming out of small dwellings and setting off for school; of drinking chai in a tiny, spick and span room with no space to spare and of discovering the myriad ways in which the metropolis’ waste is reused and recycled. My last visit was a few months back when I went alone to visit textile workers – no hassles encountered.


The spread of the horizontal between the vertical.
Flying into Mumbai.

The tour groups I take into Mumbai are offered the option to visit Dharavi with the Reality team who use profits to support literacy and vocational training programs. To date no tour member has turned down the opportunity and on a certain level it is gratifying to witness western preconceptions blown away by something as consciousness-changing as Dharavi. Of course I have concerns – I am under no delusions about the realities of the place – the sheer population density, unregulated industrial practices and lack of all the amenities we take for granted are daunting. Yet by the end of his stay McLeod had also shifted his focus as he moved from an intimate encounter with a local family to discovering thriving commercial enterprises and along the way sensing the deeper connectedness that makes for community. And his real concerns about imminent human displacement on a grand scale are shared by many. It is a strange notion that wants to force the vertical dimension onto those who live on the horizontal plane. You can’t force a flat peg into a tall hole as western society knows only too well. Rural India has always infiltrated its cities at ground level, fitting in where it can between high-rise buildings, spreading along river banks, filtering into green zones and creating community as its inherent right.


All traces remain of a recently thriving community. Sarbamati River near Ellis Bridge. Nov 2010.

I recently witnessed the razing of a large riverbank settlement in Ahmedabad. In a sweeping gesture to beautify the Sarbamati river, which incidentally it is not – the water is diverted from the Narmada river, the government of Gujarat rolled in with bulldozers. In their wake lay a graveyard of broken homes and shattered lives – the underbelly of a city was scraped away in a few short hours.


Servicing the wider community on Sarbamati Riverbank.


Local industry on Sarbamati Riverbank.


Local community on Sarbamati Riverbank.

Gone now are the rope makers, dhobi wallahs, dyers, embroiders and menders of anything including my shoes. Gone too are the goats and chickens, festivals, religious occasions, music and the constant whisps of blue smoke from cooking fires. They are no more. Instead we will have a clear view of high concrete walls designed to withstand the least likely flood levels, a busy parallel road, a dusty expanse of earth embedded with the remains of a community and the lure of luxury living in waterfront developments. I hear that the displaced are to be housed in high-rise dwellings far removed from the banks that sustained them.


Children of the riverbank.


Riverbank dream – a nightmare for some. New billboard Ahmedabad 2011.

In the meantime Dharavi, by all accounts, is well and truly discovered. Leading Indian designers recently held an innovative workshop in the community and a new design paradigm is in the making. In his blog (see, Delhi based designer Ishan Koshla refers to a ‘new language’ of patterning and that led me straight to my bookshelf and to a well thumbed tome.

‘We begin with that part of language which defines a town or community. These patterns can never be ‘designed’ or built in one fell swoop – but patient piecemeal growth, designed in such a way that every individual act is always helping to create or generate these larger global patterns, will slowly and surely, over the years, make a community that has these global patterns in it.’
From A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander et al.

So saying – may the one and the many deities that dwell in the heart of Dharavi bless the place and the people who create it’s patterns of community – piecemeal, by design or by necessity. I have no bigger solution.

All images © Carole Douglas – taken between 1998 and 2011.