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the confession of a young anthropologist in dharavi

January 23, 2020

I worked with a research collective called Urbz that has a strong base in Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, lies on prime property right in the middle of India’s financial capital, Mumbai (Bombay). Urbz works with citizens, associations, local governments and private clients. The Urbz team is closely connected with the community and its leaders. One of them was Bhau Khorde who is central to the communities present in Dharavi.

On my last day of the assignment, I vowed to revisit the community regularly. On hearing this resolution of mine, Bhau laughed me off. He said something along the lines of,

“all of you say the same thing, but none of you will return. And most people in Dharavi also know this. People here know exactly what to say to you researchers who come in with big plans. They have the standard answers that they will give you to get you off their back”.

At the time I was too embarrassed to realise the full weight of his words. It was only two years later while discussing the limitations of various research methodologies in a theory class that did his words come back to me. My best friend and classmate had also worked in Dharavi. So, after that class, we got to talking and discussed everything we remembered about our experiences. We revelled at Bhau’s parting words to me, finding numerous examples confirming what he had said. We took a deep dive into our “field experience”, which not many college kids could boast of at the time, especially in a space like Dharavi. And from that discussion, which easily extended for about a month, I arrived at two questions. 

women selling fish at a local fish market in Dharavi
Local Fish Market, Dharavi/ Photo by Anupamaa Nayak

Firstly, I was faced with the reality that research about people, and their singular and collective existence is contingent on so many factors; that most of what we know is just a blip in the unending things there are to know about our existence. For a 20-year-old budding anthropologist, that was both daunting and awe-inspiring. 

researcher in a bylane in Dharavi
Streets of Dharavi/ Photo by Anupama Nayak

Researchers are like moths to the bright, complex flame that urban slums like Dharavi seem to be. So much of how we perceive, process, and articulate about such spaces seems to be located in a very fetishized and exoticized version these hotbeds of enquiry. 

Much of my credibility as a “good” student came from how my peers and professors also understood these spaces. The fact that I had the chance to immerse myself in them, gave me an edge. However, by the end of my college experience, I was left wondering whether the entire experience was fraudulent. 

The larger question that I have been asking myself and those around me since then is how are we as disciples of various social sciences, meant interact with urban slums, without making the entire experience a redundant exercise. 

Where do we, as city folks from the “good neighbourhood” with the shiny degrees, draw the line between being catalysers of change, and shoving our singular idea of development down the throats of people who live in these, contrary to popular belief, normal, regular, and absolutely ordinary spaces? And lastly, is there a need for us to be catalysers at all? 

These questions will probably never have a definitive answer, but I intend to explore them to the fullest and the reason is largely selfish. Because despite my claims, Bhau was right, I never returned to Dharavi. Not even to visit! 

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