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My name is Balaji and I am 27 years old. I live in Dharavi and have worked as a tour guide at Reality Tours and Travel for over 5 years now.  As a local from the slum, I have a lot to say about my neighbourhood –  the way it has changed with time and the changes that have happened to me in this time too by learning new skills in my job.  

I remember my childhood just like any other kid, having so much fun and having no idea about the future. As I grew up close to the railway track, me and my friends used to have much open space to play which wasn’t the case in other parts of the slum. I used to go to school in the morning until the afternoon and then for the rest of the day I had free time.  Sometimes I had work to do with parents and sometimes I used to play with friends either flying kites, spinning tops, playing cricket, hide and seek, marbles and many more games. All this went on for about 10 years and after all this nice memorable time it became very important and for me to find some work for supporting my family and for myself.

Balaji With His Childhood Friends

I got my first job as a salesperson to sell a targeted number of non-electric water filters in the slum and this was my first time meeting people. Eventually, I got to learn a lot more and got a different idea about people’s behaviours and purchasing power. With time  I also developed my skill to sell a product to any kind of person and along with that, I learnt two important things: one was how to sell a product and the other was that I was drinking unclean water! After this experience,  I did so many different types of work at various places. I worked as pizza delivery boy, and at that time I enjoyed riding the motorbike around the city, but I was not really happy with my stressful long days. But it was also important for me to help my parents who were struggling to make some living in their small flower business.

Playing With The Kids On Our ‘Dharavi Slum Tour’

I then finally came to Reality Tours and Travel. This was my first skilled work, where I got to learn a lot and it shaped me into the man I am today. My English has improved a lot, I enjoy meeting new people from different parts of the world every day, I learn so much about my culture and also about cultures from different places around the world. I don’t get bored any day and there is always the opportunity to learn more here.

Now I have my own small family. I live with my mother, my wife, my son Paari and my daughter Padmaa.  We stay in a small house in slum Dharavi and I love my family and my kids a lot. My daughter is my dear little star. Her name means  “beautiful lotus” and she is also my 26th birthday gift: she was born exactly  2 days after my birthday!

Balaji’s Family: Daughter, Padmaa, and Son Paari

My dream has just come true a few days ago when I got a government job in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation of Mumbai (BMC). I will work in the waste management department and I will join forces to keep Mumbai city clean.

My next wish is to have a small business to occupy my free time and also occasionally do tours for Reality Tours and Travel so I can keep showing my community, city and nation to the rest of the world.

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Our very first tour of Dharavi was in January 2006; shortly after this, we introduced a ‘No Photography Policy’. Some press coverage had been critical of people going to Dharavi and taking photos, and when we saw the results, we agreed.

Over a decade on and the policy remains unchanged: guests on our educational slum tours are not permitted to take any photos for the entirety of their time with us. In a world where social media likes, shares, and retweets carry such clout, a ‘No Photography Policy’ might seem a bit outdated. Back this up with the old Indian adage that ‘the guest is God’, and the more recent marketing maxim that ‘the customer is always right’, and the policy might not only seem outdated but downright detrimental to our desire to grow our business.

Certainly, not being able to capture and share first-hand the vibrancy of the Dharavi, and Sanjay Colony slums may be a frustration for a minority of our guests. But whilst we want to exceed our guests expectations in every other way, there is another stakeholder group that takes precedence – the slum communities we serve…

An Ally In Sanjay Colony Slum

The mission of our educational slums tours is to give a fair and balanced view of life in the slums. Whilst we highlight the social issues faced by many of the residents, we also celebrate the resilience, resourcefulness and industry employed by them on a daily basis. We don’t want to look upon the population as an ‘other’ but rather consider the common humanity we all share. We want the communities themselves to take pride in this, and of the fact that major business schools (Harvard, Stanford, London Business School), huge multinationals (Facebook, Google, Microsoft) and thousands of individuals from over 100 different countries are coming here to learn about their lives. They leave inspired. But how does this make the community feel? As a housewife shared with Durham academic Rudra Rhodes in her recent survey of Community Perceptions of Slum Tours in Dharavi;

“people come from all over the world so we feel proud”

Our relationship with the Dharavi community is the consequence of over a decade of hard work and ongoing dialogue; it is founded upon mutual respect. Our very reason for coming to Dharavi,and latterly, Sanjay Colony, was to challenge wrongly held negative stereotypes about such places (of course, we then use the funds to affect positive change in the communities through the work of our sister NGO, Reality Gives). Thus, we value our relations with these communities above all else and are constantly striving to conduct our tours in as sensitive and ethical a manner as possible.

A Group Of Children from Sanjay Colony Slum

We understand that our guests want to take memories home with them. But we also believe that being ‘present’ on the tour is the right way to make these memories. Putting a lense between you and the community can separate you from what makes Dharavi and Sanjay Colony so special – the vibrance, spirit, industry and resourcefulness of people that live there!

Some guests have suggested they might seek permission from the subject of the photo directly, and have often found young children in Dharavi very willing to pose for a ‘selfie’. But just because the subject of the photo is comfortable having their photo taken does not mean other members of the community are not upset or offended by it.

For us, the appropriateness of the policy is evinced in the good relationship we have with the communities we serve, and the fact that one of our competitors in Dharavi recently adopted the policy themselves! A review last month on TripAdvisor  summed things up nicely;

“at first I was a little annoyed because like others, I too wanted to capture my own memories of the tour, but I completely understand and agree with the policy. I truly enjoyed not being able to take photos in that I was really living in the moment rather than behind the screen of a camera. This experience is something I will never forget’.

We appreciate our guests want to leave with an experience to remember for a lifetime, we believe we can give them just that in a  way that is sensitive and respectful toward the people they have travelled such a long way to meet: the communities of Dharavi and Sanjay Colony.

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My name is Manoj Ramesh Medwal and I was born and brought up in Mumbai. My parents both come from Delhi and I have one elder brother and one younger one. We live together with my mum. My elder brother is married and has two wonderful children. I’m really proud to be a nice uncle. We live in Mahalaxmi, an area in the South of Mumbai, not too far from Dhobi Ghat, the famous open-air laundry place of the city. This is my story…

I went to high school Mumbai until the 8th grade, then I had to stop because my family couldn’t afford it anymore as that was a private school. I had to start working with my father and brother to support the whole family. I was only 16 years old, so it was a bit of a problem to work as I was under age. However, I found a job as a sweeper in one of the city towers where I had to clean the whole building and whilst I was there I also found many other small jobs for housekeeping in the various apartments.

Manoj With His Mum

One day while going home I met a friend of mine, Dinesh. He was working for a social business and really enjoyed his job and so he proposed me to get introduced to Reality Tours and Travel. I took my interview and got the job offered, so I started my training. I have now been working as a respectful tour guide for 5 and half years with Reality Tours and Travel. I like being a tour guide as the job gives me the opportunity to meet different people from all over the world and who work in diverse professions.

Playing With A Goat On Our ‘Markets & Temples Tour’

At the same time, I was a quite interested in the career of one of my friends in the neighbourhood who was a hairdresser. He was busy working but also enjoyed his job. After talking to him and looking more into hairdressing, I found this to be a passion of mine, so I decided to start studying for it. This was not an easy thing for me as it was expensive to take the course and I had to start saving for that. However, while I continued to work as a tour guide for Reality Tours and Travel I managed to save for the course fee and started my hairdressing course. I got full support during my studies from the Reality Group and I successfully finished my course in 2016. Now, as well as being a tour guide, I am also a freelance hairdresser and one day I want to go to London to work for 2 to 4 years or more. Then the dream I want to fulfil is my mother’s dream: seeing me as a successful hairdresser and have a happy life. Let’s see what happens…we never know where the luck takes you around!

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Mumbai is known to be a fast city, where life just passes you by. Hailing from Mumbai, there are still various facets of our city which we are not exposed to. Mohammad Ali Road, one of the oldest quarters of the city, is one such facet most Mumbaikars have never experienced. Throughout the year, the bustling area is home to traders, merchants, labourers, overcrowded roads and a bevy of restaurants and many people do not venture into this neighbourhood, unless for work.

But during the Holy Month of Ramadan, the Mohammad Ali Road neighbourhood puts on a completely different garb, with streams of lights illuminating the area, restaurants showing off their best dishes in the evening, rendering a contemporary charm to this usually rustic neighbourhood.

At sunset, during the time of Iftaari, families and friends gather to sample some of the finger licking food that the restaurants have on offer. At around 7 pm, the prayers are read out by the High Priest of the Minara Masjid, announcing the breaking of the daily fast and a certain frenetic pace adds on to an already noisy neighbourhood.

Food Stalls, Mohammad Ali Road, Mumbai

Although I have visited the area many times in the past, I have never experienced it during the Holy Month of Ramadan at Iftaari, so I decided to go on a guided tour with Reality Tours and Travel and live this experience.

We started out at Chhattrapati Shivaji Terminus (the erstwhile Victoria Terminus) where we were introduced to our guide and the other people on the tour. Other people on the tour with me were foreign tourists and expats, who wanted to sample the unique and exotic flavours our vibrant city had to offer. We then took a taxi to the area of Mohammad Ali Road, from where we walked. Shining in all its glory at dusk, the Minara Masjid lane is lined with temporary food vendors and restaurants that have extended out their areas to almost all the road, with barely any place to walk. But despite this congestion, the aromas guide you and you can’t help but walk along in excitement, taking in the varied infusions in the air.

Minara Masjid Lane, Mumbai

We sat on a table under a makeshift shed, covering half of one of the narrow bylanes of Minara Masjid, around 15 minutes before the High Priest’s call for Iftaari. One couldn’t help but notice the increasing level of activity on the street with each passing minute. Once the announcement came through via the loudspeaker, the food plates were let loose. Some delectable food items served to us were chicken baida roti, mutton sheekh, chicken frankie, beef kebabs and portions and portions of chicken tandoori.

Meatballs from Mohammed Ali Rd, Mumbai

Halfway through the meal, it started pouring, given we were in the month of June, the onset of the Monsoon season in India. The rains didn’t dampen the buzz in the neighbourhood and the festivities continued as usual.

After the savoury meal, our next stop was to visit a resident family, who has been residing in this area for many generations. On the way to their house, we visited a sweet shop to sample some Indian sweets and pack a few sweet boxes for the family we were visiting. Walking through the bylanes, being lashed by the rains, one couldn’t help but notice the vintage architecture and design of the buildings and the quintessential verandas lined outside apartments in each building. The buildings in this neighbourhood seem to have brilliantly withstood the onslaught of decade’s redevelopment in Mumbai and have sustained its old world charm. Taking in such sights, we reached the house of the host family and were humbled by their hospitality and warmth. We were introduced to each of the family members and were told about the importance of the month of Ramadan & its beginnings. The patriarch of the family mentioned that this was the longest month of Ramadan in a few decades and how the heat in the city of Mumbai only made it tougher to fast all day. Nonetheless, everyone in the family fasted all through the month, signifying the underlying principle and ideology behind Ramadan – abstinence to purify body, mind and soul.

Making Our Way Through The Lanes

The next stop on our tour was a restaurant known for its desserts and we gorged on the Phirni (rice pudding) and Malpuas (deep fried pancakes coated with sugar syrup).This evening of blissful gluttony was still not over and we were taken to the ice cream shop right opposite the dessert place and were served dollops of great fruit ice cream, which in spite of our stuffed stomachs, found its way through, to satiate us.

Sweets

The experience of being from the city and still being surprised by the many hues and shades it offers, left me flummoxed, yet fulfilled. Am glad that I had the opportunity to do this tour and witness the shenanigans of this old, rustic yet beautiful part of town.

Author: Kunal L., a local Mumbai resident, who is passionate about travelling and new experiences

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My name is Shehnaz and I am working as a tour guide at Reality Tours and Travel. My family is originally from Bihar but my father moved to Delhi about 25 years ago to work and sustain the family. I was born in Delhi in a middle-class family and we are six siblings. My father is a tailor but I would like to call him an artist and, of course, my superhero…

I went to a government school and after completing my education, I used to help my mother in household work but I also wanted to keep studying, so I enrolled at the Indira Gandhi National Open University. I was a very shy girl and not confident at all, but I have been very lucky that God gave me a beautiful family who always encourages me to do well in my life. My father helped me to enrol for a Professional Hospitality course so that I could improve my general knowledge and my English language skills.

Shehnaz With Her Family

While doing this course my father again showed me the right direction to aim at. I also then enrolled on an NGO Health and Fitness trust where I got a wonderful opportunity to learn English along with computer skills. While doing this course I started getting very busy with homework and study but my mum always supported me both in helping me with studying and also giving me time at home. She is indeed a super mum and she always takes care of my family. At the end of the advanced computer course, I scored 1st rank in my batch and that made my family really happy and proud. They have been always there to support me and I was glad I rewarded them that way.

After finishing my computer course I continued to study English and also started a visual documentation course and now photography has become one of my favourite hobbies. Since I was a child I always loved to meet people from different countries and I always tried to talk to them and help them. After finishing the hospitality course I even more wanted to help people, especially those who are visiting my country. I want to show them Indian hospitality and culture. And one day this dream of mine came through when one of my friends mentioned Reality Tours and Travel to me. I joined this social business and I start doing training to become a tour guide.

Shehnaz Outside The Reality Tours And Travel Office In Sanjay Colony, Delhi

During my training process, I started learning about my country and city more and more and also started speaking more in English. I have become more knowledgeable about my city and this makes me feel very happy. Not only this builds up my confidence, but I also feel very much empowered on a personal level. I started doing tours on my own and started showing my culture and country to our guest. Being a girl in this men’s working society it quite difficult sometimes, especially being a tour guide. Sometimes it is quite challenging as you need to face a lot of different challenges while you are working.

My time schedule has changed completely. I never used to come home late at night and often I also have to go on tours in the early morning when no one is up and around. My family didn’t initially like this because coming back home late at night makes them worry because as a girl, and according to our society, girls should not be around late in the night as it is not safe, especially when I am often dealing time with men.

Shehnaz Graduates a Computer Course

Sometimes I find it difficult to manage house works and my job together Becoming a tour guide is not easy but now the Shehnaz who used to be shy and quiet has become a confident girl who can speak not only English but can even share her thoughts and views in front of many people. Now I am also helping my family and my father, who helps me all the time, and who’s my role model, he now feels proud of me.

Reality Tours and Travel has given me a lot of knowledge and confidence. I can now take good decisions in my life and I will always help all our guests and always keep India`s name in all our visitor’s hearts.

About the Author: Shehnaz is a female tour guide working for Reality Tours & Travel in Delhi.

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Slum tourism has become extremely popular in the 21st century, especially in Mumbai. With its escalating use, throughout media and existing scholarship slum tourism has generated a heated and critical debate especially concerning ethics and its so-called ‘voyeuristic’ nature. However, scholarly research on slum tourism remains limited and fragmented.

Reality Tours & Travel began, first and foremost, to serve the Dharavi Community. To bring people here to challenge the negative stereotypes they held about ‘slums’ and sensitise them to the multilayered, multifaceted cultures, communities and lives being played out in ‘Asia’s largest slum’. To turn the profits we made from taking these tours into tangible, positive change through our sister-NGO, Reality Gives.

A  Family in Dharavi

For us, it’s critically important that the Dharavi community we seek to serve has a say in what we are doing. That the community which is directly impacted by slum tourism are given a platform to voice their opinions in the debate.

Those external to the settlement often contest Dharavi, but what do the inhabitants of this settlement think about slum tourism? Do they think it is good or bad? Do they believe the tours are helping or disrupting the community? Have the presence of tourists changed life in the settlement?

Bearing these questions in mind, Durham University student Rudra Rhodes conducted research with us here, aiming to advance the theoretical discussion surrounding slum tourism today. Her report examines the perceptions of the Dharavi community towards slum tourism in Dharavi today, with a specific focus on Reality Tours & Travel and our sister-NGO, Reality Gives.

We’re delighted to share the result of a lot of hard work. Click here  to access ‘ Reality Tours and Travel: A Community Perception on Slum Tourism in Dharavi’ in its entirety and learn more.

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Salman Rushdie once wrote that “to understand just one life you have to swallow the world“. In Dharavi there’s an estimated one million lives. In Sanjay Colony, there’s a not inconsiderable 50,000.

As we try to convey on our educational tours, these communities are incredibly complex. Whilst the word ‘slum’ evokes a negative view (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition runs to ‘an area of a city where poor people live and the buildings are in bad condition‘) the reality is not so cut and dry. Yes, the challenging conditions show a lack of fairness in our societies and a failure of government  but there are also positive aspects; a strong sense of community, rents which make a rural urban migration possible and the potential for residence to play a part in shaping and moulding their environment.

Slums do not conform to a simplistic Dickensian definition of dirt, squalor and crime; neither should we assuage our sense of guilt at all that we have by romanticising the lives being played out there. The reality is it’s far more nuanced. To that end, here’s a few books straight from the Reality bookshelf which might help shape your understanding of what is an incredibly complex topic.

Arrival City – Doug Saunders

In a nutshell: The 21st century will see a final rural to urban migration driven by the desire of the rural poor to access a better life, improved job opportunities and social mobility.

Whilst Saunders accepts the challenges of life in a slum, he believes in their importance in facilitating this rural urban migration and argues that rather than seek to obliterate them, they need to be understood, supported and developed, and in doing so, will facilitate personal empowerment, social mobility and economic development.

What our staff say: “Interwoven with personal encounters from his travels (as far ranging as India, China and Turkey and as close to home as Tower Hamlets in London) this makes for a really engaging and thought provoking read”.

Rediscovering Dharavi – Kalpana Sharma

In a nutshell: First published in 2000, journalist Kalpana Sharma brings the history of ‘Asia’s Largest Slum’ to life with stories and anecdotes taken from Dharavi residents, and in doing so, captures much of Dharavi’s industry and vibrancy.

What our staff say: “Sharma says she wrote this book to challenge widely held misconceptions amongst her fellow Mumbaikars, to show the importance of Dharavi and it’s residents in the life of the rest of Mumbai and give a voice to slum dwellers which comprise of half the population of the city – she has certainly done that!”.

Slumming It – Fabian Frenzel

In a nutshell: ‘Slumming It’ looks at the causes and consequences of slum tourism.

Whilst being at times quite academic in tone, this book charts the history of what is mistakenly taken to be a modern phenomenon all the way back to Victorian England and considers why it has seen a recent resurgence.

In doing so, Frenzel visited my slum tour operators across the world, including ourselves.

What our staff say: “Drawing upon Fabian’s extensive travels and research this book takes a thoughtful, considered look at what can is a very divisive topic. We’re delighted to have been able to have supported him in his researching it!”.

 The Durable Slum – Liza Weinstein

In a nutshell: Another Dharavi specific book (which is a bit meatier than Kalpana Sharma’s ‘Rediscovering Dharavi’) which looks at how and why Dharavi has endured for over a century whilst other slums across India have been laid to waste by the bulldozers of progress.

Weinstein considers the role  economic globilisation, urbanisation and India’s fractured politics has played in Dharavi’s fragile survival and looks to the future, with the land Dharavi occupies now representing commanding a vast real estate price and the Dharavi Redevelopment Project perpetually looming on the horizon.

What our staff say: “Informed by over a decade of research, a year of which was spend in Dharavi itself, this book gives an incredible overview of the factors which have shaped Dharavi’s precarious history, and those which will determine its future”.

Planet of Slums – Mike Davis

In a nutshell: The Guardian’s Ian Sansom describes this book as a ‘horrifying but essential read’ – Davis comes down far and hard on the side of being against slums.

Whilst drawing from a plethora of statistics, Davis employs wild exaggeration and hyperbole to sensationalise the topic. Whilst this has made his work accessible and widely read the book presents an incredibly unbalanced view.

What our staff say: “Davis’ polemic is coloured by anger, indignation and vitriol. Whilst this makes for an engaging read, there’s a complete lack of balance in the dystopian future he projects.”

Poor Little Rich Slum – Rashmi Bansal & Deepak Gandhi

In a nutshell: ‘Poor Little Rich Slum’ presents a series of snapshots of some of Dharavi’s one million residents, showcasing their dreams, aspirations and passions.

Through these stories Bansal and Gandhi celebrate the industry and enterprise of Dharavi. What’s more, by making these stories so engaging and accessible, they have taken Dharavi to an Indian audience who are amongst those with the most negative perception of this place and those that live there.

What our staff say: “Running to around 200 pages and made up of very short (though rather strangely laid out) chapters, this is a nice introduction to Dharavi, via some stories about the lives lived there.”

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