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.
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.
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.