Mumbai Contradictions


Mumbai    It seems almost trite to note the contradictions of Mumbai, since they are everywhere and all of the time, up close and in your face, but sometimes no matter the ever present cliche, it can’t be helped.
    We started the day meeting with our friend, Chris Way, founder of Reality Tours, to continue our ongoing efforts to find ways we can work together in the Dharavi mega-slum.  As faithful readers will remember, Reality Tours specializes in showing people around Dharavi.  In the wake of the terrorist attacks last fall and the double whammy of the recession, the tourism market has been terrible over the last months in the city.  Everyone around my hotel who I remembered from past visits couldn’t stop commenting.  But, even as tourism has dropped like a rock, Chris reports that their reality tours — thanks to Slumdog Millionaire — have gone through the roof!  The business they are doing doubled and tripled in December and January, pushing them into the “black.”  The city is out, but poverty is “in!”
    Later we visited the American School to speak with an open forum class for an hour.  As we tried to find the school nestled along a waterway at the end of a huge construction development of fancy buildings and open land, I felt it looked familiar.  Sure enough the school was hardly 100 yards from the Citi building I had visited a year or more ago to talk to executives there.  I’m not sure I have been to a more modern building in Mumbai than the American School of Bombay or ASB as the shield says everywhere.  It seems on a par with what you might imagine is the fanciest new high school in the wealthiest districts in the US, but instead it’s in Mumbai with a window view of shacks across the watercourse that filled my eyes as I looked down several stories at the dry soccer field.  To get in the school the security had been totally beefed up, and my only comparison was the procedure used to enter the Congresso in Lima, as we showed our identification, got a badge, and walked through various sealed entrances and teams of guards, many of whom were new since the terror.
    The students were sharp as tacks.  The questions were excellent and to the mark.  ACORN International had been invited to participate in their upcoming “social responsibility” day.  Vinod Shetty, director of ACORN India, and his team of organizers had had the fascinating idea of having some of our ragpickers come and teach the kids how to do recycling at the school in a sort of professionals meet the amateurs experience.  The response was excellent, though I can hardly imagine how the experience will seem to our members making a little more than 100 rupees a day, when money seems to be seeping from the floors and walls here in this posh prep school.  Meeting with Alexandra Gustad who is the first coordinator of the Community and Social Responsibility Program, it was clear that they recognized the irony and were trying to address it with programs like hers and visits like ours.  
    These are important bridges to build across wide gulfs of distant waters though, so the work will have to be long and hard.