Bhaiyya!” a work-worn voice called to me from a sunless pile on the corner of the roof. I turned to greet it. “Bhaiyya! Hey, brother!” it said, “what do you tell them? About us?”
My eyes adjusted to the dim light of dusk and formed the contours of Sureysh, the old rag picker, sitting atop his pile of renewed rubbish: tin cans scrubbed and resealed, cardboard boxes cut and re-glued, fabrics patched and re-dyed. He himself was a pile of renewed rubbish: repaired skin, recessed eyes, torn excuses for clothing twisted and tied over a tired sack of bones.
I had come up to the roof for a breath of fresh air, a private smoke if I could manage it. But knowing how precious privacy is in Dharavi, I might have known it couldn’t be found on a breezy roof at the end of a scorching summer day.
I was trying to avoid questions. I had just finished a day of questions, and I was ready for some downward sloping sentences. But Sureysh, he looked so simple, so tranquil, so parched for company. I relented. I submitted. I thought, why not? There is time. Always, time.
I squatted on the trash heap beside him. A filthy breeze blew between us, tousling the wiry grey tufts over his ears, sweeping the oily black waves over my eyes. I combed my fingers through the beads of plastic on the ground, sifting my thoughts.
“Bhaiyya? What do you tell those people? I’ve seen you with them. All those words.”
“Yes, what do I tell them? I tell them…what they want to know, I suppose. What they need to know.”
“What do they need to know about a slum? From an anthill like Dharavi, what do they want?”
“Accha…” I paused, testing the waters in his eyes. They were cool and thick, grayish brown with age, and memories. “I tell them, na, about the industry, the productivity. The income and the output.”
“Meaning the recycling—I show them all those pens and plastics and computer carcasses, and I show them where it all gets melted down and reassembled.”
“Did you tell them I picked those pens? Each one. Did you tell them that? I searched for those computers in the dumps with my own two hands. With my two cracked hands sinking into all the dirt and mold and rot, food I never ate fresh and tools I never used new. I picked those computers and I carried them on my back to Dharavi, from far away. Very very far I carried them, myself, alone. Did you tell them?”
I combed the plastic beads into rows, horizontally, then columns, vertically, then rows.
“Sure, uncle. Of course. I told them that.”
He grunted and his eyelids collapsed into their beds, his body sunk into a lotus-like position. The sun sunk behind his shoulder. I couldn’t remember where he was from. Not the slums, no, somewhere north, maybe the old Rajput kingdom, or maybe the south, from the boat-lands. Dharavi had erased all traces of his story.
I was unsure whether to go on. He nodded. Another breeze, misty with evening, heavy with hunger and the stench of unwashed alleys blew thoughts from my mind to my lips.
“I show them the homes, the way we live. I show them the low ceilings, the three by ten foot rooms filled with five people, four of them sick, and one who doesn’t know she’s sick pouring sick cups of water for the others.”
“A terrible thing to say, Mohammed.”
“Yes, uncle. Terrible, I suppose.”
“These ones, these foreign ones, they are not like us.”
He means the tourists, with their sun hats and their guidebooks, and their tour guides and their digital cameras and their digital age. And their globalization. And their Dharavi-sewn, Dharavi-dyed clothing stamped made in the usa.
“No, uncle. Not like us.”
He grunted. “What else?”
I swayed on pointed toes, poised for departure.
“The streets. I show them the streets, with wires hanging so low over their heads, I tell them of the electrocutions. Tell them to avoid the puddles, to step over the cracks, to watch where the water pipes pour over cobblestones. They whisper that the water is brown.”
Sureysh issues a wheezing laugh, like wind dying over the sand. “And what color should it be?”
I do not answer. I have forgotten whether he is one of the ones who knows. Where I go now, what I do. I don’t recall if I’ve seen him, whispering the word “university” over coffee like an incantation, too powerful to be spoken at higher decibels. Forgotten, too, if I’ve caught him gawking at me, like the children do who wander the streets, who crane their necks over novels in tiny tuition classes with no bathrooms, or spin tops or braid their hair into two plaits or chase stray dogs until the dogs turn on them and they run. I cannot remember my relationship with this man, how it has changed, where we are on this night. It has been only three months since I began university. But I do not tell him that water is supposed to be clear. That it is supposed to be a source of life, not disease and misery, not death and despair. I press my dry lips together.
I peel them apart and the skin tears a little, enough to taste blood as I utter, “Ha, Sureysh-gi?”
“What do you not tell them? Which secrets are still ours?”
I chew my lips. I chuckle. How many things I do not tell them. How many things I never say, or answer when asked, if I’m asked. So many things, I never thought to count.
“I never tell them that which they cannot understand. The pride of the our work, the loyalty to our streets, the love between our people.”
He nods. Nods off, maybe. I am not sure he understands.
Today I took a group of young women on a tour. I must always steady myself on a tour like this, with only women, though I think it is the Dharavi women who need to be steadied when they see them walking like that, uncovered, unmanned. Me, I steady myself before each question, to make sure I do not betray myself or Allah.
Students, they said, in America, in Boston. I have seen Americans before with their intelligent questions and their fancy electronics and their business all over their faces. For all to see. Their hands fidget in their pockets when I tell them “no pictures.” They look and try not to stare. They say it looks different than Slum Dog Millionaire. I laugh every time, though I can’t say why it’s funny.
Today I led a tour for two Americans, two Indians, all studying at the same school. They spoke back when the children followed them with “Hello!” answered them when they said “how are you!” and ran away, giggling and holding hands, leaving their questions hanging in the stale air behind them. These women dodged dogs with small flinches and stepped over urine puddles and trash heaps without hands on their noses. They probed me with questions, the American ones, and the Indian ones too, from Bombay, who in their lives had never been to Dharavi.
I decided to tell them that I live here, in Dharavi. They didn’t say “Oh,” or “I didn’t know,” or look down and shake their heads mutely. They kept their eyes steady and asked, “Really, since when? Your whole life?” I said yes. I couldn’t believe it myself. They asked if I had gone to primary school in Dharavi, and where I was studying now, and what subject. One woman, an American one, with a long brown braid and an orange scarf that did not quite cover her shoulders asked me, “Do you go out at night?”
“Well,” I said, knowing now what she meant by “going out,” since I’ve been there, to wealth. “I’m a Muslim.” “Right.” “So I don’t drink, you know.”
“I know.” She wiped a damp lock of hair from her cheek. Her fingers smeared ashy streaks on her forehead. There were pink patches on either side of her freckled nose.
“We go sometimes, actually, to the cow patch, to smoke hookah.” They laughed. I didn’t know why I was saying it, but they had honesty in their faces, truth in their demeanors. So I kept going. “We would go to the field so our parents wouldn’t catch us, and sit among the cows.”
“Didn’t it smell?”
“Yes, of dung and shisha. The cows would come and stand near us.”
They laughed. Louder. “Hookah in the cow patch! With the cows!” they were choking. It never struck me as funny before, our secret outings to the fields to sit smoking with the cows. Stealthy maybe, rebellious. Never ridiculous. For a moment, though, I could see it. I glimpsed it between their shiny, parted teeth. The hilarity of it all. I laughed.
“What is funny?” Sureysh croaked at me.
I stopped. I had forgotten where I was. Who I was. I was a tour guide on top of a roof in Dharavi. A student. A Muslim. A native. A slum dog.
The sun had sunk below the jagged tin skyline, the slum had sunk into evening. Babies’ cries became audible as the heavy machinery slowed to a halt, ceasing to boil, brim and belch our daily drudgery.
“Life, uncle,” I said, “I’m just laughing at life.”
“The tourist life or ours?” he whispered, eyeing me from under half closed lids.
I did not answer. I rose and bid him good night, excusing myself for an early morning. I left my laughter to rot on the rooftop, and descended. I was ready for some downward-sloping sentences. But the questions had just begun.