Book Review: Poor Little Rich Slum
Four years after Slumdog Millionaire, the world remains fascinated with Dharavi. Recent visitors include the Duke of York and an entire high school class from Brooklyn. Middle-class Mumbaikars, by contrast, expend barely a passing thought on this hotly contested area at the heart of the city.
Rashmi Bansal and Deepak Gandhi attempt to close the sympathy gap with Poor Little Rich Slum: What We Saw In Dharavi and Why It Matters, a collection of stories from Dharavi intended to engage “ordinary middle-class citizens” who might otherwise be repulsed by the mere mention of a slum.
Their account is nearly as chaotic, ungrammatical and cramped as Dharavi itself. Bansal, whose Connect the Dots and Stay Hungry Stay Foolish are currently at #1 and #4, respectively on the Crossword bestseller list, has crafted the book as a series of disjointed paragraphs of two or three sentences, each a kind of Zen koan or epigram minus the wit. Matching the narrow confinement of the ideas developed are the tiny photographs by Dee Gandhi embellishing each story.
The effect is similar to that of a slum tour. After poking one’s head into a series of dark cubbyholes, one walks away titillated and occasionally piqued but imperfectly illuminated. The drive-by journalistic method of Poor Little Rich Slum lacks the attentiveness of the dug-in, tight-focus reporting of Behind the Beautiful Forevers or the patient expertise of Kalpana Sharma’s still-relevant Rediscovering Dharavi. (Sharma, like Bansal and Gandhi, began as an uninformed outsider. “I too did not know precisely what and where was this ‘slum’,” she wrote abashedly.)
Bansal and Gandhi’s strength lies in making sympathetic characters out of the many entrepreneurs and social workers they meet. Rarely do they encounter the Dharavi-dweller who merely says something; she “smiles”, “laughs” or “grins” it. Even the ever-irascible Jockin Arputham, who now runs an organisation called Slum Dwellers International, is caught chuckling. Their interviews are laced with convincingly jaunty Hinglish (but are conspicuously absent of Marathi or, for that matter, Tamil). They never part company without an uplifting thought.
Perhaps some naïve attention paid to redevelopment is better than none at all. Naresh Fernandes recently commented that the “fetishization of Dharavi” may be doing harm by “[making] a virtue out of very dire necessity.” In granting slum residents credit for their productivity and resourcefulness, we sometimes forget that “they, as citizens, have the same rights to the city as we do”. Rendering them as human is, if nothing else, a start.
Poor Little Rich Slum: What We Saw In Dharavi and Why It Matters by Rashmi Bansal and Deepak Gandhi, Westland, Rs250.Tags: Books, Deepak Gandhi, Dharavi, Poor Little Rich Slum: What We Saw In Dharavi and Why It Matters, Rashmi Bansal