Mahim East is perhaps not an area in Mumbai that attracts tourists in hordes. As the train approaches Mahim Junction, I’m struck by the extreme and poor settlements along the railway line and the amount of garbage is overwhelming.
Mahim East is also home to Dharavi, for many years known as Asia’s largest slum. Slum is a broad term and not always about poverty, but also entrepreneurship and – surprisingly for many – wealth, as in parts of Dharavi. The way people choose to live doesn’t always reflect their general standard of life.
We are on our way to Mahim to look at street art, largely huge murals in strong colours and vigorous expressions. We walk around with our necks bent towards the sky to be sure not to miss anything, and we admire what we see.
What primarily characterizes the murals is their size. Entire end-walls of many buildings are covered with colourful drawings and you must have a good wide angle on your camera to capture it all. Over the years, the rainy season has been putting its mark on the buildings’ facades. The rain, mixed with pollution, has mixed new lines into the art and given it a completely new texture.
Mahim East, like so many other districts in Mumbai, is almost a city of its own. The lower middle class as we know it in India lives and works here, and the district is partly characterized by poverty. The large murals are part of a project that wants to beautify the decrepit expression of the district and many different artists, including foreign ones, have contributed.
Some tour guides will take you to Mahim East as part of a visit to Dharavi.
We catch a local train at Churchgate station in Mumbai. I brace myself for a long journey because going places in a megalopolis often includes a tiresome pre-journey. Right now, we’re heading towards the airport to visit the Asalpha settlement. Viren, my guide, has a nose for the unexpected and from what I have googled, I’m in for a different experience!
When in Rome, we do as the … in this case Mumbaikars do. Sitting down is not an option, Viren persuades, claiming standing in the doorway is part of the ultimate Mumbai experience. Rolling northwards with my hair in a flutter of panic, the movement of the train, accompanied by Viren’s steady voice-over, eventually eases my mind.
We get off at Andheri (the ultimate Mumbai experience tells me to jump off the train while moving) and head for the metro station. It is surprisingly empty, no hustle and bustle as we walk undisturbed through the barriers, and hit the stairs. When the train glides onto the platform, we put one foot in front of the other and board in a civilised manner. “Welcome to Europe,” Viren chimes. And yes, the metro coach is clean and cool, and we realise that a seat-row meant for four will not be occupied by six.
After this short and blissful journey, we reach the Ghatkopar suburb and Asalpha is close by now; placed on a hillock, we get a good view of it from the metro station. It’s a colourful sight, but either the paint has faded, or the photos and footage on You Tube have been heavily Photoshopped; a lot many photographers must have hit the hue and saturation buttons hard. Still, the rainbow-coloured settlement stands out from the monotonous browns and greys marking any other settlement or basti I have seen.
According to a website, the Asalpha hillock came alive with colours over a weekend in 2018. A group of 750 volunteers came together to paint walls and create murals. All thanks to a woman who – on her way to work – watched the area from the train every day, and the idea hit her: Chal Rang De (Let’s paint it).
We are about to start our ascent when I spot a meticulously painted wrought iron gate. Before I’ve had a chance to get my camera ready, a woman comes into sight, as if she’s behind bars – but some bars! She probably greets more than one tourist in a day; soon she and Viren are engaged in animated talk which I’m not able to follow.
This is promising, I’m thinking, and soon trot along accompanied by Viren’s voice-over. Due to heavy morning rain our excursion has become a mid-day tour, but the ground is still slippery and this is definitely a watch-your-step-experience. At the same time I’m manoeuvring two cameras, a water bottle and a camera rucksack which most probably will end up on Viren’s back.
I have always been intrigued by the colours of India, be it the colourful and bright female clothing or pastel-coloured houses. The winding roads, or paths, rather, going uphill are lined with pink, turquoise, yellow, light blue and green little dwellings. Some house small trades, like the one we peep into where a man is busy ironing. And who knows what else is hidden behind all the doors? We spot at least one beauty salon. Money has always been made just about everywhere in India.
Viren must have researched the area well, because a maze of alleyways lead to the top. We’re taking right and left turns in a steady attack of the liveliest part of the colour range. It’s not only people’s homes that liven up the area; water barrels, buckets, water hoses, and of course – the unavoidable blue tarpaulins. There are splashes of colours everywhere and – it goes without saying – the people of Asalpha (and their washing on omnipresent clotheslines), are no less colourful. Asalpha is also known for its murals, or street art, and it makes the climb all the more fun.
Children are running around the lanes, but space is restricted. There are no open or green areas, the lanes a steady uphill (or downhill). In a doorway, a mother picks lice from her daughter’s hair, ten-year-old brazen boys flash smiles with impeccable white teeth, little girls hide behind their mother’s saris; everyday life in a basti.
“Asalpha isn’t really a slum,” Viren claims. And poverty is not what springs to mind as we’re nearing the summit slightly out of breath in the humid environment. But India’s general wear and tear is visible everywhere.
Having reached the very top, we sit down at a wall that doubles as a bench. Facing the opposite direction, I realise how colourful Asalpha is. The settlement on the other side of the metro line is an amalgamation of brown and grey save for the blue tarpaulins doing their best to add some colour to the gloomy landscape. With the airport so close, we’re lost in the fascination of the steady flow of descending jets. They seem to plunge right into the Andheri slums that almost border the runway of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.
We meander downhill and Viren choses another route. New murals come into sight, they range from graphic to childlike, psychedelic even, generous women with children allow us to take their pictures and if colours could smell I’d be completely intoxicated after such an adventure.
I was at Asalpha in September 2019 with the Zamorin of Bombay.