The Paradox of Mumbai Slums, Stocks, Stars and the New India

Mumbai is at the heart of India's growing economic power. But it is also the place where many of the subcontinent's paradoxes can be found in close quarters. Billionaires, Bollywood stars and slum dwellers all want to be part of the new India.
Von Erich Follath

Bombay is a place where it is easy to die. But it is not possible, even for a second -- in this pulsating city with its unrelenting assault on the senses -- to forget that one is alive. Time Magazine wrote: "If you want to catch a glimpse of the new India, with all its dizzying promise and turbocharged ambition, then head to its biggest, messiest, sexiest city--Bombay."

Bombay, or Mumbai as it is now officially called, well-deserves its nickname, Maximum City. It is as avant-garde, trendy and hungry for superlatives as its Chinese counterpart Shanghai, a comparison that Indian politicians are happy to make. The city is home to India's oldest stock exchange, its most important banks, its wealthiest business moguls, its most beautiful movie stars and its most feared gangsters. Mumbai provides more than one third of all taxes the government collects, as well as hoarding vast amounts of illegal earnings. Forty percent of international flights to India land in this city, which already counts more than 18 million inhabitants today. According to a United Nations estimate, it will be the world's second largest city after Tokyo by 2015 -- and will have more inhabitants than either Australia or all of Scandinavia.

Bombay is Bollywood, where several hundred films are produced each year, productions complete with saccharine songs and studio rain causing saris to cling to hot bodies. Indeed, the Bombay film industry far outpaces Hollywood when it comes to sheer volume. Rents in the city's most exclusive districts are higher than in Munich, New York or London. World-class restaurants serve up uniquely Indian interpretations of haute cuisine, including such dishes as lobster in olive sauce over curried rice. It is not unheard of for powerful businessmen to arrive for business meetings at the city's top restaurants and hotels driving their Lamborghinis. From their Bombay headquarters, billionaire industrialists like Ratan Tata (steel, automobiles), Mukesh Ambani (oil, chemicals) and Adi Godrej (consumer goods) become global players as they embark on shopping sprees for attractive takeover targets, including major European companies. The news magazine India Today has even described recent Bombay acquisitions in Great Britain as evidence of "colonization in reverse."

But Mumbai also holds the dubious distinction of being home to Asia's largest slums where, according to government statistics, 60 percent of all city residents live. In 2003 there were 17 public toilets for every million people, and to this day at least one third of the city's residents have no access to clean drinking water.

The legions of Bombay's poor are growing by the day, as thousands of people migrate from rural areas to the big city, sleeping on its sidewalks and hoping for a better life in this harbor of hope. They send out their starving children to beg at strategic locations assigned to them by the Beggars' Club, an organization devoted to the needs of beggars. Some of the best spots, according to the organization, are in front of any one of the dozens of diet clinics or cosmetic surgery offices where the rich go for liposuction and are perhaps more likely to ease their bad consciences by handing out a few rupees. Bombay embodies the future of urban civilization on earth, writes author Suketu Mehta, who grew up in Bombay, moved to New York and has now returned to his native city. "God is on our side," he says.

Many creatures -- frogs, for example -- are granted special protection in this city. Provoked by the aid organization "Beauty Without Cruelty," the city has imposed a ban on the export of frog legs. According to the organization, frogs die a painful death when their legs are removed. The chemical bath into which their bodies are dipped is apparently so ineffective that the animals' torsos continue to twitch after they are supposedly dead. Only after slaughterhouses agreed, at least on paper, to disable each frog's central nervous system with a needle prior to amputation could the lucrative trade in frogs' legs be resumed.

Cows are sacred to Hindus. If a cow happens to be wandering down one of the city's crowded streets, drivers simply make a detour around it, careful not to harm the creature. Muslims are loath to touch pigs. Jains, anxious not to harm any creatures, including earthworms, use their hands instead of shovels to dig up potatoes. Parsis, who worship the prophet Zoroaster, depend on vultures for the environmentally friendly disposal of the remains of members of their religious community on so-called "towers of silence." There are laws regulating the minimum space requirements for donkeys, buffalos and goats on freight cars, and violations are punishable under the disciplinary rules of the state-owned railway.

Indeed, it seems that Bombay extends some form of protection to all living creatures, with one notable exception: human beings.

The doors of railroad cars in India's largest city are never closed, even when they are filled dangerously beyond their capacity. Passengers often have little standing room and no space for their belongings. The Harbour Line and Western Railway commuter trains, which link the suburbs with the peninsula that forms downtown Bombay, are the city's vital arteries and, as such, are both indispensable and unavoidable for its working population. Six million people crowd into the system's groaning outdated trains every day -- where there is only one meter of space for every dozen passengers and many hang adventurously from open doors and windows.

The plastic tarps that serve as housing for the poorest of the poor -- living near fire hydrants with their lice-infested children like the denizens of some apocalyptic nightmare -- flutter in the wind as the commuter trains clatter past the city's worst slums on their way to downtown Bombay. They pass mere feet away from the balconies of the middle class, where people wash themselves and dress, exposed to the outside world.

As the trains approach the Charni Road station, a collective sigh of relief surges through the masses of passengers, their sweaty bodies virtually glued together. A fresh breeze enters the cars as the ocean and the green of parks come into view. This is where Bombay, this cantankerous bride, suddenly seems more focused on beauty than on anything else. Exclusive Malabar Hill comes into view (for those few passengers with any view at all), as do the shoreline road dubbed the "Queen's Necklace," Churchgate Station, the Prince of Wales Museum and the city's many other examples of opulent colonial architecture. As the trains disgorge their disheveled human cargo, passengers quickly straighten out the wrinkles in their shirts and comb back the strands of hair stuck to their foreheads -- and hurry off to offices and the stock exchange to attend to the markets and to business.

The railroad is the city's pulse, a symbol of everything that is grand and gruesome about this metropolis in a permanent state of emergency. An astonishing sense of solidarity prevails among the passengers, almost as if brutal competition were temporarily suspended during the train ride. They extend their hands to the dozens of late-comers trying to jump onto the trains as they leave the station -- and the late-comers are confident they will be pulled safely on board.

Carelessness and excessive confidence are the leading causes of death in and around the Bombay railroad system, where about 3,500 people die in accidents each year. They are dragged along while crossing the tracks, they lean too far out of windows and are beheaded by power poles or they sit on the cars' roofs and crash into overpasses or become entangled in power lines.

But such accidents elicit little more than a shrug of the shoulders in Bombay. What really scares people here is terrorism, of the sort that ripped apart the city 14 years ago. That was when Mumbai residents stopped being neighbors and no longer defined themselves as cobblers, tailors or welders, instead defining themselves only as Hindus or Muslims, and when the hatred incited by religious fanatics cost thousands of lives.

Terrorism has returned to the city. Two hundred and seven people died on July 11, 2006, when bombs exploded and shredded train compartments at seven railroad stations within the space of 11 minutes. The city held its breath, ready for anything. But even though the authorities revealed that the bloodbath was the work of Islamist terrorists, there was no retribution. The city held together and successfully passed the test. The trains were running again within hours, and the stock exchange sponsored a fireworks display a short time later, as if to put terrorism in its place with an act of defiance.

While the government predicts 8 percent economic growth for the entire country in the coming years, growth in this bustling metropolis in the Indian state of Maharashtra will more than likely extend into the double digits. The unbridled, feverish euphoria among the local elite is infectious. Even the otherwise reserved Time writes: "Bombay is shaping India's future -- and the future of the world." The "Indo-German Chamber of Commerce" is already Germany's largest such body focusing on foreign trade. And the German Stock Exchange has just acquired a 5 percent share in its Bombay counterpart.

Many have assaulted this beauty over the centuries. Few have loved it and even fewer have left their mark. The Koli fishermen named their poor settlement on the malaria-infested coast after the Hindu god "Mumbai," and Hindu nationalists have now seen to it that the original name has been restored. The Portuguese called the place "Bom Baía," or "Good Bay." They gave it to their Princess Katharina of Braganza as part of her dowry. When England's King Charles II asked his new wife about the place, she responded that it was probably "somewhere in Brazil."

Part II: Manchester of the East

In 1668, the British Crown leased Bombay to the British East India Company. The company's merchants were the first to grasp the city's potential, turning Bombay into a cotton manufacturing center and calling it the "Manchester of the East."

In honor of Britain's King George V, London builders constructed the Gateway of India, a triumphal arch, at the city's harbor in 1924. Still a Bombay landmark to this day, the arch includes a plaque that reads: "Urbs Prima in Indis," or "Most Important City in the Colonial Empire."

Bombay was also an important site of the Indian independence movement, and Mahatma Gandhi was arrested here in 1942 for his non-violent campaigns against the colonial power. Nevertheless, the British were unable to prevent Indian independence five years later.

India's commercial center suffered greatly during the ongoing socialist experiments of various administrations in the Indian government in Delhi. Strikes shut down the textile factories and Hindu nationalists came into power. Rioting repeatedly crippled the city, even after economic liberalization in 1991. Bombay was once derisively called Slumbay, and the name has stuck. But nowadays the city is increasingly referred to as Boombay, as it transforms and reinvents itself -- as the world's service center, as a bastion of knowledge and as a factory of dreams.

Bombay is where Wall Street stockbrokers have their securities analyzed, hospitals from London to LA have their invoices checked and companies have their tax returns prepared. Credit card details are stored and processed -- and occasionally stolen -- in Bombay. Telephone customer service representatives with Western names like Mary (and with real names like Meenakshi) field calls here from Detroit to Düsseldorf about computer problems. The US film industry has cartoon cat "Garfield" animated here, and defense contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root recruits reliable kitchen help in Bombay for the American forces in Iraq. Dubai comes to Bombay in search of engineers and construction workers for the next generation of skyscrapers being built in the Gulf emirates.

Bombay is also increasingly becoming a magnet for scientific research, from nuclear power to genetic engineering to microsurgery. Outsiders are flexible, and everyone here is an outsider of sorts. It's as if India's rivers had merged irresistibly into this city's sea of humanity. It thrives, not on tradition, but on the drive and dreams of its inhabitants. It may reject many, but it hardly ever turns anyone away. Bombay is a city that belongs to no one and everyone at the same time.

Many wonder whether this can work, as Bombay, this bastard of Portuguese, British and Indian history, turns its crumbling textile factories into call centers, universities and art galleries, and as its slums are replaced by middle-class apartment buildings. Who are the political, economic and social visionaries who could tame this Moloch, and possibly transform it into a model for the world's other problem-ridden mega-cities?

Priya Dutt, 40, is experiencing one of those days when she asks herself whether it was wise to enter politics. She angrily pulls off her silver-striped slippers and dabs the sweat from her brow. She sits in her austere office, cooled by an ancient, barely moving fan and listens to her constituents' complaints. Dutt, a petite woman dressed in jeans and a blouse, says nothing as they argue heatedly with one another. Then she slams her fist on the table. The room quiets down immediately, an indication that Dutt is held in high regard.

A social worker by profession, Dutt had little choice but to enter politics. When her father, the famous movie actor Sunil Dutt -- a member of parliament and, until May 2005, a minister for the Congress Party in the cabinet of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh -- died, the family decided that his daughter would join the political fray. Priya's brother Sanjay, a star of Bollywood action movies, was hardly a promising alternative. He had been arrested 10 years earlier on the suspicion of being involved in a criminal conspiracy. In November 2005, Priya Dutt scored a landslide victory in the election district of her popular father, and has since served as a member of the Indian parliament in New Delhi.

Dutt is responsible for the well-being of at least 3.5 million people, in probably the world's most socially diverse district. Her voters range from billionaires to members of the middle class to vast numbers of slum dwellers. Naturally, their interests span an equally broad spectrum.

A wealthy industrialist, for example, had a member of his staff call Dutt before her weekly office hours to inform her that he needs a third garage and that the permit for the construction of a pool in his penthouse hadn't arrived yet. The "normal" constituents come to her office hours to air their problems directly. Dutt listens and weighs the arguments she hears. A half-naked guru receives a small donation in exchange for his blessing.

Those from the slums don't come to this bazaar of complaints. Instead, Dutt must go to them, navigating across ditches filled with a black, malodorous soup of industrial waste that separates two worlds: the exclusive Bandra neighborhood and the Santa Cruz slums. Dutt believes that it is her obligation to visit the poor, but she also knows that ignoring the poorest of the poor would be unwise. The slum dwellers are the ones who vote, while the upper classes usually stay away from the polls. And the poor have an uncanny ability to distinguish between those who attend to their needs and those who only pretend to do so. "Politicians in Bombay are usually part of the problem, not the solution," says Dutt, displaying her characteristic directness. "Many use their positions to fill their pockets with bribes. That's where I have an advantage: I was already wealthy when I went into politics."

She has had decommissioned computers donated by companies taken to an abandoned factory building in Santa Cruz, where she offers free courses for slum residents. The program, a great success, has already attracted 3,000 people, and Dutt hopes to begin offering English courses soon. "Without a basic understanding of the PC and foreign languages, you don't stand a chance," Dutt tells her students, a group consisting mostly of young people and, among them, a surprisingly large number of young Muslim women.

Some of Dutt's other experiments have failed. When she had dozens of outhouses installed in the slum, residents quickly sold the corrugated metal walls. One likely reason the program failed was that she had not coordinated it sufficiently with gang leaders in the slums. Not much functions in Santa Cruz without the gangs, who prefer to call themselves "companies," and nothing would work at all without the frequently corrupt police officers. This odd coalition jointly controls huge groups of voters, and who opposes it might as well abandon any thoughts of being re-elected.

Priya Dutt mentions the "huge frustration and despair" with which she is sometimes overcome. "Much of what I do is simply a drop on a hot stone," she says. "And this moving between worlds -- I thought I would be able to handle it, but now I'm finding it more and more difficult to bear." Her husband is an event manager for major industry conferences, and her brother is a glamorous Bollywood star. After spending her days visiting the slums, she often spends her evenings back in a world of glamour, where all anyone cares about are the biggest diamond, the most exclusive dress and the best plastic surgeon.

She derives moral strength from her young son. A Hindu, Dutt named her son Siddharta after the nobleman who became the Buddha. The family recently celebrated Siddharta's first birthday. One of his gifts was a temporary tattoo on his upper arm that read "Superman."

In parting, Priya Dutt mentions that she wouldn't mind being a Superwoman with supernatural powers if it could help her solve the problems in her district. She is exhausted, but Dutt still has an important date with Big Business. "The heads of the big family enterprise are one of the keys to Bombay's future," she says.

The Godrej family, together with the Tatas and the Ambanis, are the pride of the city. For one, they have made billions with their kitchenware, safes and furniture. But far more important to many Indians are their travels abroad, where they are showing the Europeans and the Americans how powerful their country is today. "We are conquering the world," the magazine Outlook crowed in a cover story about the global shopping trips of India's successful entrepreneurs. Among other coups, the article mentioned the Godrej empire's acquisition of Keyline, a leading British consumer goods company.

Adi Godrej, 63, the chairman of the Godrej Group, pensively pulls at his beard before answering questions is his office, furnished with heavy wood furniture. Cockiness isn't his style. Godrej prefers to give the impression of a modest, thoughtful patriarch. He firmly believes that his country has benefited greatly from globalization and that Bombay is the capital of this success story. "Indian companies like ours are among the most competitive. The world's economic force of gravity has shifted from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his self-confident exuberance, recently said: "Forget Shanghai!" But Godrej, a well-traveled businessman, disagrees. "We are still far behind the Chinese city when it comes to infrastructure." In his opinion, what Bombay needs most are a subway system, an airport that meets international standards and a courageous slum cleanup program. Indian's "indirect taxes" -- Godrej's polite term for corruption -- are another problem.

Otherwise, says Godrej, he is "happy that Bombay is not Shanghai." He points out that India has outstanding universities that are superior to most Chinese institutions, both academically and because English is so widely spoken. Besides, he adds, democracy in India is helpful in difficult situations. "As successful as China is at the moment, it has no valves to release pressure. Autocratically ruled countries can blow up, while those ruled by the people cannot."

Part III: From the Slums to the City Center

According to Godrej, India began its economic liberalization more than a decade after China -- which he calls the "most capitalist of all countries today" -- and it therefore comes as no surprise that the People's Republic is further along and that India must hustle to catch up.

Foreign business only makes up about one tenth of the Godrej Group's sales today. Godrej, who holds a degree from top US university MIT, wants to increase that number to 25 percent. He hopes to expand his business in Pakistan (where, owing to the political situation, his products are currently available only on the black market), and he sees China as a natural partner. "We complement one another ideally."

Like some of his fellow leading Indian businessmen, Godrej is a Parsi -- a group with a social conscience. He has built huge apartment complexes surrounded by parks for his employees, and he supports schools, hospitals and environmental projects. Nevertheless, they are little more than islands in Bombay's vast current. The Godrej Group employs all of 25,000 people in Bombay, a number that is declining. And the much-touted, extremely successful IT industry isn't creating enough new jobs. It represents only a tiny fraction of reality in India. Seventy-one percent of all Indians still live in rural areas, where they barely eke out a living. Thousands of farmers commit suicide every year out of sheer despair over their excessive debts. Those are the ones who haven't made it to Bombay.

The corporate leader with a consistently spotless desk and a tendency to be overly punctual is no team player when it comes to his personal life. Adi Godrej's hobbies include paragliding and trekking in the mountains. He has even completed the traditional Hindu pilgrimage around Mount Kailash in Tibet. His three children are already integrated into the company, and he regularly discusses business strategy with them. After work he likes to retire to his painting collection or visit one of the new galleries that are popping up everywhere.

His wife Parmeshwar, a former model, is in charge of social glitter and glamour. The parties she hosts at the family's opulent villa with a view of the ocean -- with not a disturbing slum in sight -- are considered legendary in Bombay.

Mukesh Mehta, 58, is either loved or hated, celebrated as a savior or cursed as a charlatan. There is nothing between these two extremes, because this man makes a strong impression on everyone. He will clean up the city, say his friends. He will ruin us while enriching himself, say his enemies. Mehta wants to transform Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, into a model neighborhood and eliminate the city's slums completely by 2020. Instead of relying on the concepts of the World Bank Mehta, an architect by profession and head of the consulting firm MM Consultants, wants to tap the resources of private business. He says that his incredible plan won't cost taxpayers a single rupee.

"I'll show you how this works," Mehta says in his office in the exclusive Bandra district, as his secretary brings in stacks of files. The documents include every conceivable detail about Dharavi ("the constantly flowing"), with maps highlighting the most important data. Mehta spends an entire hour speaking without pause. He seems obsessed, a man who -- like most visionaries -- has an air of the persuasive missionary about him.

The basic concept of the Mehta plan is breathtakingly simple. The slum, in which up to a million people live crowded together on less than two square kilometers, will be bulldozed down to every last hut. Then about half of the land will be sold to developers, who will be allowed to build a few high rise buildings and sell the luxury condominiums in the buildings -- under the condition that they also build low-income housing and offer it free to the poor.

"All 51,000 families who have lived in Dharavi since 1995 or earlier will receive a two-room apartment with kitchen and bath free of charge," says Mehta. The plan also provides for newer arrivals who, says Mehta, "would have to take out loans for 5 percent of the market value of their apartments for each year after 1995." Mehta had originally planned to build a golf course on the site of Asia's largest slum, but he has since changed his mind: "Perhaps too foolhardy."

The project could be attractive to private enterprise because Dharavi, originally settled on the outskirts of Bombay, is now in a central location thanks to land reclamation efforts. The sale of the land could raise as much as €1.3 billion ($1.7 billion). In addition to the luxury condominiums, the new development would include "world class hospitals, world class universities and world class concert halls," attracting professionals and tourists. The phrase "world class" is one of Mukesh Mehta's favorites. In fact, doing things in a big way is almost a family tradition, something Mehta learned early in life.

With only a few rupees in his pocket, his father left the family's village in Maharashtra to seek his fortune in Bombay, where he eventually became the head of a steel company, which Mukesh Mehta and his brother later turned into a model business. But architecture was his true passion. After obtaining his degree Mehta worked as a real estate agent in the New York suburbs, selling new luxury mansions to the rich.

When he had tired of the real estate business, Mehta returned to India, where he became what he calls an "international authority on slum issues." "I wanted to give something back to my home town of Bombay," he says. Dealing with corrupt Indian politicians and businessmen was difficult, says Mehta, who has presented his urban development plans before United Nations committees and as a guest professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Bombay's city elders have approved of his plans, at least "in principle," says Mehta, who hopes that the project can begin soon.

But how do the slum dwellers feel about Mehta's radical makeover for Dharavi? One reaches the slum by walking across wooden planks spanning stinking sewage canals and past garbage dumps. Dozens of narrow, unpaved alleys with open sewers and electrical wires dangling dangerously at eye level lead into an impenetrable urban jungle. The squalid huts -- with their tiny, interlocking rooms, where people sleep in shifts because a bed is far too valuable to be used by only one person -- seem almost identical at first glance. The furnishings are sparse -- a television, a propane bottle, a shelf, a folding chair -- and laundry hangs out to dry on rickety stands.

It takes a second glance to recognize that Dharavi is not nearly as homogeneous as it seems. Half-naked men bake bread at a fire pit fed with oil-soaked rags. Workers in tiny workshops, completely devoid of protective gear, are busy welding, tanning and making pottery. The big city slum is in fact a collection of regional villages. People from the southern Indian Tamil Nadu province specialize in leather goods, those from nearby Gujarat make flatware and the Muslims from Uttar Pradesh assemble toys. Dharavi is filled with survivors. They sell lottery tickets and leather embroidery, peacock feathers and plastic flowers. They give massages and clean ears, charm snakes, interpret dreams and train monkeys. They are demanding, humble or teary-eyed, depending on the circumstances of a given bargaining situation.

People say that life in Dharavi is horrific during the monsoon, with its weeks of constant downpours. Flooding is sometimes so severe that people are carried away. Dozens died here in 2005, when the floods forced people to climb onto power poles and remain there for up to 24 hours until help arrived. But otherwise, say local residents, life isn't too bad in Dharavi, especially now in February, with temperatures hovering around a cool 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit).

And what about the statistics on the more than 100 people who have already died this year in Bombay from malaria, dengue fever and leprosy, not to mention the scourge of AIDS in the slums?

"They are certainly true, but on the other hand," says Ramjibhai Patel, a potter, "nowhere in India is surviving as easy as it is in Bombay. It may not seem that way to you, but we do have something to lose." It is sentiments like these that lead Dharavi's residents to distrust any promises of panaceas. Many even plan to block the bulldozers, their babies on their arms, should it come to that. Dharavi is alive because it rejects hopelessness, and because it is never static.

Beauty parlors -- with optimistic names like "Sunita Beauty Parlor" and "Roza's Lovely Place" -- are the latest rage in the slum. Often jammed into spaces of only about 100 square feet and perched precariously on top of existing huts, they are reached by climbing rickety stair cases. In "Salon Anu," a flickering light bulb illuminates a homemade makeup table. Nail polish, shampoo and various brightly colored creams are spread out on the table in front of a cracked mirror. The rinse water from the last hair wash sloshes across the wooden floor, threatening to inundate a group of cockroaches in the corner. Everything is recycled, even cut hair, which Anu prepares for use as doll hair. The competition is so tough that the determined proprietor of the salon, who is about 25 ("I'm not exactly sure how old I am"), has just written a rock-bottom price of seven rupees (less than 15 euro cents) for a manicure on a sign she plans to hang outside to attract new customers. Sales are good, her beauty parlor is humming along and she works 18 hours a day. She works through the night if necessary, when there are weddings in the slum, for example. This self-made woman has hired two assistants, and she hopes to soon be able to take over the adjacent hut. "And then," says Anu, "I would like to take a real cosmetics course and move to where women can spend to make themselves beautiful."

A picture of her role model -- the beaming former Miss World and high-paid Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai -- hangs on the wall. The slum beautician from Dharavi has heard that movie star Rai plans to attend the grand finale of the "Lakme Fashion Week" today. She decides to do something she really can't afford: close her beauty parlor and go to the convention center along the city's fashionable waterside promenade. Anu is hoping to catch a close-up glimpse of her role model. She takes the 10 p.m. train to Bombay's more elegant section.

But the big city lights and the oversized billboards advertising luxury hotels, flights to vacation resorts and entertainment ("Get 125 cable channels for the price of 80") are not her world, although the flyers a young man is handing out bashfully are. They read: "Completely discreet: Abortions and early gender identification for babies." Anu hurries past the letter-writers, who write letters home for their illiterate customers in the dim glow of streetlights. The letters are usually filled with euphoric reports of life in Bombay -- to keep relatives at home from worrying. She passes the cages on Falkland Road, where Nepalese women offer cheap sex. Meanwhile, well-off parents take out ads in the papers proudly offering their daughters as "veg. virgins" (vegetarian virgins). She passes the booksellers with their latest pirated copies. Everything that makes India proud can be had here: from the novels of Booker Prize for Fiction winner Kiran Desai to the treatises of Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics.

The slum beauty finally reaches her goal: the front gate to the glamour venue. But everything in sight is locked. The Bollywood stars and their young billionaire sons enter the building through the rear entrance, where they pose in the flash of camera lights coming from the invited members of the press. Inside, India's top designers, Wendell Rodricks and Seema Khan, prance around their models, nervously applying the finishing touches to miniskirts and lacing up dangerously tight tops. At last year's event, an oversight resulted in a model suddenly standing bare-breasted on the runway. The event's organizers are keen not to allow the ensuing scandal to repeat itself this year -- otherwise the pedantic city fathers could enact an ordinance that would shut down the show for good. This, as the tabloids revealed, explains why police officers in civilian clothes are planted in the dressing rooms -- as if they weren't needed more urgently elsewhere.

Everyone is clapping, sitting down and cheering. The final event of the fashion week has been a triumph. Even Anu, the owner of a slum beauty shop, is very pleased with the evening. Although she never saw the former Miss World or, for that matter, any of the stars kept shielded from the common people, the show gave her new ideas.

An accommodating journalist brought her all kinds of fashion magazines and beauty product brochures from the entry hall to her spot behind the barrier.

She will take a closer look at the materials as she takes the train home. When she returns to her hut she will cut out anything she believes she can use. The magazines will help her put together new styles for her customers, the Dharavi avant-garde. If Mr. Mehta's urban renewal project materializes, says Anu, she will refuse to yield even a single square meter of her shop unless she receives a newer, more attractive space. Otherwise she will continue to struggle in her old shop, and expand her business. Anu is tough. She has a dream, and she knows that she will succeed.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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