(If you are curious about that book mentioned in the first paragraph. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Juniot Diaz, is about the Dominican Republic.)
I recently finished a wonderful book that killed any desire I might have had to go to the place featured, and then I saw the Academy Award winning movie, Slumdog Millionaire, which definitely did not make me want to visit Mumbai. I began to think about the anti-travel movie. And the don’t-go-there book.
Is there such a thing? Although I have not read the book that Slumdog was based on, I have read comments that say it portrays Mumbai as even grittier than the movie. Does this make me want to travel there?
Controversy still rages (on Twitter for instance) about the depiction of Mumbai in the Academy-award winning picture. Most Indians whose comments I have read are not happy. One said on Twitter, “Would you like it if America were portrayed by a movie that showed only the slums of New York?” Uh, well, there have been quite a few movies that do not show America in the best light. But perhaps because movies set in India are rarer in the United States, the impact of Slumdog has been greater. American movies, set in America, are widely viewed around the world, the good, the bad and…all that.
But back to the question of whether Slumdog Millionaire might make people actually want to go to Mumbai. I began to hear another discussion which caught me by surprise. Slum tours, it seems, are newly chic. Some call this kind of tourism ‘Poorism.’
Do the profit-making companies that lead these tours actually give back to the communities as they claim? What motivates people to go on such tours? Is it voyeurism? Isn’t all travel ultimately voyeurism? Do the slum tourists come away changed in any way? Will they be more sensitive and generous in the future? Will the inhabitants of the slums learn how to make a legitimate buck off the tourists, or will the bad guys among them simply hone their pickpocket skills?
Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss, discussed the tours in a 2008 New York Times article. You can learn more about one of the tour companies that he discusses, Reality Tours, at their web site.
For now, I only know that for me, I am not interested in visiting a place to look at the lives of the poorest, and I am wary of traveling where I fear that I will be isolated in expensive resorts or hotels from the regular street life because it is unsafe, unhealthy or simply unsavory. Call me unadventurous, but that’s my thought.
I am sure of one thing…the people who run tours in the slums of Mumbai are going to do a lot more business because of Slumdog Millionaire. As to the two main questions here–whether I am totally missing the point of Mumbai, and whether slum tourism has a place– I have an open mind. So educate me. Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.
Oh, I mentioned a book up there in the first paragraph. I’ll get around to that soon.
See the posts that followed this one when Monica Bhide replied with her take on Mumbai in two parts.
Photograph by Mike Powell, Flickr, Creative Commons license.