BOMBAY, India -- In Dharavi, an endlessly sprawling, overpoweringly squalid place known as Asia's largest slum, everything is not what it would seem at first.
More than 1 million people crouch cheek by jowl along a maze of suffocatingly narrow footpaths. Naked children play in black puddles of stagnant sewage beside tents of rags and corrugated tin huts. A choking stench, unending noise and festering disease are everywhere.
But Dharavi may also be Asia's hardest-working slum.
TV antennas sprout atop many of its hovels, and small refrigerators are not uncommon inside. Every other home offers a tailor, a cobbler, a printer. There are electronics shops and jewelry stores, even travel agencies. And the incomes of many here would be the envy of much of the rest of India.
Meet Shakil Ahmed, 30, a shoemaker. His business cards carry his picture alongside the promise that he is "In touch with fashion." Mr. Ahmed, his wife and four children sleep on the concrete floor of a one-room shed rented for $38 a month, more than India's average annual per capita earnings. Next door, he has 10 employees turning out new shoes.
"If you are brave and determined," he declared fervently, "you can achieve whatever you want in Bombay. I am willing to work hard, so we will not always live here."
Bombay -- India's biggest, most Westernized, most freewheeling city -- is like that. "It is a very, very strange city, a zigzag city," said Bhurinder Singh, 26, a Sikh who drives a taxi. "Anything can happen here. If you are poor today, tomorrow you may find plenty of money."
In a country with a shackled economy that has been likened to a huge, caged tiger, Bombay is known as "the city of hope" or by a Hindi phrase meaning "God's cow."
"That's because anyone can milk this city," explained documentary filmmaker Shyam Benegal. "And no one starves here."
Lured by the Horatio Alger dreams peddled by more than 500 Bombay-produced Hindi films a year -- formula fantasies
invariably replete with sex and songs -- millions of India's most ambitious have streamed into this narrow archipelago of seven now-joined islands smaller in total area than Manhattan.
The city's population has swelled by more than four times in the last two decades to 12 million, and it still receives more than 500 new migrants a day. In the process, Bombay has become India's New York, Chicago and Los Angeles all rolled into one.
Many are quick to note that in its palpably vibrant hum, Bombay is not like any other place in India. But in the city's extraordinary diversity -- its fantastic wealth and desperate poverty, its growth and decay, its aspirations and failures -- it also may represent all of India.
Bombay, in part, is a dense warren of exclusive high-rises where the price of small apartments starts at $1 million, and it is a city where the sidewalks are clogged with more than 1 million sackcloth-clad street-dwellers.
It is jet-setters in the latest international fashions partying every night at trendy clubs, and it is a small boy who begs outside a luxury hotel by lowering the front of his shorts on the street to reveal his mutilated genitalia.
Above all, Bombay is about money and what money can buy.
"No one here cares if it's old money or new money, as long as it's money," laughed Shobha De, an acerbic chronicler of the lives of the city's rich and famous.
"In Bombay, you can get anything you want in the world -- and I mean anything -- and you can get it in 15 minutes," shouted an otherwise restrained, 32-year-old businessman, Shyam Singhania, suddenly snapping his fingers to underscore the point.
Bombay's unique lure has brought together the human equivalent of a "masala," or mix of Indian spices: underworld dons vying with each other for control of the city's port; Zoroastrian Persians known as Parsees; 100,000 prostitutes passing on an estimated 6,000 new AIDS-virus infections a month; Marwaris, an Indian ethnic group probably boasting more millionaires per capita than any other in the world; Jews and Muslims; vacationing Arabs enjoying the monsoon rains; and millions of rural Hindus from every corner of vast India.
"If New York is 'The Big Apple,' " concluded Mrs. De with a very pleased look on her face, "then Bombay is a big, ripe, juicy mango. Yes, we're definitely 'The Big Mango.' "
India is in the throes of its second national elections in 18 months, elections prolonged by the May 21 assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The void and uncertainty left by the murder have prompted much hand-wringing in the rest of India.
But Bombay does not have the time for that. The vote's third and final phase, including Bombay, took place yesterday, but a visitor had to almost search for evidence of the election last week.
"India has made its politics into one big, wonderful circus," said Mr. Benegal, the filmmaker. "But our politics is really not connected to our people and what they're about. Bombay knows that."
Bombay also knows from the start that its politicians have been bought.
Said Mr. Singhania's 29-year-old brother and business partner, Padam: "India has such tremendous potential, unlimited potential. But our political system is lost because whoever gets into power just wants to enrich themselves."
To run for a parliamentary seat from Bombay costs at least $1.5 million, said Chandra Shekhar Prabhu, an architect and disillusioned former politician.
"In this country, where do you think most candidates get that kind of money, other than from big business?"
Bombay's most powerful politician, Sharad Pawar, chief minister the state of Maharashtra, is widely reputed to have received millions for providing favors to land developers.
The developers, in turn, have been allowed to take advantage of the city's lack of space to drive up housing costs in the most exclusive part of town to $1,000 a square foot, one of the highest rates in the world. Middle-class workers with salaries of $300 a month must find more than $40,000 to have a roof over their heads.
Mr. Pawar, 51, whose daughter recently married with festivities reported to have cost $1 million, is a member and key source of funds for Mr. Gandhi's Congress Party. And he is now on the short list of competitors to become India's prime minister should Congress prevail in the elections.
He is said to be a strong proponent of the free-market reforms that India must soon initiate if it is to persuade the international financial community to provide desperately needed bailout loans. But if India were to succeed in those reforms, many believe, more of India might very well end up looking and acting like Bombay.
"God forbid," shuddered Shyam Chainani, a leading local
environmentalist. "Bombay is a disaster."
The city pumps 30,000 tons of raw sewage into the Arabian Sea every day. Its relative space for public amenities -- from parks to hospitals -- ranks lowest among the world's largest cities. More than 100 people die every year here in building collapses. Ninety percent of all residents are inadequately housed.
"This is really the city of hope for only the top 10 percent of the population," said Kamlendra Kanwar, editor of Bombay's Indian Express newspaper.
"You can't just wish away the other 90 percent."
Added Anil Ambani, 32, whose father embodied the Bombay dream by ascending from pumping gas to building a $3.5 billion conglomerate, India's third largest, in just two decades: "Unless we do something to depopulate, decongest this place, it will explode."
But, in the meantime, Bombay -- despite its daily collision of wealth and poverty -- is considered one of India's safest cities.
For Mr. Benegal, whose documentary films focus on how Indians find hope amid their nation's terrible realities, Bombay holds together because of a fundamental strain in the national character.
"Indian people," he said, "are somehow able to create a sense of community under the most dreadful of circumstances."
But Mrs. De, the gossip columnist who has graduated to spicy novels, called that so much bunk.
Standing in her million-dollar, high-rise apartment overlooking the brackish sea and the tents of a squatters' encampment, she is certain she knows how Bombay continues to balance sackcloth and designer labels, hunger and salad bars, disease and personal workout coaches, a lack of running water for the many and Jacuzzis for a few.
"Those people," she said, motioning down toward the relatively penniless inhabitants of India's most expensive neighborhood, "have bought all the dreams about poor boys from the slums making it, all the dreams that are in every single movie made here.
"They don't want to overthrow us at all. They want to become us."