My name is Rubina Ali. I don't know when my birthday is, and nor does my father, but I do know that I am nine years old.
Young Rubina is a one-in-a-million star. Plucked from among five hundred slumkids who auditioned for Danny Boyle's multi-Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, she saw her fairy-tale dream of stardom come true. Now that she has stepped into the limelight, what will life hold for a young girl from the Mumbai slums?
Rubina tells her own incredible story, bringing to life a world of wastelands and rat-infested shanty dwellings, where she played marbles with her friends beside the sewers of Garib Nagar. She introduces her beloved father, a hardworking rickshaw puller, and her siblings. And then Rubina tells of the kindness of Danny Boyle and of the time she spent on the film setsincluding the hilarious incident when her costar came to be covered in chocolate from head to toe.
After her brief encounter with red-carpet glamour, how will Rubina come to terms with the conditions in which she, her family, and her friends continue to live since Hollywood came knocking? This is her compelling story.
About the Author
Rubina Ali is an Indian actress who played the youngest version of Latika in the multi-Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire (2008) for which she won a Screen Actors Guild Award.
Anne Berthod is a journalist in France. She is the coauthor of Slumgirl Dreaming.
Divya Dugar is a journalist in India. She is the coauthor of Slumgirl Dreaming.
Read an Excerpt
My name is Rubina Ali. I don't know when my birthday is, and nor does my father, but I know I'm nine years old. I was born in Baba Hospital, in Bandra. I've always lived in Bandra East slum. My neighbourhood is called Garib Nagar, 'the area of the poor'. It's not big, but it's still a small city on its own. I am familiar with every nook and cranny of this area. It doesn't look that vast but we have ten thousand inhabitants per square kilometre. Building a shanty town is like doing a jigsaw puzzle out of odds and ends of sheet metal, wooden planks and plastic blue sheets. We make use of every inch of space available to us. Our little huts don't belong to my aba or uncle - it's government land - but people have been living here for many years. This is my world: a bit rough and hardly a movie-star lifestyle.
The slum has a main road running along the railway track, which is the hub of activity. It is always teeming with people. There are children playing, picking up the dirt and rubbish from the railway track, and old and young huddling together to chat and gossip. All the community functions and celebrations take place here. This road also has a barber shop, tea stalls, grocery shops and a video game booth. Many vendors sit next to the railway tracks selling fruit, vegetables and various snacks, such as meat which is full of flies but delicious once cooked. There are also those who set up right on the ground, putting their eggs or spices on a blanket. There's always something going on here. I spend a lot of time playing here and hanging out with my friends. To the north of this road is a wasteland where they empty the rubbish, and to the east is the station where all the trains from the Mumbai suburbs arrive.
We meet, me and my friends and other children, to play games like tag among the goats and chickens and all the people who lounge about in the sun. It's quite rare but sometimes a goods train still goes past, and then there is a frenzy to move the stalls and drying clothes and everyone has to get off the tracks in a hurry, especially the old people who sleep on the ground. I've already seen accidents happen.
The back of the slums is the worst part. It's full of dirty water, poo and muck. No one can walk in that so we've made a path with bricks and wooden planks so people can get through. Beyond that there's a mud mound a few metres high that's all covered in rubbish and poo as well.
As soon as you leave the main street and go in to the narrow alleyways between the metal-roofed houses, everything is dark and humid. The gutter is full of black water and always bubbling with insects. It takes up half the passage. The rest is unsteady paving stones and animal poo, so you have to be careful where you put your feet. But I'm used to it. I've seen many kids fall in these gutters, which I find very funny. Most people leave their door open: then you can see seven or eight people in a single room without a window. That's where you eat, sleep and bathe. There's no privacy in slums. Everyone lives with everyone else, and also with rats, cockroaches and mosquitoes - they are everywhere.
When I was very young, I thought that Mumbai was nothing but slums, wastelands, sewers, stinking water and rickety houses. And then, from watching soap operas and movies on our old black-and-white telly, I became aware of a world outside the slums. The wobbly image on our old television set was my first view of this dream world. Until I went to Hollywood, I'd only left my Bandra slum twice; once for a pilgrimage to the tomb of Ajmer Sharif in Rajasthan when I was three, and once to Kolkata with my stepmother not long ago. I don't remember much about the Rajasthan trip and my trip to Kolkata wasn't that great. The slums where my stepmother Munni comes from are even worse than ours.
My neighbourhood is a mix of interesting people. There is a man who lives opposite our house, who seems quite nice to me. But all the boys make fun of him, calling him ladki, ladki (girl, girl). He walks a bit like a girl and doesn't really hang out with the boys on the street. He was about to get married and everything was arranged but then he decided to become a hijra (transsexual). Now he wears a sari and begs. If someone laughs at him then he goes mad and shouts insults at them.
Rafiq Qureshi Ali, who I call Aba, is my father, a tall man with a black moustache and curly hair that he dyes with henna to hide the white hairs and to keep his head cool in the summer. Yes, henna has cooling properties! My father is a nice man, who doesn't drink and smoke, like most of the others in the slums do. Lots of people have told me I resemble my father a lot. Whenever I look at myself in the mirror, I feel that my eyes are just like his - big, round and expressive. He is everything to me: father and mother. He was born in Mumbai, too, thirty-six years ago, but in Dharavi slums. They are the biggest slums in Mumbai, much bigger than ours. He spent the first few years of his life there. He says life in Dharavi was very hard, that the children were bullied because of their caste. After that, he went with his parents and two older brothers to live in Kerala, in southern India, where his family originally came from. My grandfather earned his living working as an agent for people who wanted passports. His job was to speed up the process, and to arrange all the documents if the person didn't have them. I never knew him. He died thirty years ago. My grandmother remarried quite soon afterwards, and they eventually came back to Mumbai, to the Bandra East slums.