This is an excerpt from Puja Changoiwala's book 'Homebound', a novel about the COVID-19 migrant exodus in India.

A blue book cover with homebound written on it placed against a blue background
Features Books Wednesday, December 29, 2021 - 16:00

Puja Changoiwala

We treaded along the access road to the Eastern Express Highway, and as we crossed the Sion Fort, my heart lost strength. Baba would take us to the old castle on many Sundays. Seated atop a hillock, the fortress offers a panoramic view of our alpha world city—its hulking concrete, its human ocean, and its triumphalist displays of smoke-belching factories. Dingy and dilapidated, the fort’s rooms are in ruins, bushes grow stupidly, and the walls stand battered with graffiti—colourful hearts and love notes etched in stone—‘I LOVE SNEHA’, ‘Fuck me, Deepa’, ‘You want the good time? Call 7825…’ It’s not all wreckage, though. There’s also an old canon, a history and our memories. 

During our visits to the fort, we would spend most of our day in the garden at its base, admiring its unusual birds—the parakeets, tailorbirds, sunbirds and the butterflies with gaily coloured petal-wings. The vast garden has an open-air study centre, where students from our noisy shantytown find refuge, spend their days immersed in books. In the evenings, a group of dancers from Dharavi replaces them, hard at work to become India’s finest performers. With hip-hop numbers blaring on portable speakers, they perform their complicated tuck jumps, aerial cartwheels and monkey flips. They leap, they fall, they rise, as scores of visitors watch them inch closer to their dream, one tumble at a time. 

This audacity to dream, irrespective of the size of one’s home, is what I admire most about Dharavi, Ms Farah. Ambition abounds in the myriad lanes of this ghetto, each person toiling to rewrite their story, to paint their canvas with colours of their choosing. You do not give up on your home and family in the village, or move to a strange, unforgiving land if you were not chasing something; and our rickety shacks in the slum, they provide the perfect fuel for these restless flames. They offer a long, hard look at our place in the world, at who we are. They incite us to alter that place, choose who we become. 

Over the years, I’ve realized that Dharavi is a factory of the human spirit, ma’am. It embodies the very essence of evolution, altering and re-altering our heritable natures until we become fit to survive. It has a billion-dollar economy, which accommodates 20,000 big and small businesses, including leather, pottery, embroidery, soap, garments, trolley bags, electrical appliances and aluminium bricks. It also hosts artists, mural-makers, photographers and entrepreneurs. We have adolescent girls creating mobile applications, digitally organizing residents’ visits to the communal tap. We have ragpickers creating symphony from the dump, using instruments like plastic barrels and glass bottles. And we have windowless attics doubling up as training academies for India’s many film industries: ‘A1 Bollywood, Mollywood, Tollywood Acting School—Become a SlumGod Millionaire now.’ 

Of course, it’s undeniable that Dharavi has the squalid poverty and hardscrabble lives immortalized across culture. They shine as bright as the sun. However, there is so much more to our labyrinthine slum. Despite the hundreds of thousands crammed in two square kilometres, the sweat and tears do not dampen our ethos. Men and women work in airless sweatshops, toxic as the innards of a furnace. Boys train to be cricketers in playgrounds where children relieve themselves. Turds are easy to step on, so is muck. The unmistakable smell of sewage hangs heavy over the streets as piles of trash mature, grow older than time. However, none of them, not one, takes away from the dreams in our ramshackle homes. As Baba says, tragedy is obligatory in Dharavi, not misery. That remains optional. 

‘Small homes, big dreams,’ the tourist guide tells every foreigner who opts for his poverty safari in our slum. Scores of children chase after the exotic men and women, offering enthusiastic hellos and namastes. The amused visitors respond with smiles, waves and, at times, a few rupees. Their heads bent low to dodge the dangling wires, most cover their mouths to evade diseases, or perhaps, the smell of hardship. All of them arrive with wonder at our lives and leave with gratitude for theirs. ‘Small homes, big hearts.’

The guide charges `1000 per person for a personal tour of our slum, the thief! He walks the foreigners through our back alleys and black streets, showing them around our unsanitary hovels and undignified workplaces, our unkempt clothes and hungry children. For an extra `500, he throws in a home-cooked lunch with an English-friendly local family.

‘Asia’s largest slum, this,’ he keeps boasting. 

As we walked past the Sion Fort, I wondered if we would ever spend another Sunday at the 350-year-old edifice. Baba, as if hearing me, prodded me with his elbow. 

‘Why are you so slow?’ he demanded. ‘And why do you keep turning around? Walk faster, don’t look back.’

***

The road was golden; a river of asphalt brightened by the creamy yellow glimmer of street lamps, stringing a necklace around the night. The endless, free highway stretched into the horizon before us, as far as we could see, replacing the narrow streets of the city’s suburbs. The six-lane motorway, Mumbai’s north–south artery, lay empty, as if haunted. It was unlike the pre-lockdown days, when the highway would bustle with tens of thousands of vehicles each day. The tarmac used to be so busy that strays kept off and birds refrained from flying low. Today, however, the fauna attended, resting along the expanse, on a journey of their own. 

As we walked onto the freeway, I noticed tiny figures in the distance. Men and women, young and old, slender and sturdy, all marching like mules, lugging their inexpensive worlds in cheaper rucksacks and shoddier cloth bags. Fathers had perched their children on their shoulders, and mothers balanced their luggage on their heads. Dressed in all colours of the rainbow, the burdened beasts moved with a resolute purpose—to flee the city they built and reach the solace of their real homes, where their escaping could cease.

A few metres into our walk on the freeway, about two hours after we left Dharavi, Baba pointed to a public toilet. ‘Go if you want to,’ he told us, shying from eye contact with the women. ‘I don’t know when we’ll find the next one.’

Four stairs led to the blue-walled lavatory, a partition dividing the space into two—one for gentlemen, the image of a moustached man with broad shoulders painted on its entrance, and the other for gentleladies, identifiable through the picture of a petite woman, her sari covering her head. As in most of Mumbai’s public urinals, the toilet greeted us with the inimitable whiff of ammonia and destitution. The odour turned me sceptical. Only two months ago, the septic tank of a public toilet had exploded in Dharavi, injuring five men from our slum.

Happy and I were on our way to school when, around 7 a.m., we heard a loud explosion, and then another. We ran, assuming it was one of those bomb blasts, as debris came flying out of the toilet. Pieces of brick and mortar cascaded down the air, attacking the sleepy, innocent men, who were waiting to empty their bowels during the morning rush hour. Officials, who examined the toilet later, said that some gases had accumulated in the urinal, and their pressure blew off the tank’s cover. It landed five men in hospital, handing them bills they could not pay. 

Although hesitant, I walked in because Ma pointed out that the toilet had no attendant, the blessed human entitled to unlimited free excretions, and the one amassing `1 for number one and `2 for number two. The opportunity was tempting, my first gratis piss in four years. I entered but soon realized that the washroom was out of water. The lord of loos had taken the pledge ‘Save Water’ painted on the toilet’s exterior too seriously. ‘Water Smarter. Every drop counts.’

The washroom’s walls were sprayed with graffiti, again lovers paying their compliments. I wondered why they take to such odd places for their proclamations—walls of ghettos and highway barriers, abandoned forts and public urinals. What is it about such places that reminds them of their love? I’m fifteen, ma’am, and I do not know all about this breed of attachment yet, but Ma says it’s the absence of fear. She loves Baba because, unlike many women in our village and our slum, she’s not afraid of him. She was expecting fear, perhaps still does, but our father has managed to surprise her.

I do not understand Ma’s logic. It’s the opposite of what I’ve seen in every Bollywood film, where men fear rejection from women. Macho heroes romance about trees with randy eyes, eulogize their heroine’s bodies, and walk on burning coal—all to impress their female love interests. After the successful stalking, it’s the Swiss Alps in chiffon-crusted dances, confident heroines gyrating in the rain, their hair flying in the wind, and their saris blowing off their chests to reveal strategic volumes of bosom. Then, the fear still missing, the couples ride into the sunset. 

As we emerged from the washroom, Baba turned to us with fresh zest. ‘The aim for the day is to walk until night,’ he declared. 

Happy, in response, flung his body to the ground. The boy was already tired. He left Balhaar when he was five, and he remembered too little of our village to tolerate this arduous journey. He did speak to our grandparents over the phone, but they did not seem motivation enough. Baba tried to fire the boy’s imagination, reminding him of our pet, Mirchi, saying that the dog was a tug-of-war whizz. He also promised dunes, camel rides, campfires and an endless vacation from school. 

‘Let’s go,’ my raw little brother was convinced.

This passage has been excerpted with permission from 'Homebound' by Puja Changoiwala. The book has been published by Harper Collins. You can buy the book here

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