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.

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Chai with Lakshman and Savitri

On one of our trips to locate health signboards in Dharavi, we were invited to visit the home of Lakshman Mane, the elderly participant in the workshop. He takes us through a narrow gully with no house numbers and then ushers us in through a narrow door. It is a modest house, typical of Mumbai flats, with an upper loft that converts into a bedroom. There are several things not belonging to this century in his house. An old cupboard, wall hangings made of intricately woven wire and monochrome photographs.

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His wife Savitri makes sizzling cups of chai for us. As we inhale the gingery aroma of the chai, she shows off her latest creation – a toran adorned with pompoms made from old cloth. It is a serpentine and grand toran and she says that it was recently around the neck of a Ganesha idol in a nearby mandal. She has also made a smaller one for the entrance of their house. Torans are traditionally entrance decorations in Hindu homes and this one looks pretty unique with its pompoms. While Savitri learnt pompom making at our Sewing Club by Susie Vickery, she has her own skill set of making woven table mats and rugs.

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Lakshman used to be a mill worker a few decades ago and he lost his job when the mills closed down in the 1980s. His expertise was in the huge industrial looms and saw heaps of cotton converted into the softest cloth for men’s trousers. He is a skilled artist as well, as was evident during this workshop when he took discarded pieces of cane and transformed them into brushes. This technique, he says, is how he and his friends painted in their childhood. “We lived in times when you could shop for a day’s grocery with one rupee. Today’s generation does not know what a sweet feeling that was!” says Lakshman.

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