Editor's Letter


Story of a slum


Bombay – now renamed Mumbai, its original Marathi name – was the first city in Asia I ever visited; and far from being a foreign country, I was amazed to find how resonant were the echoes of our own industrial experience – and indeed my own childhood – in the lives of the people.

Picture of Jeremy Seabrook. It was there in the written accounts of the reformers and observers of nineteenth-century Britain. But it was also there in the memories of my own mother’s family of Britain in the Edwardian era – the workers, little more than children, tying knots and punching holes at benches in the shoe factories of my home town, the remembrance of a countryside from which they had reluctantly departed in the 1860s, the networks of mutual help, the social security of family, the wages of the only earner – usually a man – which alone stood between an insecure sufficiency and absolute destitution.

Mumbai did not seem strange, even though culture, climate and geography of the tropical city close to the Arabian Sea could not have been more different from the red-brick streets and the smoking chimney-pots under the cold drizzly skies of the English Midlands.

I have been returning there again and again over the past 20 years. I have seen global integration leading to even greater convergence between the experience of workers of North and South. We now have our increasing pockets of dereliction among those who have been evicted and marginalized by the industrial system, just as the cities of the South have their enclaves of staggering wealth, guarded by barbed wire, armed guards and high walls. Working conditions in the sweatshops of Sydney and Toronto increasingly resemble those in the slums of Dhaka and Jakarta. The homeless on the streets of New York evoke the pavement dwellers of Mumbai.

The cities of the South present us with powerful images of our own past, but also with images of our possible future, unless we rapidly learn or re-learn the lessons of solidarity, collective resistance and internationalism. It is not that the workers of the North risk being reduced to the level of the Third World, but that such a fate should not be visited upon human beings anywhere. India celebrates 50 years of Independence this year; but the poor remain as poor as ever.

We can see in the process of globalization a common destiny; one that shows us clearly the necessity for unity across lines of race, religion and gender. It is an uncomfortable but uplifting experience; and it is in this spirit that I describe here my ten years of contact with a poor community in the slums of Bombay. In the Indian context, the word ‘slum’ has no inherent derogatory meaning; it is simply an unplanned shelter, usually constructed by the people who live in it. The word ‘slum’ tells us something of the living conditions but nothing about the qualities of the people themselves.

This magazine tells the story of a slum called Sanjay Gandhi Nagar. I first went there in 1986, and have been visiting regularly ever since. I have witnessed the struggles of people like Madhuker Kamble and Gurubai Koli, of Shravan Maishe and Uday Raj. I have seen the problems they have keeping a sense of community in an hostile environment. I offer an account of them here in the hope that we may recognize our own selves in their dreams and dilemmas.

Jeremy Seabrook

Jeremy Seabrook
for the New Internationalist Co-operative

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New Internationalist issue 290 magazine cover This article is from the May 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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