A few weeks ago I was in Mumbai and like many people who visit, I deliberated for a long time about whether to visit Dharavi slums. I didn’t want to contribute to a significant issue that is commonly discussed – ‘poverty porn’ – making a spectacle out of something that is very much a normal situation for millions of people who live in slums.
Known to many as ‘the second biggest slum in Asia’ or ‘the third largest slum in the world’, there is a general perception of slums that isn’t at all right, but I viewed Dharavi very differently. What often gets overlooked is that Dharavi is an entrepreneurial maze filled with an overwhelming sense of community, something that doesn’t get said enough.
During #TeamCoco’s visit we were lucky enough to meet Swathi Khade who was our guide for the morning, and she completely made our trip to India. We found Swathi waiting for us in Church Road Station, Mumbai, and it quickly began to feel like we were old friends; laughing about absolutely nothing and speaking about years of our lives within just a few hours. During our time with her, I discovered that at 18, Swathi decided to leave her home in Dharavi as her parents gave her an ultimatum: get an arranged marriage and have children, or leave home and do not come back. Swathi chose the latter. She wanted to pursue a career in psychology and to fall in love out of choice, rather than a forced sense of duty. Over the years she rebelled against her parents, undergoing physical and mental abuse and tried to commit suicide twice. For her, life was not worth living if you were forced to be constrained into what she deemed to be a backward and unnatural life.
During our conversations, she explained that she wouldn’t follow traditional social norms in India and was passionate about changing the way women are perceived in India. The world really does need more people like Swathi Khade…
What was your childhood like in Dharavi?
I spent my life in Mumbai with my parents until 7th grade (13 years of age) and that is when I began to really feel the divide between how boys and girls are treated, so it wasn’t great. It was really apparent in education and many other ways too; I was treated very differently to my brother. I’m still treated differently as a woman; maybe it’s a never ending process. Every day you feel it.
When did it start getting difficult living with your parents who were so insistent that you have an arranged marriage?
My parents started to look into proposals by the time that I was 14…and then 15…and 16, and then when I was 18, they pressurised me in many different ways. When I finished at the school of nursing they said that I had to get married or that was it. They said that I was a disgrace to the family wanting to further my education. It was torture, I got so depressed and I felt so trapped. They would abuse me with words and they would abuse me physically. I felt helpless, I had enough and wanted to get out. I decided to leave home at the age of 18. I did that because I got exhausted explaining my big dreams and I got tired of trying to explain that I didn’t want to marry a 30 year old man at 18. That is not what life is about. After that I went to Hyderabad to work there and contacted friends, I was there for about two years and I did not see my family.
What do you do now, how does Reality Tours help you?
Now I am back in Mumbai and studying a masters in clinical psychology, all funded by myself and through my job at Reality Tours. I have one more year to get my master’s degree so that I can become a clinical psychologist. I also have a plan to do a PHD degree – pray that I can do this! I am happy now, even though I couldn’t become a general physician (I couldn’t study medicine). At least I can help people like myself now. I want to empower people and advise women who may be going through exactly what I went through. We are allowed to be who we want to be, we can create our own dreams. I have. I have learnt that it’s possible to overcome anything.
What do you think you see yourself doing in a few years?
Well my BIG dream is to start up an NGO to support women. I want to help people who need financial and educational aid, as well as those who need shelter. Lots of people have helped me in my life, and now I want to help others. We only have one life… that’s what I kept reminding myself in my darkest times.
I really want to say a few things to people who are going through the same situation as me: if you kill yourself you are just stopping good things that are going to happen in your life. We are not born to die just like that. I always tell myself if people want to bury you, you can grow up again like a plant. If anyone throws you down, you bounce up again like a ball. I always think we are like a waterfall; the way they can flow even through the hardest stones. If you are an unstoppable soul, you can make others happy. I just always think these things. I have so many ideas like that and it sounds funny but it has helped me so much.
Do you think things will change for women in India?
I’m expecting change in India…well I hope to see a change in India! Maybe in the future people like me will not repeat these things to our children and then it will continue for generations on. I would like to say to the parents and extended families – see the potential in your children, don’t judge individuals by their gender, let your daughter grow.