SLUMDOGMAS, them all!

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Between housemaid Kavita and rag-picker Nevelli, life in the slums is not as dogmatic as it used to be in the past

Gajanan Khergamker Mumbai, Hardnews

If you are looking to capture the essence of Mumbai, you just can't afford to ignore its smells. Whether it's the stench emanating from the open drains at Dharavi; the spicy odour of sambhar and rasam along Matunga's roads; the head-spinning smell of freshly ground coffee-beans outside a Shetty's restaurant in south Mumbai; the salty smell of sea-water interlaced with drying Bombay Ducks along the rock-laden shores of Bandra-Khar danda; it's the smell that typifies Mumbai and its inclusive nature.

Now, capturing smells on celluloid is an art that scriptwriters hone through literary practice. When, in Slumdog Millionaire, a young Jamal jumped straight into human excreta to emerge fully coated in faeces before bolting through teeming crowds to get Amitabh Bachchan's autograph; viewing audiences worldwide cringed in unanimous reflex. Danny Boyle successfully managed to capture two emotions in one singular dramatic sequence: The larger-than-life portrait of Big B and the quintessential commoner emerging-victorious-from-the-dumps... and, managed to capture the stench too!

As Slumdog Millionaire swept eight Oscars and AR Rahman did India proud with Jai Ho, Indian cinema celebrated its entry into foreign fora. Global cinema, which systematically drew us to perceive Italians as violent members of the mafia, the Americans as speed-crazed, mentally challenged businessmen, the Russians as vodka-guzzling submarine dealers; the Chinese as army-men marching in precision; the Australian as hat-totting cowboys on horseback with a nasal twang, or the Africans as a dark lot of drum-beating, dancing Maasaisi, and the Indians as a magical head-standing/levitating lot with yogic powers, shifted its stand. India has evolved from its rustic, back of the backwaters character to its new-age slum-bred underdog who could win a TV show to turn millionaire too.

Modern Indian city's slums or its dwellers aren't as bad as films, particularly Slumdog Millionaire, make them out to be. It's easy to write a script and shoot a film on locales detailing drama as unfolded through a pre-determined script. Sadly, however hard one may argue, a work of fiction is and always will be considered derived from -- or dependant on -- fact. Disclaimers and statements notwithstanding, notions are popularised through media and films being as popular as they can get, do cause the maximum harm.

Thirty-year old Kavita works in three homes, and in ‘shift' work, cleans vessels, washes clothes, cooks meals even babysits the elderly if needed. Kavita lives in her two-room kholi (a modest dwelling) at Sundar Nagari -- a south Mumbai slum with her Koli husband and three sons. The places she works at aren't just workplaces for Kavita, they're home for her. "I have been working here since my childhood. This is like my home," she says.

The salary she draws from these jobs amount to Rs 4,000-odd, but isn't of much consequence considering her Koli husband draws earnings as high as Rs 30,000 per month. Her work keeps her busy and draws what she considers pocket-money for her. Any work that goes beyond 6 pm is a No-No; irrespective of the money it may fetch as earning. "You need time for family too, right?" she says.

Almost every second evening, she goes for a 3-to-6 film show with her friends, sometimes paying for them too. "Watching a film costs Rs 300 to 400. Sometimes, I spend, or my friends do)," claims Kavita. The film buffs have been viewing two to three movies every week for years on end and together too.

Viewing films isn't in isolation. On the film-viewing days, Kavita and her friends eat out too, spending up to Rs 500 in all per outdoor session and about Rs 2,000 per month. And, they are all maidservants!

As for shopping, Kavita makes it a point to visit Big Bazaar -- a shopping mall at south Mumbai. "You get everything you need and there's loads of choice too," maintains Ganga, a regular.

Besides living in her two-room kholi at Sundar Nagari, Kavita owns three huts, two in Machchimar Nagar and one more in a nearly Ganesh Murti Nagar. Her two kholis in Machchimar Nagar have been given out to others on leave and license and together fetch a monthly rent of Rs 4,000 while the one at Ganesh Murti Nagar fetches her Rs 1,500 per month. The deposits of Rs 45,000 in all (Rs 15,000 for each kholi) fetch her interest of Rs 5,400 per month @ 12 per cent per month in the private market. "To lend money in the private market fetches decent interest," she says. Her ‘properties' fetch her Rs 10,900 per month without her having to even lift a finger. Add to that the Rs 4,000 she earns through her work as a domestic help and she grosses Rs 14,900 per month.

What's even better than her earnings is that she is at freedom to choose her workplace; film to view and licensee to boot too. Kavita saw Slumdog Millionaire, first day-first show, and loved it! When asked if she could identify with it, she says, "Jhopatpatti mein to zindagi bohut alag hai. Philmo mein vahi dikhate hain jo log dekhna chahte hain. Usse kya farak padta hain. Jhopatpatti pe ek aur philum tha jisse bohut saare ameer log aur bhi ameer ho gaye, hain na?" (Life's a lot different in slums but who cares? In films, they show slums the way they want people to see slums. It's another film on slums with which a lot of rich people got richer, didn't they?) she says, summing up the general feeling among slums and probably the truth of it all.

Rummaging through garbage, Nivelli sifts through reams daily to weed out paper, plastic and metal that sells. On the face of it, she is the poorest in the rung, or so we would like to believe. And Nivelli does nothing on her part to make us believe otherwise. Scratching her lice-infested head, she hurls her large garbage bag over her right shoulder and trudges along to comb through the next pile of dump lying on the road. Out on the roads since 6 am, when it's quieter and easier for them to move around, rag-pickers -- mostly from Tamil Nadu -- sift through garbage and dumps to remove what can be sold. Nivelli originates from a village hit by the tsunami.

Throughout the day, till dusk, Nivelli fills her garbage bag with bits of plastic, metal and paper, compartmentalised in smaller bags, before she leaves for home. On her way home, with her other counterparts, she visits a regular kabadiwalla (wastepaper/plastic/metal purchaser) to dispose her collections. At about 6 pm, she reaches her dilapidated hut in Ganesh Murti Nagar.

After washing up thoroughly, she dresses up in a clean saree complete only with the gold ornaments to boot, usually two gold chains, eight gold bangles, three gold rings and a heavy gold mangalsutra -- and sits outside at her doorstep to gossip with her counterparts!

Nivelli's need to deck up isn't driven by occasion. It's a daily ritual that she has to perform irrespective of other variables. She has two children -- an eight-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy who accompany her older sister Panvelli on her rag-picking rounds. "In our community, nobody gets educated. What will they do after getting educated?" argues Nivelli.

For her, the money she earns is swiftly placed into the ‘yellow buyings' which tops her list of priorities. Repairing her home or getting her children educated isn't a need for Nivelli. "Investing in gold will come in use some day." By the way, she owns about 210 gms of gold in all her ornaments, that cost Rs 1 lakh plus as on today.

When asked about Slumdog Millionaire, Nivelli said, "Khayali pulao khilate hain logon ko. Aisa kabhi ho sakta hai kya?" (They're taking us for a ride. Can something like this happen in real life?). She is a bit peeved at the film's suggestion of a slum-dweller turning millionaire overnight. "Woh chota Jamal accha tha, (Young Jamal was nice)," she adds.