Smiles apart

The contrast of abundance and depravity is reversed, but only by people and their smiles.


This summer, my family and I were invited to stay with friends in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest and most luxurious apartment tower in the world.  My father did not want the lavishness of the building to go to my 12-year old head and decided that I needed a detour.

He did not tell me where we were going, just that we would be flying via Mumbai. We arrived in Mumbai and after spending the morning with some friends, my parents and I got into their car and in a short while, we were in a maze called Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum.


I thought I had read enough about slums in my text books and in the newspapers but I was not prepared for what I saw.  When I got out of the car and took my first look around, I asked, ‘Papa, are you sure this is a slum?’ The narrow street was full of shops selling fashionable clothes, sports shoes, gold ornaments and mobile phones.

But when we walked through the lanes inside, I began to understand the meaning of ‘slum’.  People were separating garbage with their bare hands. Children slept on hard cement floors next to street dogs. I saw five men in a small, fly-infested room making leather wallets and belts.

I saw people standing in a long queue to use a public toilet. I saw the small hands of children embroidering.  A woman invited us into her one-room house, and offered us water and a cold drink.  People living next to piles of rubbish and sewage streams smiled warmly as we walked by. The slum was a beautiful, unforgettable place.

Shortly after we landed in Dubai that night, we drove through many levels of security before I spotted the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. The tapering 827-metre tower shimmered in the glow of a silvery moon. Around it, thousands of people had gathered to see the world’s tallest dancing fountains.

Everything in the Burj Khalifa was put there to amaze. The smiling usher with a security card saw us into one of the many lifts serving 124 floors. As it zoomed up two floors per second, I plugged my ears and took a deep breath.

From the bedroom window, the cars crawled like tiny ants below and people were not visible at all.  Extravagant pieces of art decorated the interiors of the building; the Sheikhs had spared no expense in making it another wonder of the world.

Two days later, my parents’ friends invited us for a meal at the yacht-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel nearby, where we were welcomed by hostesses wearing beautiful smiles and gold kimonos.  The gold chandelier and the dancing waterfalls dazzled and the place smelled of perfume. 

Was it only a couple of days ago that I smelled a different world in Dharavi? Gold and red velvet was everywhere. Even the  ‘Caution! Wet floor!’ sign was gold plated.

The two worlds I visited in the summer could not have been more different. The people in Dharavi did not have money but they looked cheerful. They welcomed us into their homes and would have happily shared the little they had. In Dubai, even the smile came at a big price. But in Dharavi, the smiles were spontaneous and came from the heart.

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