From the grime to sublime, Bombay's all about money

June 16, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Sun Staff Correspondent

BOMBAY, India -- In Dharavi, an endlessly sprawling, overpoweringly squalid place known as Asia's largest slum, everything is not what it would seem at first.

More than 1 million people crouch cheek by jowl along a maze of suffocatingly narrow footpaths. Naked children play in black puddles of stagnant sewage beside tents of rags and corrugated tin huts. A choking stench, unending noise and festering disease are everywhere.

But Dharavi may also be Asia's hardest-working slum.

TV antennas sprout atop many of its hovels, and small refrigerators are not uncommon inside. Every other home offers a tailor, a cobbler, a printer. There are electronics shops and jewelry stores, even travel agencies. And the incomes of many here would be the envy of much of the rest of India.

Meet Shakil Ahmed, 30, a shoemaker. His business cards carry his picture alongside the promise that he is "In touch with fashion." Mr. Ahmed, his wife and four children sleep on the concrete floor of a one-room shed rented for $38 a month, more than India's average annual per capita earnings. Next door, he has 10 employees turning out new shoes.

"If you are brave and determined," he declared fervently, "you can achieve whatever you want in Bombay. I am willing to work hard, so we will not always live here."

Bombay -- India's biggest, most Westernized, most freewheeling city -- is like that. "It is a very, very strange city, a zigzag city," said Bhurinder Singh, 26, a Sikh who drives a taxi. "Anything can happen here. If you are poor today, tomorrow you may find plenty of money."

In a country with a shackled economy that has been likened to a huge, caged tiger, Bombay is known as "the city of hope" or by a Hindi phrase meaning "God's cow."

"That's because anyone can milk this city," explained documentary filmmaker Shyam Benegal. "And no one starves here."

Lured by the Horatio Alger dreams peddled by more than 500 Bombay-produced Hindi films a year -- formula fantasies

invariably replete with sex and songs -- millions of India's most ambitious have streamed into this narrow archipelago of seven now-joined islands smaller in total area than Manhattan.

The city's population has swelled by more than four times in the last two decades to 12 million, and it still receives more than 500 new migrants a day. In the process, Bombay has become India's New York, Chicago and Los Angeles all rolled into one.

Many are quick to note that in its palpably vibrant hum, Bombay is not like any other place in India. But in the city's extraordinary diversity -- its fantastic wealth and desperate poverty, its growth and decay, its aspirations and failures -- it also may represent all of India.

Bombay, in part, is a dense warren of exclusive high-rises where the price of small apartments starts at $1 million, and it is a city where the sidewalks are clogged with more than 1 million sackcloth-clad street-dwellers.

It is jet-setters in the latest international fashions partying every night at trendy clubs, and it is a small boy who begs outside a luxury hotel by lowering the front of his shorts on the street to reveal his mutilated genitalia.

Above all, Bombay is about money and what money can buy.

"No one here cares if it's old money or new money, as long as it's money," laughed Shobha De, an acerbic chronicler of the lives of the city's rich and famous.

"In Bombay, you can get anything you want in the world -- and I mean anything -- and you can get it in 15 minutes," shouted an otherwise restrained, 32-year-old businessman, Shyam Singhania, suddenly snapping his fingers to underscore the point.

Bombay's unique lure has brought together the human equivalent of a "masala," or mix of Indian spices: underworld dons vying with each other for control of the city's port; Zoroastrian Persians known as Parsees; 100,000 prostitutes passing on an estimated 6,000 new AIDS-virus infections a month; Marwaris, an Indian ethnic group probably boasting more millionaires per capita than any other in the world; Jews and Muslims; vacationing Arabs enjoying the monsoon rains; and millions of rural Hindus from every corner of vast India.

"If New York is 'The Big Apple,' " concluded Mrs. De with a very pleased look on her face, "then Bombay is a big, ripe, juicy mango. Yes, we're definitely 'The Big Mango.' "

India is in the throes of its second national elections in 18 months, elections prolonged by the May 21 assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The void and uncertainty left by the murder have prompted much hand-wringing in the rest of India.

But Bombay does not have the time for that. The vote's third and final phase, including Bombay, took place yesterday, but a visitor had to almost search for evidence of the election last week.

"India has made its politics into one big, wonderful circus," said Mr. Benegal, the filmmaker. "But our politics is really not connected to our people and what they're about. Bombay knows that."

Bombay also knows from the start that its politicians have been bought.

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