Sound Mapping in noisy/busy/lovely Dharavi

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Ask someone to blindfold you and lead you through Dharavi. Listen. Ask the guide to shout out if someone does the very Mumbai thing of spitting paan. Otherwise, listen.

Although you’d like to imagine that a soundwalk through Dharavi would tell you where you are according to the noises that fill your ears, it’s not always possible. Chances are that you will be puzzled by the alarming number of sounds that are jammed together. Some sounds are comforting: children playing, sugarcane juice wallas, chai wallas and, perhaps, street Chinese food being prepared. For the most part, however, Dharavi is a cacophony. The industrial sounds that pervade parts of Dharavi co-exist with domestic sounds.

We are mapping the sounds of Dharavi with Megapolis India, and we have narrowed down on two particular areas of interest. Mukund Nagar, a space with a mix of residences and sweatshops, is on 90 Feet Road. The gravelly grind of machines making belts, buckles and wallets plays out rhythmically in most of the streets. The machines have specific tasks – punching holes or finishing off ends – but they all sound very similar. The buzz of welders and their rain of sparks is also there on most days. But Mukund Nagar is also a place where children congregate after school around kulfi wallas and vendors selling sour eatables like mangoes and amla, and where they play Power Rangers.

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The other area where we are recording sounds is Sanaullah Compound, closer to Mahim railway station, where many kinds of recycling units are stacked against each other. Here, the shredding of plastic, the burning of aluminium furnaces and the sacks of scrap being thrown down from trucks are frequently heard. The screeching sounds from rusty shredding machines make one wonder how the labourers can work without the use of earplugs. For these labourers, most of whom are migrants, Sanaullah is work and home. A little shack of a restaurant, paan kiosks, barbers, an ironing man, chai stalls and various other essentials of daily living function side by side. Against this background, the aural predominance is of men talking business (or gossiping) over phones or with each other. Understandably, they don’t want their conversations recorded.

Walking around trying to be inconspicuous with a recorder in our hands, we realised that some sounds are bound to perish with time and modern lifestyles, such as the sounds of game machines in a very 90s video parlour or the bell of a kulfi seller. Collecting these sounds could be a way of creating an aural museum and complementing visual archives of Dharavi.

After some six field visits, we’re asking these questions: What are the sounds that distinguish Dharavi? Which sounds do we love and which do we complain about? Amidst blaring horns at traffic-choked chowks and the constant chatter of people, what if you wanted a moment of silence? Where does the Dharavi person go in search of a quiet place?

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Junk-ed in Dharavi

In search of materials for art pieces for the Dharavi Biennale, we head to the road that runs from Dharavi to Mahim. On this road, flanked on one side by a plastic-filled sewage channel and on the other by mangroves, are scrap shops where refrigerators, ACs and washing machines meet their end part by part. Of course, calling them shops might be an overstatement, but they are too narrow to be called junkyards. About twenty such stalls are interspersed with others that recycle wood and oil tins.
Aslam, a 32 year old junk dealer, dismantles about ten domestic appliances a week. Despite paying Rs. 3000 a month for his stall, the job allows him to support his family of four. He is a cog in the recycling wheel and rests between shops and the smaller scrap collection units. The electrical appliances that arrive have mostly been dumped by showrooms after an “exchange offer” season gets over. In Aslam’s hands, a washing machine is disassembled into usable parts – drum, plastic frame, copper wiring, and so on. Sometimes the washing machines are just about useable and he sells them to less wealthy customers: a freshly washed blue and white example stands outside his stall.

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From across the road, a pillar of foul-smelling smoke rises, but Aslam and his friends who have collected around us are clearly not affected. The whole pavement exudes the smell of plastic, but Aslam says he has done this work all his life and doesn’t mind at all. His friend Rafiq, a driver from Dharavi, says that if you have experienced the winters of Uttar Pradesh (UP), where they are from, you will know what Aslam is talking about. Newcomers may find it difficult to bear the UP winter (or the Dharavi smoke), “But we have adapted to it,” says Rafiq. Nevertheless, Aslam would prefer his children not to take up this line of work. “Who knows what the world will be like years from now?” he says.

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A neighbouring stall glistens with metal, the path into it soapy and slippery from the towers of oil tins stacked inside.The empty tins arrive from restaurants and shops and are cleaned and sent back to oil factories. In the dimly lit room, three men clean about 300 tins a day. 40 year old Tribhuvan, the oldest and the most experienced, asks me to tread carefully and offers some chai. He works every day for 12 hours a day and has been doing so since the age of 15 when he came to Mumbai from UP with a bunch of neighbours from his village. “This was the big city, you know. We thought, this is where job opportunities will be available,” he says as he soaps an oily tin. There are no promotions or pay packages in his job; just the promise of a daily wage.

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Behind affable Tribhuvan rise towers of tins, but there is no sign of a ladder. You realise that there is no need for one when you see Mohamed Yakub, who has been working here for the last 15 years, shuffle sets of tins around to form a makeshift flight of steps. He clambers nimbly up the towers and is obviously proud of the system. Sets of oil tins can become anything here: ladders, towers, stools, armchairs, thrones, livelihood.