POOR LITTLE RICH SLUM by Rashmi Bansal & Deepak Gandhi

For a book covering such a potentially “difficult” subject as Mumbai’s Dharavi – reputedly Asia’s largest slum – “Poor little rich slum” is surprisingly easy to read. That has a lot to do with the way the book is written and presented.

The book is divided into bite-sized chapters, so you can, potentially, dip in and out, though I read it at one sitting.  The writing style is über-simple. Very short sentences. Very, very short sentences. Many of them not, technically and grammatically, sentences at all.

Enough  – it’s catching.

The short snappy style works, in a certain journalistic way, but if I have one complaint about this otherwise very worthwhile and readable book, then it is that the authors possibly overdid the short, snappy style.  A little more attention to grammar, much more attention to redundant punctuation, and I think the book would have been improved immeasurably.  It seems foolish to alienate a reader from a gripping story with sloppy grammar.

The book is written by 2 authors, but you wouldn’t know it.  There is a consistent, unified style and the short chapters are linked by good photographs by Dee Gandhi.  In the blurb, we are told that Dee Gandhi practises “no price-tag” photography, which sounds interesting.  Certainly the photos are sympathetically shot and with obvious care not to exploit the subjects.

The book sets out to tell some of the stories of Dharavi, in the voices of the people who live there.  There is a liveliness and fluency about many of these tales, and one can easily picture the speaker, and imagine being there with the authors, as they listen to stories of poverty and hope, of deprivation and ambition, all set against the backdrop of such a densely packed slum.

The voices are powerful, their stories moving and yes – let me say it – inspirational.  This isn’t a soppy feel-good book, far from it, yet the stories of success and drive and determination shine through so that you do feel moved when reading.

The authors start their discovery of Dharavi on a guided tour, led by a resident, wondering whether poverty tourism is an acceptable concept or not.  For the record, having done a similiar tour in Delhi, I think such tours do more good than harm.  Peoples’ eyes are opened – the authors are living testimony –  and the fact that such tours inevitably prompt people to discuss what they have just seen, and how to help, can only be for the good.

They are taken first to see businesses that operate out of Dharavi, where they soon realise that work must, and does, go on, regardless of the tourists and visitors standing and watching, for the whole thing about Dharavi is the palpable need to survive, to work, to earn, to eat.  Of all the stories we hear from the Dharavi residents, that told by Jameel in Chapter 6 “Factory of Dreams” is such a stand-out feel good story about someone who really has succeeded, against all the odds, that you want to cheer when he tells you that Priyanka Chopra’s secretary called him to order shoes for the Bollywood star.

It’s almost a clichéd made-for-Bollywood moment, except that it’s true and heart-warmingly so.

We meet an amazing teacher determined that the children of Dharavi must learn English, so as to help them try and get a better future.  We meet food vendors and social workers, a foreign acupuncturist and people teaching rag-pickers how to play music.  The scope and vibrancy is as overwhelming as the poverty and litter and stench that the authors battle, as they plunge ever deeper, meeting some of the slum’s amazingly resilient inhabitants.

This can’t have been an easy book to research or to write, but the authors’ skills lie in making it a relatively easy read.  You are not inundated with facts.  You are not guilted-out.  You are, however, left inspired and impressed by the people who live in Asia’s largest slum.

Published in 2012 by Westland, the paperback costs Rs 250.

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