Having been born and raised in Europe, the life in the slums of Mumbai always seemed a far away mystery.
Ever since I started traveling the world three years ago, I read many travel books and memoirs. One of the best books I've read was Shantaram, written by a fugitive who escaped prison in Australia by traveling to India and living in Mumbai for many years. He spent a few years living in the slums of Mumbai and wrote a lot of breath-taking stories about the dwellers' daily life, relationships with one another and outlook on the life outside.
Ever since I read that book, I wanted to spend at least a few days exploring the very places I had read about and started planning the trip. Eventually I found a guy who was born and raised in the slums and he agreed to show me around for two full days.
We spent all of our time walking to as many places as we could while having quick food-stops on the way. Those days were some of the most interesting and mind-opening days in my life, which made me realize these three things:
1. The slums are a planet functioning on their own
The slums of Mumbai are a something one can hardly find elsewhere in the world. They are busy, messy, crowded, yet structured and beautiful in a way. They look chaotic and would not appeal to some young professional couple looking for an ordered environment in which to safely raise their children. It is a common anecdote in Mumbai that bureaucracies cover their mistakes by saying they can't locate people living in the slums. And yet, these notices are somehow regularly delivered by the postman.
2. Not everyone is living in total poverty
As you would expect, a lot of people are living in poor conditions without running water, electricity, in-house bathrooms and stuff like that. However, it's not everyone. Most of the slums are technically an illegal settlement, which had been built for the construction workers' families to live in who were building some fancy buildings nearby. Eventually people had to set off, but most didn't because they had houses and other possessions they wouldn't give up. These days quite a few of those people are running their own profitable businesses, have TVs, cars, motorbikes, electricity and sometimes even flats or houses in other areas of Mumbai or India. I personally know people who have created profitable businesses online, but still live in the slums because they had been born and raised there. They even go on vacations!
3. Slum dwellers are extremely friendly people
One of the main things that struck me was how friendly most people were towards me. Most of them wanted to interact with me, ask questions and smile at me. Every time I'd ask whether I could film them, most of them were more than happy to pose for me, some even sang or showcased their rap skills. When I went to a barber to shave my beard, he was very interested in where I came from, why I was walking around the slums, where I'll be going next and pretty much everything else.
I guess one could expect that people from the slums will be friendly towards a white outsider. However, in quite a few places in India they'll be interested in you because they want to sell something to you. But in the slums I felt none of that. They simply wanted to interact with me, play games with me and show me their surroundings.
After those few days I felt mentally exhausted from everything that I've seen. Some of it felt very weird, some sad, some happy and inspiring. Even though I did find answers to a lot of the questions I had had, I left with even more questions. That's why I'm sure I'll definitely be coming back in the future.