This is how Dharavi wakes up. On 90 Feet Road, named for its alleged width (even if 60 Feet Road, the slum's other main drag, is considerably wider), the cab drivers coax their battered Fiats to life. In the potters' neighborhood, black smoke is already pouring from six-foot-square (one square meter) kilns. By the mucky industrial canal, the recyclers are in full swing. In Dharavi nothing is considered garbage. Ruined plastic toys are tossed into massive grinders, chopped into tiny pieces, melted down into multicolored pellets, ready to be refashioned into knockoff Barbie dolls. Here every cardboard box or 55-gallon (208 liters) oil drum has another life, and another one after that.
Mornings at Rajendra Prasad Chawl are equally hectic. With the eight furniture makers to whom she rents part of her apartment gone for the day, Meera Singh combs the hair of her grandchildren: Atul, 7, Kanchan, 10, and Jyoti, 12. Soon the apartment, home to 15, is empty, save for Meera and her twentysomething son, Amit, he of the dashing mustache and semi-hipster haircut. A couple of years ago, the Singh family, like everyone else in Dharavi, sat in front of the television to see local singer Abhijit Sawant win the first Indian Idol contest. But now Meera is watching her favorite TV personality, the orange-robed yoga master, Baba Ramdev, who demonstrates an antiaging technique: rubbing your fingernails against each other at a rapid pace.
"Why listen to this fool?" dismisses Amit.
"You know nothing," Meera shoots back. "His hair is black, and he is more than 80 years old."
"Eighty? He's no more than 40. Don't fall for these cheating tricks."
Meera shakes her head. She gave up trying to talk sense to Amit long ago. "His head is in the clouds," she says. She wishes he'd get a job as did his brother Manoj, who sews jeans in one of Dharavi's kaarkhanas, or sweatshops. But this is not for him, Amit says. A thinker, he sees his life in terms of "a big picture." Central to this conceit is the saga of how the Singhs came to Dharavi in the first place. Members of the Kshatriyas, regarded as second only to Brahmans in the caste system, Amit's great uncles were zamindars, or landlords, in the service of the British. Stripped of privilege after independence, the family moved from Uttar Pradesh to Mumbai, where Amit's father worked in the textile mills. The collapse of the mills in the 1970s landed the family in Dharavi.
It is this story of chance and fate ("A hundred years ago we would have been bosses," he says) that spurs Amit's outsize sense of self. He's always got a dozen things going. There's his soap powder pyramid scheme, his real estate and employment agency gambits. New is his exterminator firm, for which he has distributed hundreds of handbills ("No bedbug! No rat!"), claiming to be Dharavi's "most trusted" vermin remover, despite having yet to exterminate one cockroach.