Alesha Wallabh: Gratitude, Community, Happiness = Dharavi

After two weeks of exploration and being confronted by many things, about myself and India. It was time to step into an experience I was most curious about; visiting Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia. As I have travelled to India in the past, I had preconceptions about what a slum looks, and feels like. Feels like in a sense that I was prepared to feel emotional, to see children walking up to me and asking for money, to see people selling handmade prints, and physically unable people also begging. My experience was far from what I had imagined it to be, and a place that someday, I will definitely revisit.

When we arrived at Dharavi we were split into six small groups and each group had a tour guide from Reality Tours in Dharavi. Immediately after walking in I felt a huge sense of gratitude and love surrounding me. I knew many other students were overwhelmed and some perhaps quite shocked, but for some reason, I could just sense joy, connection, and a strong sense of community here. I did notice the lack of sanitation, litter, poorly erected buildings, but the joy in the community was what stood out to me the most. We walked through dark narrow alleyways with powerlines hanging down, walked up narrow ladders to overlook the buildings, and walked across broken bricks and open drains. I don’t want what I have to say to sound like I didn’t experience it correctly but I also want to share truth in my experience. That I really did feel welcome here, women were sitting outside their homes talking to their neighbours, children were outside playing, I saw a group of young men sitting directly outside a temple all on their phones together, children ran past us, it felt like this is the way we should be interacting with each other but in the western world, our disconnection is becoming increasingly stronger than our connections.

There were different communities, there was a textile business area, a plastic recycling area, a leather area, and it really seemed to me like an industrial area. The more we walked the more I noticed the curiosity beaming through the eyes I locked with, the more I noticed the authenticity and love in the waves and the “hellos”, the more I realised that us coming into this place is accepted and perhaps even welcomed, it felt as though they wanted us to be apart of their world, even if only for a brief moment. We continued to walk through different communities. We walked through the Muslim community, then the Hindu, and then the Gujarati community. I remember stopping outside where women make pottery in the Gujarati community and locked eyes with a baby. I started to wave and giggle and make faces. The man then asked me “Can you speak Gujarati?” I replied and said “Yes”. He then told me that the women here speak Gujarati. Immediately I went over to the woman with the baby, she said “Say hi to your aunty”, in Gujarati and it was in that moment my heart felt whole. We had a small conversation and talked about where my family was from. We then continued through the slum and eventually ended up back at the hotel in which we awaited some residents from Dharavi to talk with us.

Baa (Grandmother) from Dharavi

After arriving back to the hotel from Dharavi, I sat in the hotel lobby and begun writing about my experience. I saw an older woman sitting across from me, I smiled and continued to write. One of the tour leaders asked me if I was the woman who spoke Gujarati, I replied and said yes. He then introduced me to this woman, whom we referred to as Baa out of respect, a word for grandmother.

Baa and I spent time together this evening sharing stories, giggling, talking in depth about truths, and most importantly, sharing authentic and unconditional love for each other. We had dinner together and she told me stories from her childhood and told me I must visit her someday. Baa works three jobs, she sells fish at the market, makes pottery, and as a labourer. She told me something that will always stick by me, she held my hand and said, all we need is hope, I don’t need anything from anyone but if I have hope then that’s all I need. It truly resonated with me, in a time where technology is disconnecting us, where people are beginning to feel more alone, where the pressures of society are eating us up, the presence is lost, our ability to remain patient and kind is diminishing quickly. It reminded me that giving all your unconditional love in all connections, small smiles and thank you’s at the cafe to long dinner conversations with the family, giving everything is something that I had forgotten for a long time. She held my hand and told me to revisit someday, and in my heart, I have never felt more sure in knowing that I would be back. It was the end to the day that I didn’t know I needed. It gave me so much to hold on to, hope, love, and a connection that I would never forget.

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