Friday, August 24, 2012

Stories from the Slum

Rashmi Bansal is at it again. After three blockbuster books, here is a fourth one co-authored with Deepak Gandhi. In a way it is almost like the Harry Potter series – starting with an accidental discovery of a selling formula and then following it up with books having a similar concept. Her first book – Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish talked about 20 entrepreneurs who had a IIM Ahmedabad degree. She followed it up with 20 who did not have the coveted MBA, and then moved on to profiling social entrepreneurs. The latest is a book on Dharavi – the biggest slum in Asia. As usual it is trying to find what Rashmi has excelled in finding. Successful stories on entrepreneurship narrated over and over again, like an inspirational speaker who mentions the essence of life through multiple narratives.

Rashmi has an irritating style, which has come to be popular. This style dumbs everything into sermon like stories, without a methodological frame. It is a travelogue. It paints a happy and rosy picture and helps a person to identify with the protagonist – “I could be the next Vijay in an Amitabh Bachchan movie” – the angry young man. However much we may pick bones about this brash style, her writing is something that we cannot ignore. There is a piece of an inspirational story here, there is some interesting stuff there all discovered accidentally, but organized in a neat set of silos that make it appear to be within a theoretical frame.

To put the exuberance of Rashmi’s and Deepak’s Dharavi in context, one should read it alongside another book by a journalist Katherine Boo’s – “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” a somewhat dark picture of the Annawadi slum in Mumbai not far from Dharavi, not far from Bandra-Kurla Complex but certainly far-far away from the optimism shown in this book. Boo’s work is rigorous, deep, incisive and persistent. No, it is not an academic book, not an ethnographic work, as would be written by a sociologist or anthropologist, but a rigorous journalistic work to be taken seriously. Poor Little Rich Slum is a happy travelogue that multiplies the story of slumdog millionaire.

It is a narration of the story as claimed by the protagonist, without much of a cross verification. If Rashmi were to apply rigour in her first book ,she would have avoided putting Subhiksha as a “successful enterprise”. The early signs of decline were already showing up, but she went with the bravado of the promoter.

If only Rashmi and Deepak had put Dharavi in the context of poverty, each entrepreneur in the context of Dharavi, it would have been better. The book is a mix of stories of people who have made it within Dharavi itself, people from Dharavi who have made it outside and people from outside who have positively ‘intervened’ in Dharavi. These three are somewhat distinct themes that get intermingled in their narration.

The narrative uses language freely, intermingles slang and chats with the reader. The paragraphs are less than three lines, grammatically more accurate than bullet points, but intended to be like bullet points. The book is rich in its presentation with many photographs of the slums. Unfortunately not all the pictures are relevant to the text. Photographs that show filth and squalor is not a part of the discourse. The difficult conditions under which slum dwellers live, the physical threat to their existence, and the fact that their very existence is constantly under threat because of weak documentation does not come out clearly.

Dharavi has been grabbing much attention from the press, financial institutions and policy makers. It has bank branches that do urban financial inclusion and has become an icon for anybody to talk about urban poverty. In that sense, this was a natural destination for Rashmi and Deepak to go, because their model is based on pegging entrepreneurship in a larger recognizable “brand”. Dharavi [unlike Annawadi] provides that “brand”.

Is Dharavi representative of the most low-income settlements in large urban sprawls? This question needs much more rigorous indulgence. Yes, it represents one type of settled low-income settlement, with recognition, with amenities coming in and also being on the policy radar. The conditions in the other places are more appaling as we discover from Boo’s Annawadi. Dharavi has now become an icon and symbol of slum tourism, of entrepreneurship and of financial inclusion. There is a darker side to the problem of urban poverty than Dharavi. The handicap for entrepreneurship in Dharavi and elsewhere might also be different.

Having said this, Poor Little Rich Slum is one of the better books of Rashmi Bansal [and Deepak Gandhi]. It narrates the stories of the protagonists without fluff and hits right on the point. It is positive and gives a feel-good feeling, possibly undeservedly in the rather dark bottom of the pit [or should we call it a pyramid?]

Poor Little Rich Slum
what we saw in Dharavi and why it matters
Rashmi Bansal, Deepak Gandhi with Pictures by Dee Gandhi
pp.194. Price Rs.250.
Westland 2012


Anirban Mukerji said...

Thanks for providing original insights

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