Slum tours have existed for ages, but only shot to popularity after Slumdog Millionaire, when people wanted to know if depictions of slums in the movie were realistic. Most discover that they are false. For example, the mafia no longer operates in the slums. Eye-gouging only happens when the lazier slum-dwellers, who would rather beg than work, request the operation.
Most visitors mistake slum dwellers for beggars. The truth is, they are very different. Strong community linkages exist within slums, as does a pervasive concept of dignity and respect. If one person goes out to beg, the community will gossip. The Slum dwellers also believe strongly in atithi devo bhava (guest is God), and will go to great measures to ensure visitors don’t get teased or harmed. They were initially resistant to the idea of visitors; it took about 2-3 months to communicate the mission of correcting misconceptions about slum dwelling. Now, they are very friendly, and we often hang out with them.
All slum tour guides are male. Thirty per cent of the guides live in slums, and like the job because they feel like they are showing their real home to visitors who are interested. The guides are given 30 pages of notes with information, trivia and history of the slums. These take about 15 days to memorise. In a place that is 1.75 hectares large and houses 1 million people, there are 2 or 3 routes used for the tours—these routes take at least 10 days to memorise. Occasionally, I still get lost while attempting a new route.
Most visitors are foreigners, but there are also a large number of NRIs and a small percentage of locals. The NRIs arrive the most afraid, because they have stronger negative preconceptions of slums, reinforced by stories from their childhood or from friends. Most are terrified of being robbed. Mumbai locals are also very fearful—they insist on walking everywhere together as a group, and ask silly questions like, “Do slum dwellers take baths everyday?”
(He has been leading tours in Dharavi, Mumbai, for two years now)
As told to Wei Fen Lee.