The Banality of Poverty, or, The Sketches by Boz / by Johnny Miller

“Streets and courts dart in all directions, until they are lost in the unwholesome vapour which hangs over the house-tops and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined.”

Charles Dickens’ first book, Sketches By Boz, is a collection of essays describing life in 1830’s London. Ribald, raw, and unflinchingly honest, Dickens was a masterful storyteller. He described areas which most people felt were too dirty, too low class, too dangerous to venture into themselves — the slums. He was able to humanize them through his eclectic characters, simultaneously repulsing and attracting his readers with descriptions of grime, crime, and vice…but also humor, love, and hope.

When I first came to Dharavi I actually felt like I had stepped back in time. I marveled at how…Dickensian everything seemed. Men perched high on bamboo latticeworks, smoking cigarettes. Children playing marbles in the alleyways. Narrow alleyways, filled with intoxicating aromas of spice, glimpses through open doors of Hindu shrines, spiderwebs of electrical wires dripping in the monsoon rains.

But most of all I was fascinated by the industriousness of the place. The tradesmen. The laborers. The small businesses, thousands of them, contained in every home, every open space, and every roadside. Everywhere was a hustle, even the beggars (of which there were few) aggressively seeking their rupees.

My colleague Dinesh and I arrived at an aluminum smelting operation early in the morning after a long walk through a labyrinthine warren of alleyways. The fire was already raging inside the bottom floor of the slum house, the charcoal fuel giving off a dank, acrid smoke. The smoke suffused the alleyway in the heavy morning air, suffocating the houses surrounding it.

Two men sat outside, leaning heavily on what looked like long metal spades. Sweat stood out on their skin, their eyes rimmed red. This was their job, and theirs alone: Harvest aluminum scrap wiring from around Mumbai, bring it to this dark, smoky room, melt it, and pour the molten liquid into giant molds. All by hand. All without any protective equipment. All while living in the room upstairs.

Behind them stood the blocks of aluminum, stacked head high. I wondered how many metal products I used in Mumbai on a daily basis, and which came from smelters like this. Would I give it a second thought once I left? Would it actually change my habits of consumption? People tend to glamorize recycling as a “green activity”…but what I was witnessing was anything but “green”.

Speaking no common language, I followed one of the men into the room with the blazing fire. He hefted his spade and gave me a look, completely blank and devoid of emotion. This was not fun for him, nor was it ironic, or difficult, or any other adjective. It simply, “was”.

In that moment, before he began to plunge the molten aluminum, I saw an emptiness reflected in his eyes. He seemed to look through me, not with disdain, but completely and total apathy. I realized that this was David Adler calls the “Banality of Poverty”. He writes,

“While we gawk at slums and their exotic properties, the day-to-day experience of the living in them more often is ordinary, slow, and fraught with deeply quotidian struggle.”

More often than not, artists seek to reaffirm their beliefs through their work. If a slum seems romantic, then we will portray the romance. If they seem scary to us, we will portray the evil.

But what happens when the reality is both? And how do we represent the banality, the drudgery, the “quotidian struggle” without spin, without an angle? Or perhaps more accurately, without “our” angle?

Adler continues, “Yet the more banal elements of poverty rarely make their way into our depiction of the slum. The lived experience of the poor is rarely our interest. We prefer to extract strategies from these slums, study them as systems, or reimagine them as the site of Romeo and Juliet plotlines. We have made slums into our laboratories, and in doing so, I will argue, we have completely missed the point.”

So what is the point? The savvier elements of Dharavian society have already realized their commercial value, and refuse to allow photographs to be taken without an explicit reason. They know that our interest is rarely in them; but in us. Our depictions of their life are not for their readers, but for ours.

Moreover, why was I sent to Dharavi, instead of the larger, more desperate slum to the east, Mankhurd? Dharavi is famous. It’s famous for its economy, its false claim as the “biggest slum in Asia”, and Slumdog Millionaire. Mankhurd is not. Mankhurd is a desperately boring, impoverished, forgettable slum on the periphery of the city. Mankhurd, more than Dharavi, represents the banality of poverty. There is no struggle for the “soul” of that slum, no coffee table books. Simply put, we are not interested unless there is “an angle”.

Maybe, like Dickens, the point is to portray as honestly, as soulfully as possible. Allow yourself the freedom to become bored. No matter how difficult, show the humor. Show the pain. Show the banality. Give life to that…And seek the truth.