Slums can inspire, but what of it? Review of ‘Poor Little Rich Slum’- 9 Aug, 2012

Who can put down a book that showcases a series of tear-jerking, heart-warming success stories? Not me! And in that sense, Rashmi Bansal and Deepak Gandhi are spot on with their book Poor Little Rich Slum on Dharavi in Mumbai.

However, as a writer and an urban planner, I viewed the book through my critical lens and I must confess I’m not too impressed.

Don’t get me wrong. I am completely in agreement with the idea that informal settlements like Dharavi are the energy centers of our cities. Certainly, the innovation and zesty approach to life’s seemingly insurmountable problems that we urban practitioners see among slum dwellers makes most of ashamed of the often-whiny note we strike in our relatively comfortable middle class lives.

As an attempt to place India’s slums in a positive frame of reference among middle class readers, this is a great book. And perhaps the starting point we need. It is no mean effort to say in simple words what many experienced and intelligent people fail to see. And every effort, small or big, is needed to turn conventional thinking about slums on its head!

What NGOs, social entrepreneurs and slum dwellers already know is what the world out there needs to recognize. Not because its general knowledge, but because when the educated middle class accepts and understands their interdependence on slums is when sufficient pressure will be built on the system to take a reality check. As long as we are willing to pay exorbitant sums to buy swanky apartments on land that is carved out of evicting poor slum dwellers, the battle is one lost before it even began. So speaks the socialist in me, at any rate!

Somewhere towards the very end, after many stories of success, the book makes its main point, according to me. That redevelopment the way governments (pressurized by developers) see it, is not a future that is fair to slum dwellers. Not only does it take away what is meaningful, replacing it with lip service in the name of housing and infrastructure; it also means taking away homes and livelihood from many renters who are part of the vital life force of slums. Somehow improvement in the modern world seems to be synonymous with leaching away character and homogenizing everything into cookie cuter homes and people with horribly predictable lives. Clearly that’s not the way life is and certainly not life in the slums, the vibrancy of which the book brings out admirably.

What don’t I like? The book reads very much like a self-improvement book. It has, hidden in it very subtly, but unmistakably, a preachy tone. The slightly philosophical twist at the end of each tale was a nice touch, but in many instances, the words didn’t quite fit. “That’s what humans beings must do, with the fabric of life” at the end of a case on someone who runs a ladies’ tailoring business is nothing short of cheesy.

Poor Little Rich Slum is an attempt to simplify an incredible complex issue and package it cleverly for readers who have no exposure to the subject. It is intended to be an inspirational book, but fails to give a well-rounded picture. Yes, we need to create awareness, but I don’t agree we should do this by oversimplifying the story, by only talking about the success stories while neglecting to carry even a single not-so-happy experience? As I read the book, with experience of working in other slum areas in other cities in India, I wonder about how Dharavi has come to be the Mother Slum. Glorified in its tattered robes, the ultimate symbol of messy urbanism, the pin-up hero for those of us who want to give the poor a space, a voice.

Despite my minor reservations, what the book is doing is making me want to visit Dharavi. Now! I grew up in Mumbai and have visited and even spent entire days in slums and chawls tagging along with Manda, who was my nanny. I called her Mavshi and we would go to meet many of her relatives who lived in chawls and slums and mill housing. It was fun. I felt completely at home. But Dharavi was not one of these. It has come home to me, through this book and from other people’s narrations that Dharavi is special. Having worked in slums in Delhi, methinks it would be interesting to experience the Mother Slum!

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