I knew I wanted to be a scientist when…

Flying to Dharavi

By Indrani Chatterjee

I was born and bred in the big Indian metropolis, Bombay, in a middle-class home where a good education was valued more than anything else. My parents said I could be whatever I wanted, which is a rare thing for Indian parents (perhaps all parents). Still, it did not stop my father from reading Marx to me when I was 15, instantly putting a halt to any interest I might have had in political science (when did that kind of indoctrination ever work?). My mother introduced me to Maxim Gorky’s writing, which I found intimidating enough to stop me from thinking that I might pursue the literary arts. Looking back, thank goodness there weren’t any scientists in the family!

Then again, it wasn’t just family. It was also the city of Bombay, where people came, all 14 million of them, from all over the country, spoke different languages and belonged to different religions and ethnicities. In the cosmopolis, it did not matter if you were Hindu, Muslim, Zoroastrian – that was secondary. In Bombay only aspirations mattered, and you went to the city to be whoever you wanted to be.

Father Terrence taught philosophy at St. Xavier’s, a small Jesuit institution in Bombay that I attended. The Institute took pride in its mission — Provocans Ad Volandum — provoking its young women and men to fly. Terry, as we affectionately called him, often quoted Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, when he talked to us in the canteen foyer— “Unity in diversity,” “Science and Industry are the temples of modern India” and so on. He often urged us to extend our education outside the boundaries of the campus and give back to the city we all loved so much. And that is how one summer I ended up working in Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, on a project for the World Health Organization, regarding matters of health and sanitation.

Dharavi is a city within a city, housing up to a million migrant workers living in conditions of extreme poverty and poor sanitation. A stench assaults your senses every time you walk through it. Occasionally there is beauty in colorful graffiti adorning the walls of the mud and tin houses and sometimes in the laughter of children with a bat and ball. A majority Muslim population consisting of tanners and a smaller Hindu population of potters supports its economy. Most families here had co-existed in relative harmony for centuries. On the 6th of December 1992, however, all that changed when right-wing Hindu nationalists destroyed a mosque elsewhere in the country, claiming that it had been built on the birth site of a Hindu deity. Anti-Muslim riots erupted in various parts of the country, including Bombay where the Hindu government then in power did very little to stop the rioters. Friends became enemies; some people fled the city, and others went into hiding. The military was called in to silence the senseless rage that had gripped the city, imposing a curfew, and an eerie quiet took over. Over a thousand people died and several thousand more were injured in Dharavi alone during the riots. It had left the city shaken and fractured in ways previously unimaginable. Overnight, Bombay had become Mumbai (named after a Hindu goddess), catapulted from a place of hope to a city on edge.

I started working in the slum soon after the riots. My project involved conducting interviews, providing information on health issues and prevention of disease. Every morning my fellow students and I would visit the administrative wards in the slum trying to talk to people. We were greeted with suspicion but the fact that we weren’t working directly under the government gave us some leeway. Yet if a Muslim saw us talking to a Hindu and vice versa, all lines of communication stalled. This went on for a few weeks and the situation left us with a sense of utter hopelessness.

It was then that Terry suggested a small experiment. He asked us to take props from our labs to demonstrate how the malarial parasite Plasmodium vivax infected red blood cells. It was strange to carry a microscope and slides to the wards, but very soon little children started to gather in order to take a look. They asked questions about a mosquito’s life cycle and the spread of disease. In no time their mothers came, too, and, after a while, their fathers. The riots had destroyed people’s trust but hadn’t managed to kill their curiosity. I noticed that around that very experiment, neighbours talked. They talked to each other and to me. Religion did not seem to matter around the microscope. Things started to change; our work started to move forward. By the end of that summer, over a thousand inhabitants of Dharavi had signed a petition (some with their thumb prints) to build more toilets and improve sanitary conditions. The petition was backed by data my colleagues and I had collected. That summer, science had not only brought progress but also restored a sense of normalcy.

Many years later as I worked with my colleagues at NYU, in another cosmopolis, New York, to organize a course in Science Diplomacy where we explored the role of science in international relations and global development, my mind kept wandering to those peaceful afternoons in Dharavi around a microscope.

Science has a unique capacity to surpass differences, erase boundaries and bring unity. It is a force I could not resist, I became a scientist because I had to.


Indrani Chatterjee used to be a postdoc at NYU, and currently works as Medical Science Liaison at a biotech company in New York.