Running and Slumming

Mumbai begins the day in the blues and grays of first light, a crisp backdrop to the city on its east side – or for those of you who live here, its “backside”. When the sun finally slips onto the horizon the skyline, a stretch of high rises to rival any city, glows in the pink hues of sunrise.  It’s an awesome sight.

It’s not my habit to see sunrises but Sunday I ran the Mumbai half marathon and it started particularly early at 6:15 – or before dawn.  It was difficult to see in the dark and for the first three kilometers I worried that I would trip or slip or miss a curb.  It felt like diving into the dark, without the free fall.

But it was soon light and I had a beautiful run along the Bandra-Worli extension bridge, a foray into the city, a stretch along Marine Drive and the Arabian sea.  I fell in step with a young man who refused to let me pass him.  I tried and he sped up so I followed him or ran next to him for most of the race.  We shared water and energy drinks and pushed each other up one side of a long hill and raced down the other side.  We even crossed the finish line together.   The end of a race gets chaotic and we slipped into our own pockets of friends or family.  Here we are on the final stretch:

I flew to Mumbai with little notice when someone dropped out of the race.  It was a bit freeing to run  anonymously in the open category – with no pressure to place well among old ladies.  My goal was to run strong (I did) and to pick-off every woman ahead of me. (I didn’t)


My step-mother is visiting for a month, volunteering in the Yardley house and getting out of it when she can.  Here we are after the race, showered and fed and on our way to tour the Dharavi slum:

I wanted to see the slum because I think it’s a good thing to remind myself that the world is more than a string of luxury hotels.  It’s the guilt of the privileged but also a genuine curiosity to understand the complexities of a place.

The Dharavi slum is just over one-square mile (1.75K) and houses one million people.  It’s one of the most densely populated places in the world.  You will recognize it for being the backdrop to the Oscar-winning movie, Slumdog Millionaire.

But Dharavi’s story is not necessarily a sad one.  It hums with worker bees, migrant workers tanning leather, dying fabric, recycling plastic, making pots, rolling poppadom.  In fact, it claims an annual GDP of 600-million USD.   There are several incredible facts about the place:

It is home to nearly an equal percentage of Muslims and Hindus. India has a poor history of Hindu-Muslim violence and to see both groups living  together in such challenging conditions is extraordinary.  There’s even a Hindu-Muslim-Christian temple with symbols honoring each religion.

The crime rate is very low. Most of the residents of Dharavi have jobs which afford them privilege among migrant classes.  The slum is organized by skill and production and workers from the same village tend to dominate one job.  There is a shared ethic to work hard and make money.  Crime gets in the way of this ethic and threatens the finely tuned balance of business and the nature of the slum.  The government recognizes that while Dharavi is a visual mar to the landscape of Mumbai, its existence provides a place for migrant workers to support themselves and to stay out of trouble.

According to the NGO that provided our tour, Dharavi has a 72-percent literacy rate, higher than the national average of 60-percent (ish).  Most of the children in Dharavi attend school and there are many organizations working to educate and empower the residents.

Dharavi looks Dickensian but the spirit of the place doesn’t seem as dark.  Shared productivity dominates the mood of the slum.  The simple factories and small businesses were busy, even on a Sunday afternoon.

The buildings are a  mix of ram-shackle and permanent all strung together with recycled material and corrugated tin.  Some of the alleyways are two-feet wide and you can’t stand straight because of pipes and wires and bits of building material.  Typical homes are six-feet by six-feet. Entire families or several renters live in one room.

The government owns the land in Dharavi but people own the buildings and the businesses.  It is a legal entity with postal codes, electricity, and 3-hours of running water a day.

Our tour guide asked us not to take photos to respect the residents.  It was difficult to follow this rule because I knew that my words alone wouldn’t be enough to describe the place. Here are three photos that I secretly snapped:

I would have preferred to take photos of the many beautiful faces that I saw working or playing or cooking or scrubbing.  The tour company said that it would email me photos.  If they arrive, I will share.


Photos of the week…  starting with the end of the race:


Barbara and I went on a stroll in Nehru Park and we found these ladies sitting in the noon sun:

We also found this guy.  He’s praying… naked.

And my core crew here in Delhi – Karen and Mark, the couple on the left made me a tasty, tasty Japanese birthday dinner:

3 thoughts on “Running and Slumming”

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