A Day in Dharavi

That day slept in deep memory until Dharavi appeared in news reports about the threat of COVID-19. It wasn’t a Westerner’s curiosity about the plight of poor people that brought me in 2003 after an engagement in Mumbai; it was an introduction to a medical practitioner who worked in the slum. She cared for patients of all kinds, but after flooding from the monsoon she was treating dengue virus. I came with questions.

Mumbai, India
Not a million miles from Dharavi

A first visit to India is an overpowering experience. The immense crowds, poverty, religious spirit, stoicism, heat, and intense colors.

Dharavi squats between arteries of the rail network. As a visitor, I felt the alien I was, but the stares I received, mostly from teenagers in t-shirts, were invariably friendly and I never felt as threatened as in some American inner cities. It’s a community of many religions and none, so creed is less likely to explain low crime than the narrow wealth gap compared to our cities. A millionaire in Dharavi would be incongruous.

The biggest slum in Asia with half a million people crammed in a square mile wasn’t on the tourist trail then, although I hear of tours for inquisitive trekkers today, maybe encouraged by Slumdog Millionaire earning Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It would be a naff voyeur who came to photograph poverty, and some tour companies observe a strict ethical code.

Dharavi defies common notions of slum-living. It’s true that people live cheek by jowl in concrete homes under corrugated roofs beside narrow passageways for noisy streams of pedestrians and auto rickshaws. Overhead there is a tangle of power lines that would look alarming to engineers, polluted waterways horrify environmentalists, and piles of trash condemned by public health departments at home. There is an odor in the air, but it’s not fetid. Some children go barefoot, but most residents take pride in personal appearance and sloth is foreign to them. A beehive is an apt metaphor for the industry inside the maze. There are potteries, tanneries, tailors, shoemakers, food stalls, and recycling enterprises. Some lawyers and doctors reside there, including the one I visited. It is a vibrant community.

Above all, the crush of humanity was the most lasting memory. It’s hard to imagine how people can keep a safe social distance to avoid infection with the coronavirus or find access to facilities for frequent washing of hands. The risk of contagion is acute, and a reminder of the thousands who died of plague there in the 1890s. Remember Dharavi and places like it.


Jean Purdy_Remembering a Pioneer

Some of the most absorbing stories I ever read were from historians and biographers when they bring to light the lives of forgotten pioneers and heroes. On the rare occasions my writing and research can cast a light on a past life I feel moved by the discovery and heavy with responsibility. I imagine archeologists feel likewise when excavating a pile of old bones in some forgotten tomb if they unexpectedly uncover real treasure— buried evidence to name the bones and flesh them with a notable life story.

These thoughts stirred when I walked the dogs on Jamestown Island. I stopped to chat with a group of archeologists working on the burial site of the first African American woman brought to North America. “Angela” died around 1625, but their work is making her better known than she ever was in her lifetime.

Margot Lee Shetterly has been excavating recent history for her book Hidden Figures, which is now a Hollywood movie. She tells the story of African-American women mathematicians who made major contributions to the NASA space program, although, sadly, only one of the trio lived to enjoy the belated public acclaim.

Young Jean

Stories like these have encouraged me to try to give people I admire the dash of immortality that a story in print offers.  I wrote a short biography of an Englishwoman called Jean Purdy in last month’s issue of the journal Human Fertility. She died at the age of 39 in 1985, but never lived to see how the struggles of her tiny research team have blossomed from a breakthrough to a medical revolution that is creating millions of families with IVF babies. The article is free online here.



A Memoir from Western New Guinea

While all these thoughts rolled through my head, Gil was sitting on the bed beside Jake. I resumed our conversation as if I was never absent in mind.

“It’s a bitter irony to be felled by a stroke here after surviving danger in Papua.”

“We are waiting for tests,” Gil said. “He might’ve been poisoned like another colleague.”

“Poisoned here?” I couldn’t believe an assassin was lurking in New York.

We left for a quick bite at a diner off Seventh where we sat in a quiet corner and ordered steaming bowls of lentil soup. The warmth helped to melt the wariness of strangers. I wanted to know more about Jake’s work and the struggle for independence. Gil leaned back in the booth to wipe his spectacles and collect his thoughts.

“We were in DC for an award the night before he fell ill. We thought human rights in our land would get attention at last. It’s a long story few people here know or care about.”

Market day in the mountains

I knew the threads of history: how Dutch New Guinea was preparing for independence when General Suharto annexed it, how at the height of the Cold War the West turned a blind eye because his regime was a bastion against communist insurgency. There was a multilateral agreement supposed to safeguard the rights of indigenous people by a plebiscite, but it was a sham and merely switched Papua from a Dutch to an Indonesian colony. Political dissidents fled or joined OPM bush fighters, no match for the army or the more-feared paramilitaries who made punitive raids on villages. No one knew for sure how many people died in those decades, and I didn’t ask for grisly stories.

“Indonesia is now a democracy and its army withdrew from East Timor. Why not Papua next?”

Gil sighed. “We are a long way from Jakarta. There’s a limit to what even a good prime minister can do, and the West won’t put pressure on a friendly and moderate Muslim nation.”

“I guess the mine is a big problem, the one that got Jake into trouble. No one should go hungry or homeless in a country that rich.” I found the gold mine on Google Earth, a dirty ochre stain in place of a green baize for tribal homelands. Apart from token support of local communities, the wealth was exported for American stockholders and government coffers in Jakarta. I was more than angry, I was heart-broken at losing Eden.

“Mmm. The mine too,” he said.

A few weeks later, Jake moved out of the hospital to a friend’s home a few blocks away. His physical recovery was painfully slow and the ‘Voice of his People’ was now aphasic despite dedicated effort by therapists.

After I moved away it was hard to contact him, but the following winter I called ahead to meet in the Village. I stood in a pool of light outside a diner on the sidewalk and examined every black man who passed. Finally, one emerged out of the shadows, his teeth gleaming in the light and hand attempting a wave. He sauntered into my embrace.

“How are you?” I asked. He felt strong again, but could he speak?

“Fine,” he rasped. That was his only word, but nods and smiles are fine communication between friends.

“How’s your medication?”


I heard his stroke was not from any act of malice, but a complication of an infection caught in Papua for which he needed retroviral drugs. I never forgot the poignancy.

The End