On my last day in Bombay I went with my flatmate on a guided tour of Dharavi, India’s most famous slum, featured prominently in Slumdog Millionaire. We walked around the industrial part seeing factories that make clothes and machinery, and then went to the Muslim residential quarter, and then the Hindu one. I had heard a lot about the slum, and had driven past them at different times, but nothing compares to walking through it in person, experiencing the smells, trying to fit through tight corners, and constantly being shocked at the lack of sanitation and safety standards.
After the slum tour we headed to Dhobi Ghat, the open air laundry where the majority of Bombay’s hospital, hotel, and personal clothes and sheets are washed. One of the dhobis (washers) showed us how they wash by hand, and some machines, and explained how when the hotel charges 50 rupees per item, they bring it there and pay about 3. As we left the laundry my flatmate suggested it would be quicker to take the local train, and since I had never been on it, I excitedly agreed. Though not as crowded as I would have expected- it wasn’t peak time- I was surprised that the doors stayed open throughout the entire ride. I took the opportunity to have my friend snatch a harrowing photo of me hanging out, as the real Bombayites do.
When we reached our neighborhood, Bandra, we headed to a local chemist who also acts as a blackmarket money exchanger. The rate he gave me, 56, is significantly closer to the real rate, 55, than what any airport forex offers- about 67. With my crisp and beautiful green U.S Dollars, my first in nearly a year, we headed back to our place and to the cab that was waiting to take me to the airport. I took a quick shower, spitting out the water that got into my mouth, as I had the past 10 weeks, and ran downstairs with my extremely overweight luggage. It was then back into the streets of Bombay and to the airport.
A huge part of my experience in Bombay has been the taxis. They have been my main vehicle for dealing with the sites, smells, congestion, and cheating that characterize the insane city. So I took my last drive in, looking at all the people doing so many things, yet nothing at all. I thought about what I had seen that morning, for so many their everyday life, for me, something to stick in at the last moment of a long stay, just so that I can claim I had done it, seen the ‘other side.’
I remembered how much the guide said the factory workers made each day- $1.50 to $2.50- depending on experience, and I thought about how that was less than what a beer costs at Phoenix Mills, the upscale mall in South Bombay. The night before, in celebrating the end of my internship with some colleagues, I had had four or more beers- almost a week’s salary of a Dharavi factory worker.
That thought reminded me of a recurring one I had constantly had in Bombay, and throughout my travels in developing and emerging economies: privilege, and how though it is strange to think that I frequent places like Phoenix Mills, and other luxury restaurant, clubs, and such while traveling, it is also silly to think that I wouldn’t. I would further that it is naïve, and emphasize a point that I often make about privilege- it is something that we must be aware of, but rather than letting it make us feel guilty and sad, we should have it inspire us to share that privilege with others.
In the work I try to do, and definitely in Bombay, I think I have done just that. True, I worked in management and strategy consulting, and many who hear that assume I’m selling out, but the firm I interned with is highly concerned with social impact, and though it is a constant struggle to ensure the work is meaningful, I do feel like I’ve helped others. Even more importantly, I’ve developed and honed a skill-set that will enable me to help increasingly more people, much more deeply. Both the attitude of wanting to help and the skills of how to help are necessary to make real change- one without the other leads to denial and inefficiency.
As all of these thoughts raced through my head as my cab slowly made its way to the airport, I felt relaxed and proud of what I had accomplished in Bombay. I think that more than learning new things while in the country and while interning, the information I gained and thoughts that I had, bulked up my preexisting understandings of development work and global citizenship. It was a city whose lessons I think I will always be able to look back on and use to dictate my path and reasoning. In some ways it was less than what I expected or wanted, but in many ways, it was more. I’m glad I got to travel around a little bit, work on really great and socially impactful projects, and meet wonderful people.
And of course, the powers that be made sure I left the experience in a fashion that fits perfectly with my overarching thoughts of the stay. As I waited in line with all the Indian migrant workers headed to Bahrain for reasons completely different than my own, a flight attendant approached me. I had randomly been chosen for an upgrade to first class. Imagine that, the only one with more than a knapsack, the only one who had probably ever flown that way before, the only one whose passport was full of tourist visas and not temporary work permits, the only white boy- was lucky enough to get chosen for five hours of comfort.
It gave me a lot to think about while the plane took off over the slums that encroach upon the airport, and I sipped my wine.