Places Behind

Excerpts from Chapter 2 – Places Behind


“There are no unemployed people in Dharavi.”

Asia’s biggest slum is explained to me in the back of an air conditioned car, Oscar frenzy and political myth wedged deep between the seats.

Parked on Station Road, we sit at the edge of Dharavi’s recycling sector, or 13th Compound as it’s known locally. Approximately 50 acres of industry which manages Mumbai’s entire municipal operation.

Turning over an estimated $300m per annum, this mix of green and black markets is totally unregulated. On the bank books of Mumbai it doesn’t officially exist.

There are a lot of things missing in Dharavi, especially for the work force. But after seeing what I saw, I want more than the word ‘slum’ to describe it.


Hanging baskets and pot plants, vine leaves from flowerbed to rooftop; Khotachiwadi feels like the Konkan coast, the South West shoreline that runs from Maharashtra to north Kerala.  

Three boys play frivolously on a red bicycle, nudging and goading each other up and down the cobbles. Two of the boys laugh as their friend nearly collides with a dog, half asleep on the ground.

Dobi Ghats

By the entrance to Mahalaxmi Station in South Central Mumbai, Dhobi Ghats is an easy tourist attraction. Literally meaning ‘place to wash’, Dhobi Ghats is where most of Mumbai’s commercial laundry gets cleaned. In a city with so much dirt it’s a never ending business.

Irani Cafe & Bakery

Cafe culture; a bastard expression made up by marketers, trying to ‘position’ their latest Barista Coffee House. But it exists, and the necessity of meeting points can be prevalent in a city of 25 million.
I’m meeting Neville at The Regal, his friend’s family’s cafe in Byculla. We didn’t specify a time, but I have chai, bread, and the owner’s son, Pouris, to keep me company. Pouris is Neville’s friend from childhood, growing up in the same Parsi ‘colony’ nearby, and is talking to me about the business he is proud to inherit.

At their zenith, there were approximately 350 Iranian cafés in Mumbai; now there are less than 30. The first one I knew of was the Yazdani, a small eatery and bakery near Churchgate station.
Yadazni’s owner and manager, an engaging man in his late 70’s – whose name I sadly forget, once explained to me, ‘without our customers we are nothing’; before circling parts of my Lonely Planet guide book that ‘are the only things, in this city, worth seeing’.
He also told me, ‘if you want to write about India, you must first read Bowhani Junction’, a book by John Masters; one my Grandma had recommend after I first visited India.