Bombay – the bustling Indian city by the sea, the one that never sleeps. The one where there are only two seasons – sweltering humid heat or intense monsoon rain. For the past five months I’ve called this city my home, and every day continues to fascinate me. A car ride isn’t just getting from point A to B, but offers snippets of a culture that juxtaposes modernity with tradition. Bullock carts weave in and out of traffic pulling supplies while the owner sits atop checking his cellphone. Five star hotels catering to the rich are nestled in between chawls, while the slum dogs look on. A city of oxymorons and constant wonder, half a year in and I’ve barely lifted the veil.
With the internship I came here for finished in 4 months, my current freelance schedule has allowed me to take time to explore the areas of the city that intrigued me the most. First was a trip to the buzzing Crawford Market. Everything and anything you need is available – from buckles to plastic sheets, to imported food, to fairy lights. Men walk around with large circular baskets for you to put your packages in, so you can continue to shop while they follow you around lugging the load. With this being the first foray into the interior life of the city, we were overwhelmed and thus marked tourists with our poor bargaining skills. Next was Chor Bazaar, or the Thieves Market – a dwindling bazaar that was once the place to get antiques and knick knacks. The famous Mutton Street where only a discerning eye can tell antique from replica is lined with tiny shops and their Muslim proprietors.
Dharavi has been named the most densely populated place in the world, as well as Asia’s largest slum. These two facts were enough to both intrigue yet intimidate me. The thought of venturing into the slums always conjured up images of claustrophobic alleyways, suffocating heat, and sketchy people. The visit to Dharavi was enlightening, not to mention humbling. The alleyways provided shade from the unyielding sun, and rather than being cramped, they were relatively cool and easy to walk through. The production that takes place is amazing –everything from baking and fabric dying, to printing presses and clothing for export. Despite this being a slum, tea and beverages were kindly offered to us, in the classic way Indians are so hospitable and good-natured regardless of their circumstances.
My most recent and that too solo adventure was to the 140 year old Dhobi Ghat. Deemed the world’s largest open-air, human powered Laundromat, the Dhobi Ghat is lined with cement troughs and washing basins, where the washers or dhobis beat the dirt out of Mumbai’s soiled laundry. The washing basins are lined with the houses of workers, making the entire expanse feel like a big joint family, with children running in between hanging shirts, and men taking a bath beside the spinning machines.
I’ve recently felt conscious of my camera and have hesitated greatly in using it. The things that I find fascinating are the everyday norm for so much of the city’s population, and that too a norm that is a harsh reality. In trying to capture this, I’ve often felt like I’m objectifying them and further intruding on their privacy, something which they as it is, have very little of. I struggled with finding the balance between being a photographer who takes unreal photographs, and being a humanitarian who is understanding. I missed some great shots with this internal battle, but as I continued to venture around with my camera, I realized how open many people were to my taking pictures, and how it was a source of excitement and fun, especially when I showed them the snap after. I took a picture of a woman washing shirts, and her friend joked and said she would be famous. She said “Good, the world should know how hard we have to work to eat.” So world, here are the people of Bombay, the labourers, who work behind the scenes, barely being noticed but whom this city could not do without.