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Dreams meet reality in the slums of Mumbai

 MUMBAI, India –  Dr. Harish Ahire led us through a maze of crowded, narrow alleyways, navigating around excited groups of barefoot children and women washing pots in buckets of precious water, just inches away from open sewers.

"When it rains, the sewage runs into their homes," he told me.

A woman rose from her washing, gesturing with broad sweeps of her arm from the sewer to the door of her tiny room, home to eight members of her family, who were huddled around a small television watching a soap opera.

Watch a video showing the plight of the poor in Mumbai. The entire piece is viewable on the San Jose Mercury News site.

"The big problem is contagious diseases – from the water. There is no clean water, no proper sanitation, no ventilation," Ahire said. Almost on cue, a large bedraggled rat strolled nonchalantly across the alley. A woman took a half-hearted swing at it with a stick, more through wary familiarity than any sense of shock.

We continued to the edge of the slum, where piles of rubbish tumbled down the banks of a stagnant river, into which most of the slum's waste eventually found its way.

Impossibly crowded
Ahire looked a little out of place in his crisp, white shirt, but the 63-year-old doctor was brought up in Mumbai's slums, where he now works, his clinic a simple two-story building near the entrance of the Ghatkopar slum.

He's a fierce advocate of the rights of India's lower castes, and I'd first met him more than 10 years ago, in the wake of a riot, during which the police had shot dead 11 slum dwellers.  

The incident was soon forgotten; the often-brutal world of the slums isn't something India likes to dwell on, even though half of Mumbai's 17 million people live in what is quaintly referred to as "informal housing."

Image: Dr. Harish Ahire and daughter
Ian Williams/ NBC News
Dr. Harish Ahire and his daughter at their clinic in Ghatkopar slum, Mumbai

It's a catchall description for everything from simple roadside shelters, often little more than a plastic sheet to sleep under, to cardboard huts, to more permanent and sturdier settlements of concrete and corrugated iron – all of which seem almost impossibly crowded.

Ahire's slum, or colony, as the residents refer to it, is home to around 100,000 people. Mumbai's biggest, Dharavi, is home to 1 million – by some estimates the biggest and most squalid slum in Asia. Some 18,000 people crowd in per single acre there. It is a city within a city, with its own informal economy of small businesses.

Mumbai may be India's financial and entertainment capital, but you can't miss Mumbai's slums from the moment you fly in, since they encroach right onto airport land. They sit cheek by jowl with apartment blocks renting units for thousands of dollars a month.  And each year they grow bigger, as Mumbai serves as a magnet for those seeking a better life in the city.

Mixed reaction to the 'Slumdog'
Ahire hadn't heard of the movie "Slumdog Millionaire" – few have in the slums – but he says the rags to riches tale is one that resonates there. It's what draws people to Mumbai, though few will ever escape the grinding poverty in which they live. Ahire was an exception; he managed to train as a doctor, as has his eldest daughter. His youngest daughter is studying law.

The slums are a fact of life here. Middle-class India goes about its life as if they hardly exist. It is the new India of computer services and call centers that usually attracts the attention of the world – even though this touches on only a minority of Indians.

The movies made by the country's prolific film industry – Bollywood – rarely dwell on the gritty side of life in the colonies the way "Slumdog Millionaire" does. Bollywood mostly serves up a diet of feel-good escapist movies.

For this reason, some questioned whether Slumdog would appeal to Indian audiences. For all the Indian talent in the movie – and the pride at the awards – it is a foreign-made film, and India can be prickly when it comes to foreigners pointing up its darker underbelly.

Since the film was released in India, there have been some protests – slum dwellers objecting to the word "dog" in the title of the film tore down posters and ransacked a movie theater where the movie was playing in Patna, in the eastern state of Bihar. And in Mumbai, slum residents held a protest last week and held up banners reading "Poverty for Sale" and "I am not a dog." But despite reports criticizing the film's creators for not adequately compensating the child actors, their parents have come forward to defend the creators.

Image: Barber at work
Ian Williams/ NBC News
A barber at work in the Ghatkopar slum in Mumbai.

For some, escape is still just a dream
Meantime, the slums encroach on the doorstep of one of Mumbai's most wealthy suburbs, Andheri, sometimes referred to as Mumbai's Beverly Hills. It is where Bollywood's top actors and producers live, and where we met Johnny Lever, one the country's most popular comedians, who has acted in more than 300 Bollywood movies.

Lever was born and raised in Dharavi, where as a child he scraped a living for his family by mimicking movie stars. He had no formal education and could not speak proper Hindi (he spoke the street slang of the slums), but his impersonations and song and dance routines eventually drew the attention of the real Bollywood.

"If you have talent, nothing can stop you," he told me. "You can get out of the slums."

Ahire isn't so sure. "I realized my dream," he told me. "I became a doctor." But for most of those living in Mumbai's teeming slums getting out of the slums remains just that – a dream.

Related links:
Newsweek: 'Slumdog Millionaire' Director Defends Film
Child star, parents defend 'Slumdog' creators