On the corner of a bylane in Shakir Compound, Khwaja Salam sat on a yellow plastic chair. The noise of the grinder from his small factory, as it crushed plastic into little pellets often interrupted his conversation with six other men. They were talking about dhanda (business), karobar (trade) and rokra (cash).


On good days in Dharavi, the slum metropolis at the heart of Mumbai, that’s what people spoke about. On bad days that’s what people moaned about. Despite the sudden recall of 500- and 1000-rupee notes, business was open as usual and a porter carried heavy sacks of recycled plastic on his head and loaded them into a lorry. At the end of the day, Khwaja Salam would have to pay the workers at his recycling plant: a Tamil porter, three migrant workers from UP, and the two Maharashtrian women who had been beaten the previous night by their drunkard husbands for returning home with old currency.

“Have you seen the serpentine queues at the bank?” Khwaja Salam said when a scuffle distracted the men. An old man in a white salwar kurta and long white beard had tried to buy a packet of dates for ₹40 from the local kirana store as he had been doing for the past three years. The storekeeper turned him and his crisp 2000-rupee note away. “No change,” he said and the old man started yelling. “Sala chutiya, itne sal se… you fucker, for so many years…” He walked away containing a sob.

The men returned to the conversation, occasionally pulling out wads of cash, notes of 500 and 1000, slapping the bills on their knees. They recounted sad tales of their own: on the night of November 8, when Khwaja Salam had heard the news, he had laughed. Surely, it was a rumour, he thought. When he came out on the street later that evening, there was chaos.

Dharavi survived on cash; what would the people do?

The next morning, Khwaja Salam broke open his daughter’s piggy bank so that he could buy milk and bread for the family. At the end of the day, he paid the porter with an old note. The porter walked around Dharavi searching for food, and when he was refused a plate of daal and rice at the dhaba he ate at every day, the porter returned the money.

Later that night, Khwaja Salam rested his head on his wife’s lap and sobbed quietly. His two-year old son was asleep. “I thought those days were behind us,” he told his wife. But, once again, the Salam family was without money.

Seven rupees.

That’s how much Abdul Salam, Khwaja Salam’s father, had in his pocket when he got off the train at Victoria Terminus (now Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus) in 1947. The 12-year-old had been put on the train by an uncle in Nanded, and the 510-km journey had cost him ₹10. Abdul Salam’s father was dead, and he was thrust into the fields early, working since the age of nine. As he walked towards the main street searching for his brother around VT, the boy fell in love with the city. When he finally met his older brother, he made him promise never to send him away. They walked from VT, past Crawford Market, to a small room in a crumbling three-storey building in Chor Bazaar. There was no window in the room, nor was there any light.

“And it stank,” recalled the old man.

His brother was in the “nut-bolt” business and would buy nuts and bolts from the scrap dealer to sell at Chor Bazaar. Abdul Salam was given an ice box that he slung around his neck, and boxes of ice cream. The job was a walk “through a movie” as he crossed the bustling Crawford market where tangas pulled people past carved stone buildings. He would occasionally see a shiny black car and stare wondering which VIP was being taken to Victoria Station. On good days he would earn ₹4-5, selling each ice cream for three paisa. The real money could be earned at Girgaon Chowpatty, where he would sell ice creams to rich men’s children who ate in the back seat.

“I had one dream then, to ride in a car,” he says.

Bombay, however, wasn’t without upheaval. In November 1955, he watched from the sidelines of Flora Fountain when thousands of angry protestors marched towards the Council Hall. Many died that day. But despite the terrors of living in Bombay, people kept flocking to the city. Hundreds of new arrivals would sleep on the streets outside stations in the Fifties.  Along with the smell of the seas, there was another scent in Bombay, he told me.


And possibilities would open up that the two brothers had not dared to imagine.

One morning Abdul Salam’s older brother summoned him to pack his belongings. They were moving from Chor Bazaar. He spoke of a place beyond Bandra and Mahim, a place in the far reaches of Bombay that he had never been to. That was Dharavi and the people at the local mosque spoke about it enthusiastically. Dharavi was a village-like settlement where Koli fishing families lived alongside tannery workers. It had sounded like a place of prosperity. But when they arrived they saw a swamp with an interconnected maze of creeks, a mere marshland.

Plastic being sorted at Khwaja’s recycling unit. Photo: Alia Allana

There was one road and a slum had begun to develop. A row of patra and bamboo houses had been erected. There was no bridge to Bandra and the city seemed distant. In those days, small dhows would ply the creeks and the sounds of the azaan from a mosque that had been set up by migrant workers from Tamil Nadu would carry to the Salam house. The family had spent ₹500 and bought a piece of land where they had erected a house made of tin and bamboo.

Their family was lucky—they had reached just in time to get prime land. Five years after their arrival, the masses began flooding Dharavi. The space that was once abundant was being gobbled up by migrant workers from all over India. It was the 1960s, and Bombay was flooded with cheap labour. Dharavi was transforming: From a place where fishing communities, tannery workers, textile-mills and migrant artisans lived into a slum known for its illicit distilleries, murders, and black economy.

“Once upon a time taxi drivers from Bombay wouldn’t enter Dharavi in the evening,” says Abdul Salam.

A few metres from where the Salams’ factory now stands, along the main road, Anjum Sheikh, former president of the Dharavi Business Association was discussing the SBI’s writing off ₹7000 crore from Vijay Mallya’s loan. People occasionally stopped by him with a 500-rupee note and he raised his hands, as if to say he was helpless too. Demonetisation had seen the most desperate in Dharavi go without a meal. In this light, the write-off was  “beyond pathetic.”

When Modi promised to take action against “kaala dhan,” the poor had thought the rich would be brought in line. Instead, it had turned into a nightmare for the poor.

The nuances of demonetisation were lost in a place like Dharavi. With only two big banks, the queues didn’t bother its one million inhabitants. Even when the bank ran out of cash, businessmen were more concerned about their day-to-day operations. 

The women were in a bind as well. It is common for a woman to understate her income to her family. The undisclosed income is part of her emergency fund. Soon this stash of cash was out in the open, as housewives and daily wage earners stood in lines outside the banks with bundles of cash in their hands.

“Is this the sort of black money Modi was after?” asked one.

Credit cards are a distant phenomenon in Dharavi. A few people use ATM cards, but Dharavi is the sort of place that can’t wrap its head around the concept of a cashless economy.  “Angootha-chap, those who can’t read or write one word, have a place in Dharavi. The sort of people that Mumbai won’t employ, we accept,” said Anjum Sheikh. These people only understood cash. Even though dealing in old notes was outlawed and hoardings were erected outside schools and on the main street, even though shopkeepers, taxi drivers, sweet shop owners, supermarkets and milk men stopped accepting old notes, the businessmen of Dharavi relented. Khwaja Salam bought several bags of scrap and handed over a 500 rupee note.

“This is the magic of Dharavi,” said Khwaja Salam. “Money will always be money.”

For Sangeeta, Dharavi meant guaranteed income. She had migrated from Kamlapur village in Karnataka when she was 16, and spent two decades lifting bricks and cement that would turn Dharavi from a settlement of huts into pucca houses. For a day’s work, she earned ₹250. For this she would travel from the Gignashwar slum in Bandra to Dharavi.

“Dharavi is a place of opportunity,” she said, but it was being threatened by Modi’s “surgical strike” against black money. Sangeeta and nine other women, each more boisterous than the other, walked the streets of Dharavi, asking contractor after contractor for work. For eight days after the demonetisation drive, there was no work. On the ninth day, she carried bags of cement and earned ₹50, a fifth of her former wage.

But for middle class women who had moved out of the slum into MHADA apartments, demonetisation was a welcome change from “a corrupt broken system”. Meena, a housewife, ran a bisi (low-cost chit fund). There were 10 women in her bisi and some had been unable to make their payment on the 10th of the month which is when the bisi matured. The money came a few days later and for those women who had been unable to change their money, they did so with Meena, who was a community leader in the society.

Earlier that day Abdul Salam had got his first ₹2000 note. He held it in his hands and sighed, “Money here, gone tomorrow.” Only no one wanted his note.

Today and back then, the people of Dharavi dreamt and measured success with cash in their pocket. Abdul Salam knows this only too well.

When he first came to Dharavi, he entered his brother’s trade of collecting nuts and bolts until he made friends in other industries. Luck pushed him towards the recycling industry. He would buy plastic from collectors and sell them in Jogeshwari. Soon after, he bought a crushing machine and was among the first to start the recycling business of Dharavi. There were two or three people who had realised the power of plastic in Dharavi back then.

But life wasn’t easy.

Bharni daal ke, kachra daal key yeh jaga ko banae. (We made this place by the filling up the creeks and marshes with debris and trash)” says Abdul Salam.

Khwaja Salam holding out the notes which are worthless now. Photo: Alia Allana

Despite his brother’s disapproval, Abdul Salam took loans from six people and put all his savings into the recycling business. Several months later, the three brothers of the Salam family split. The news travelled quickly across Dharavi. The brothers were looked upon as unbreakable until then, and many mourned the loss of a collective. The year before, Abdul Salam had married in his village and had returned with a pregnant wife. He moved his wife into a smaller house that would double as a factory. During the day the building would churn out plastic, and in the evenings it was a home where his wife would cook meals first for him and later for their five daughters and only son.

Like most fathers, Abdul Salam dreamt of giving his son a chance at life that he never had. He enrolled Khwaja Salam into Anjuman-Khair-ul-Islam school, a British-era Gothic building opposite Victoria Terminus. He thought a good education would allow the boy to become an electrician. But Khwaja dropped out after writing the SSC exam.

He entered the scrap business, recycling other people’s waste. His daily earnings of ₹150 were more attractive than the ₹10 allowance his father gave him.

But he would never get his hands dirty. Two women would sort through the rubbish. Piles of plastic toys would be dumped in one corner. The women would yank the head of a doll, a leg of another, and sort through the plastic. Some waste was more valuable than others. They would wash this plastic in bleach and strip it off all its colour.

Khwaja Salam’s business didn’t do well right away. But his fortunes changed with the plastic boom. Just as people venerated Ambani and Tata in south Mumbai, the Salams earned a name for themselves, recalls the corner shop owner who had been on the street for the past 30 years. Abdul Salam’s daughters were able to marry well. Porters and migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh would try to get a contract with Khwaja Salam. 

When neighbours were short on cash, they turned to Abdul Salam, who was known to be a charitable man. When a businessman had an idea with potential, Abdul Salam was the man to whom they turned, knowing he would not charge interest. Eventually he could afford to ride in a wide array of cars, and when the family spoke about buying one, he cried, with his head bowed on the prayer mat.

“God is gracious,” he said.

This was the Dharavi dream—anybody from anywhere could make it.

But for the poor, misfortune is always a step away. Just as they had settled into a life of relative comfort despite the squalor around them, the great fire of 1976 burned down many scrapyards, homes and livelihoods.  A short circuit in one of the units spread fast, outpacing years of investment and toil.

One man’s loss in Dharavi is another man’s loss too. So together they rebuilt homes, unaffected families lending money to others. The Salams bought another machine, and slowly got back on their  feet. Over the next ten years there was a dizzying rate of migration into Dharavi. Workers from UP flooded the slum as the older industry of leather was pushed to Chennai. Dharavi residents would soon service houses in south Mumbai as maids and houseboys.

Meanwhile, there was also a massive growth in the recycling business. On May 17, 1989, there were about 180 godowns and hutments. That night another fire raged through Dharavi. When the slum was being rebuilt during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure, homes and businesses were made smaller and the alleys wider so that a fire engine could pass through. This was the first step in recognising that Dharavi was no longer just a slum. With cheap rents, poor migrants were able to set up homes and save. They would then reinvest these savings into Dharavi despite their slim incomes. One house would buy a sewing machine and another a soap-making machine. Dharavi was undergoing its own industrial revolution.

Rajiv Gandhi also instituted the Dharavi Transit Camp, and multi-storey buildings came up. The T-junction was lined with restaurants and there were private nursing homes and jewellery shops in what is called India’s largest slum. Parts of Dharavi began to look like bordering Mahim, Sion and Bandra, but in the heart of the slum ran a creek called Gutter Nala where people lived along the banks of a gushing sewer. 

Despite this, real estate developers started eyeing Dharavi, aware of the value of the land in central Mumbai. But the people of Dharavi weren’t going anywhere—the slum had become a symbol of the city, encapsulating its can-do spirit, a little micro-settlement with more than 80 distinct ethnic and caste-based residential-industrial areas.

A pool of women from Maharasthra’s villages flooded Dharavi’s many factories and they all had similar stories. Prathiba who worked at the Salam factory would raise her thumb to her mouth and pull a foul face. This meant her husband was a drunk. She would leave her house at 7 a.m. after enduring a night of verbal and physical abuse and return only after a 12-hour workday. She had been married at the age of 21. Since then, she had been her husband’s financier—and cheerleader. At first he wanted to drive an auto; later he wanted to become a mechanic; sometimes he imagined himself as an electrician—but never did he produce any money. Prathiba was left to pay the bills, to send her son and daughter to school, to provide her husband with the money to buy his drink.

When she returned with old notes on the second day of the demonetisation drive, her husband beat her. The next evening, he called her to apologise. The wine shop in Dharavi was still accepting old notes.

“I don’t want my son to get into this line,” says Khwaja Salam, just as this father had said before him, “Children of today wouldn’t survive in the industry.” He had seen his father pulling a handcart and had sworn he would never be in that position. When he was growing up, he would see men near the main mosque, the more affluent part of Dharavi, and they wore tucked-in shirts. Sometimes he would hear of a man driving to the Gateway of India, of another going on a holiday to a hill station. He admired them from afar and promised himself that one day, he would be a man of means.

So he expanded the business. Whereas his father would rely on contract labour, he brought some people to work on daily wages and started a second workshop. Bombay’s exponential growth meant he was earning 25 to 30 rupees per kg of scrap, and life was good. As Dharavi witnessed its own industrial revolution, businesses began getting more formalised. Khwaja Salam paid taxes and had a trading licence, and for a while it seemed as though the dreams his father had were coming true.

But his business has taken a blow over the past year. The price of crude oil directly impacted the recycling business, and with the price fluctuation, the cost of plastic was halved. Nobody wanted to buy scrap if they could get the virgin product, but the family refused to shut shop. People continued to talk about business until the night of November 8, when Modi appeared on TV with the big news. There was disbelief everywhere, a feeling of the world sinking, of Dharavi turning back to the marsh it had once been.

On the first day of demonetisation, there was bedlam. Many shops in Chamra Bazaar (the famous leather market) were closed and people thought it was because they had amassed huge amounts of black money that they were desperately trying to get rid of. In another part of Dharavi, businessmen bought ₹500 notes for 400 rupees. In many other areas people continued to deal in old notes. Even those who had ₹2000 notes could not change them, and so were as lost as everyone else. 

In a place where cash was never a problem, people began to go without.

Photo: Alia Allana

Some went without work, others without food. Nobody had change to pay 200-300 rupees to migrant labourers and factories feared the workers would return to their village, furthering the labour shortage in Dharavi. Small businesses couldn’t operate by cheque and the daily wage earner didn’t have time to stand in a long queue all day.

“Those who can go to Big Bazaar and Nature’s Basket are fine,” says Khwaja Salam. “What about the others? Where will the small man eat?”

Later, Khwaja sat on the streets, as beggars passed him one after the other. He gave each of the nine men and women change in hand. “Morarji Desai had done the same thing too,” he said, “In 1978. But who knew all that had happened? Today we know everything because of the mobile.” He showed me images of fake 2000-rupee notes and a video on his WhatsApp of someone wiping off the red colour of a 2000-rupee note with nail polish remover. This isn’t monetary policy, he said, this is Modi playing with us.

Kaam thanda hai,” every businessman in Dharavi would say. Khwaja Salam’s business was no different. That morning he walked with his head hung low, and stopped outside the corner shop where his porter who had a ₹500 note was turned away again. He bought him a packet of biscuits. Later, he  saw the two women sitting outside his karkhana. Six homes were run from the money churned in the 200 square-foot factory. The burden of his employees sat heavy on Khwaja.

He walked to the corner of the street where his father stood.

“What will we do?” he asked.

“We won’t shut shop. We didn’t in the 1992-1993 riots and we won’t do now,” Abdul Salam said.  He would never give up—that was the  promise Abdul Salam had made to himself when he fell in love with Bombay.