Shekar led our pack as we crisscrossed the alleyways of Dharavi, which was known as Asia’s largest slum until another zhopadpatti in the Northern suburbs won the dubious title some two years ago. The narrowness of the walkways, of course shared by pedestrians, motorbikes, children playing cricket and vegetable vendors, belie the grandeur of Dharavi and almost successfully conceals that this 1.7 square kilometer patch of land is home to over one million inhabitants. The bustling of the place is unmissable: women prepare dough to make bread for export in the U.K., men stitch clothes frantically, potters go at their craft, and cobblers dry leather to be distributed across Mumbai, formerly named Bombay.
After braving the crowd and witnessing Shekar dodge inquires from at least a dozen curious acquaintances, we finally reached the 22 year-old man’s house. Immediately, I was impressed with Shekar’s living arrangement. He is the sole occupant this recently revamped first floor room, leaving him with an area of approximately 8×10 ft. to himself – a sheer luxury in a slum where many families have to cram six or seven people in rooms of that size.
When I was deeply absorbed in contemplating his bathroom, a rare and highly prized commodity in Mumbai squatter communities, a massive boom detonated, sending vibrations throughout the room. In shock, I turned around to see Shekar who hadn’t caused an explosion with a gas cylinder like I expected; he had merely decided to blast a tune casually titled “My Shit Bang” off his laptop-cum-stereo sound system!
I was awestruck, and probably as surprised as if a real shit bang had hit me. Listening to an eclectic mix of hip-hop, Spanish songs, and Tamil tunes off YouTube was quite simply an out-of-this-world experience. Although I firmly believe squatter communities are replete with creativity, ingenuity and resourcefulness –an oddity of the mind according to most middle-class Mumbaikars – I had yet to imagine 1 Mbps broadband connections broadcasting YouTube in Dharavi.
Jaw back in place, I glanced at all Shekar’s possessions kicking around the room. Amid the laptop, stereo, home temple, Maestro Financial Card, iPod, SLR camera, clothes, one thing stood out as missing: a bed. There was and still is no bed in Shekar’s room. Misplaced priorities?
Affording the luxury of a laptop and a broadband connection would strike virtually any Western observer as poor decision-making at best, and blatant irresponsibility at worst. After a few minutes of pondering over this situation, I realized Shekar is shrewd when it comes to economics; my assumptions about necessity and extravagance were hopelessly erroneous.
After all, who has ever made money owning a personal bed? With the exception of prostitutes, exactly no one. Owning a laptop, a stereo and a camera, however, carries significant weight in improving Shekar’s economic opportunities.
Years ago, Shekar developed a passion for taking pictures and became a photographer after he could get his hand on a Canon EOS 1DS camera working for a foreigner interested in gathering images of Dharavi. Using his laptop, which he initially used to edit footage of a project in which locals were taking pictures of tourists in Dharavi (instead of the other way around), he is able to edit, showcase and distribute his pictures on the Internet.
Having his equipment available and investing 750 Indian Rupees ($13.65) per month for broadband allows him –when he does choose to receive his Skype calls- to get video, translation and tour guiding gigs from foreign-based clients. Recently, the payoffs reached new heights: the talented photographer was invited to exhibit his works in a Berlin art gallery this April, with a hefty 5,000 euros grant as an enticement.
While excited and flattered by the invite, Shekar nevertheless remains torn; an opportunity to work on ships in Malaysia is also looming in the horizon. “It’s not as exciting and it won’t make me famous like going to Berlin would, but it’s a fixed and regular salary and that’s important for my sister and my mother”, he says looking out the window and glancing at the sprawling slum he has taken affection to.
This next two pictures are taken from the sample of Shekar’s work is available here, on his Flickr Photostream.