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Photo: David Bijl

Ravi Sansi has converted a tiny room into a unlikely destination, a homestay that may help propel his family out of poverty

This month, A Beautiful Perspective relaunched as a digital magazine tackling a single theme each month. For our first month, we’re exploring the concept of home. Click here to read more stories from the HOME Issue.

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Just off a busy highway in Mumbai, a narrow, easily missable bylane serves as a gateway to a different world. The city’s celebrated skyscrapers disappear, replaced by cramped, one-story homes that line the passage on either side. Water storage tanks and drying utensils dot the alley, and clothes lines that criss-cross the sky bend low with heavy, colorful laundry. Running children contribute to the background score, while the air fills with the spicy aroma of lunch being cooked in the tiny, adjacent homes. Here, amid the clamor and broken tiles strewn on the floor, a slim iron staircase leads to an unlikely hotel.

More than half of Mumbai’s population—about 6.5 million people, according to United States Agency for International Development—reside in slums spread all over the city. According to Mumbai’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority, the city is home to 3,293 of these makeshift neighborhoods, covering a cumulative 14 square miles, slightly bigger than the territory of Macau. While some of these residents enjoy the modest luxury of concrete structures, others make do with aluminium sheets for walls and blue tarpaulin roofs, tiny encampments that can barely accommodate the families within. But attached to a small house in the Golibar slum in the heart of Mumbai, lies a 50-square-foot tenement where hardships are decorated and strangers welcomed to enable a small income for the shanty’s 18 residents.

The home belongs to 35-year-old street vendor Ravi Sansi, who has dubbed his residence “Slum Home​stay,” offering a night’s accommodation to tourists for INR 2000 ($29).

“The guests often eat the food we cook at our home, which is just across [from] the guest room,” says Sansi, who dropped out of school in seventh grade. “They find it spicy, but most of them relish it. When guests arrive, our slum lights up. None of us here have seen foreigners before. The kids follow them around, asking questions and clicking pictures.”

Essentially an attic, the homestay room has barely enough space to accommodate a single mattress. A piece of cloth covers the window, and an aging air conditioner adorns one of the pale yellow walls. The flat-screen TV, an unexpected luxury, sits on the floor.

The one major problem, Sansi says, is the washroom. “It’s a communal toilet, which is used by around 150 residents of the slum. But that also makes the experience authentic. A night’s stay at our Slum Hotel gives our guests an unfiltered peek into our homes and how we survive them.”

More than 6.5 million Mumbai residents live in slums like Golibar, site of the Slum Hotel. David Bijl

Sansi lives in Golibar with his 25-year-old wife, Bajita, and two kids, ages one and four. His extended family of 14—parents, brothers and their families—also share the single-room, 200-square-foot home. While the elders sleep in the main area—Sansi and Bajita sleep in a loft and the eight kids occupy the guest room. When tourists arrive, the children move back into the family home, often sleeping on their sides to squeeze into the tight environs.

“We sincerely hope that one day, through the money we gather from our dilapidated hotel, we would be able to afford a real home,” says Bajita. “My husband sells maps for a living at traffic signals and markets in Mumbai. He earns INR 300 ($4.30) a day, and there are days when he returns home empty-handed. We’ve always worried about our children’s education, but now, with our Slum Hotel, there’s a glimmer of hope.”

The one major problem, Sansi says, is the washroom. “It’s a communal toilet, which is used by around 150 residents of the slum.”

The idea for the homestay emerged a year ago after Sansi met David Bijl, a 32-year-old Dutch activist who works with American NGO Potential Energy. The non-profit distributes cooking stoves to families in rural India and produces the stoves at a factory in Mumbai, where Sansi was working in assembly.

“I was once visiting Ravi late at night at his home. Since I’d already missed the last train, his family insisted I stay back. That’s when the idea came up,” says Bijl. “Apart from the fact that it helps Ravi and his family with a supplementary income, the concept of a slum homestay seemed like a good exchange of lifestyle and respect. It gives foreigners a peek into the inaccessible side of India—one we’ve only seen in films and books.”

After Sansi agreed, Bijl set up a Facebook page for the homestay last November. He uploaded pictures of Sansi’s family and the Slum Hotel, calling it a “new world,” which gives guests “an invaluable experience.”

“We’ve had a lot of interest,” says Bijl, “After we opened the hotel to tourists earlier this year, we’ve had guests on three occasions. But if we market the hotel a bit, I’m sure we’ll have many more takers. All of our guests so far have had positive experiences. They’ve been particularly happy with their hosts.”

The guest room at the Slum Hotel, which is occupied by eight kids when tourists aren't in town. David Bijl

Sansi’s family isn’t so sure. They’ve been slightly apprehensive about his new business venture. Sansi says he’s no entrepreneur, can barely speak English and is approaching this new territory cautiously. “No one in our family has been a businessman before. My father would also sell maps, and he keeps dissuading me from pursuing this. I feel scared, too. We don’t know those visitors, their language—we’ve never even heard of their countries. But all these doubts disappear when guests arrive. They treat us so warmly that the differences disappear.”

Sansi particularly remembers a Norwegian writer, who stayed at his Slum Hotel for a night last month. Sansi volunteered to show the guest around the city, and at the end of the day, the writer handed him a tip of INR 1500 ($21.7). Sansi says he was overjoyed with the generosity, the equivalent of a week’s wages.

“When he was leaving, he hugged me, showed me pictures of his family on his phone, and said he’d return soon. And when he returns to our home, he’s promised to teach me some English,” Sansi smiles.

One amenity of the homestay: these kids adorable faces. David Bijl

Critics see this exchange as exploitation and say the homestay is essentially “slum and poverty tourism,” which makes a mockery of the hardships faced by the world’s poorest by treating them like animals in a zoo. Prakash Reddy, an activist and general secretary of Brihanmumbai Tenant Council, questions the mentality and attitude of guests at the Slum Hotel.

“This shouldn’t be encouraged,” he says. “What are the visitors here to see? Is it the poverty and disparity in India? Unless they want to make a difference after experiencing the slum life, I believe they have a questionable mentality. If they’re not looking to mend the reality in slums, all that the guests are doing is getting boasting rights for having experienced misery. In my opinion, even the host is in the wrong here—he’s making money out of a desperate situation instead of thinking about bringing change.”

But to Sansi, the detractors are hardly a deterrent. His home is making him money, he says, slowly solidifying the dream of a better life.

Mumbai-based urban planner Rishi Agarwal, who also heads the NGO Mumbai Sustainability Centre, agrees with Sansi. “Slums in Mumbai are dark, dingy and hotbeds for diseases. The living conditions take a toll on human dignity,” he says. “It’s unfortunate that as a city, we’ve allowed 60 percent of our population to survive in such despicable conditions. But if there’s a tiny ray of hope for slum residents through such ventures, I see no problem in it.”

Bijl, who receives no financial benefit from Sansi’s homestay, says he has had inquiries from slum residents and NGOs in other countries including Sri Lanka, Zambia and Peru to duplicate the Slum Hotel. He understands the criticism around “slum tourism,” but says it’s not poverty or destitution that the homestay is trying to sell.

“We don’t want to define the life in slums by the issues it’s plagued with. We’re trying to show that people, who live in these difficult, cramped homes, are just as happy as the ones in swanky apartments,” he says.

For Sansi, that seems to be true. “Everybody knows each other in our slum,” he says. “It’s like a big, gigantic family. They’re always around to celebrate our joys, and to share our sorrows. Our home isn’t the 200-square-foot shanty we live in. It’s this entire slum. And now, with the Slum Hotel, our sprawling, warm home is open to the world.”