Sunday, July 1, 2012

Poor Little Rich Slum

Title: Poor Little Rich Slum: What we saw in Dharavi and why it matters
Authors: Rashmi Bansal and Deepak Gandhi. Photographs by Dee Gandhi
Available on: FlipKart and other stores including a Kindle version

Rashmi Bansal is one of my favourite Indian authors and Poor Little Rich Slum is another inspiring book written by her jointly with Deepak Gandhi.

When overseas visitors land in Mumbai, they appear shocked at the slums which they spot along the highway en-route from the airport. Why, even visitors from other parts of India tend to stare open-mouthed and ask: How do these people live within the four walls of plastic sheets or rusty tin sheets? And most of us 'pucca' Mumbaikars (i.e. - long-time residents of Mumbai) are just immune to the squalor and prefer to ignore it.

At the same time, within all of us, there is a grudging admiration for the grit which the slum dwellers display, their ingenuity and deep rooted desire to thrive in this big bad world of Mumbai.

There are many who come to Mumbai, with stars in their eyes, hoping to make it big in Bollywood, others escape beatings at home and catch the first train to the only mega city they have heard of, i.e. Mumbai. Poverty, drought, floods or other natural calamities and/or unemployment drive others to Mumbai. At any given time of the day or night, you can see them, arriving from outstation trains (at times ticket-less), either in groups or alone, looking scared yet determined, often carrying a bundle of clothes or just the shirt on their backs, all looking for a new future in this big city.

Countless debates are held on whether these immigrants should be sent back, on how Mumbai is bursting at the seams and cannot afford to 'tolerate' more immigrants, absorb more slumns, or how the slums result in various illegal activities be it brewing liquor or gambling dens. Yet, perhaps this city is what it is, because of the masses of people who dare to call it their home.

This book is a tribute to the spirit of can do, of entrepreneurship, of the willingness to march ahead despite all odds. The book takes you into the lives of many people, living in Asia's largest slum - Dharavi.

The entire book has been divided into four sections, viz: (1)Dharavi, What Ees?; (2) The Incubator; (3)The Cauldron Of Change; (4)The Future. Each of the sections contain stories about people surviving or at times successfully thriving in Dharavi.

While the authors have done wonders capturing each and every story in detail, the photographs make it all come alive.

To begin with the authors narrate the story of The blind men and an elephant. Each person was right and then again, not quite right.

Similarly, "The outsider is blind to the drudgery of Dharavi -- he chooses to see a colourful, chaotic, creatively inspirational mess." Beneath the seething mass of humanity, of un-imagined challenges, there is a silent unsung revolution -- a
revolution of energy and enterprise and the book captures it vividly.

The authors conducted a survey among 210 students from two prestigious Mumbai based colleges, viz: Wilson College and Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies and posed three questions on where the students would prefer to use donate Rs. 100. Three choices were given for such a donation and 65% of the students said it would go towards helping the starving in Darfur, only 6% were in favour of using it for slum development and the balance opted for children's education. Not many realise the need for slum development, there is a total apathy towards the non-availability of toilets or clean water, including drinking water, just because some slum-dwellers have T.V. in their homes doesn't mean that they are having a comfortable existence.

Jameel Shah's story - Factory of Dreams, seems to have captured many hearts, with an extract available on

Today, Jameel is an entrepreneur making dancing shoes for the Bollywood stars of the likes of Bipasha Basu. It took all of ten years, a lot of grit, hard work and determination to become a successful entrepreneur who now employs people. Of course there was an element of luck thrown in, by way of an introduction to Salsa, that sowed the seeds of his enterprise. This is how Dharavi grows, on the concept of paying it forward. Those who make it, generate jobs for others and Dharavi continues to hum.

Within the complex maze are also outsiders. Those who had the option of not being here, but are here for a reason. Take Srini for example. His story is aptly captured in the chapter - Less is More. Srini volunteers for Teach for India. A lot of love and patience has helped him ensure that his students take an interest in learning, especially in learning English. Of course, his innovative concepts of putting coins in a box, when pleased with the students performance (to be used for a treat later) or prize rewards of marbles -- which no young lad can resist, played a huge motivational role. Or then, there is Soaib Grewal, a graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design, who has set up a social enterprise that aims to introduce clean water techniques in Dharavi. A water purification tablet sells for as little as Rs 1 and then there are the high end filters which sell for more than a thousand bucks. Creating awareness about the need to drink clean water is taking time, but this enterprise is determined to do its bit.

Sprinkled in the book are so many amazing stories, of Rani who got a loan from SBI via a self help group and who with some tailors sews women's blouses, or Panju now the owner of an Udipi restaurant (one which sells South Indian fast food like idli and dosa) who continues to live in Dharavi but in a redevelopment flat and not under a tin roof, or that of Jocking Sir, who has decided to take matters in his own hand and work towards redevelopment of slums by carving out an area of the proposed buildings under the redevelopment scheme for commercial use. By selling the commercial space funds will be available for redevelopment. Then there are Faheem and Tauseef who have set up their tour agency -- Be the Local which provides the tour of Dharavi, who better than them to show us what Dharavi is truly about.

Each person here, holds his head high and like Jameel who is dreaming of a sea-facing apartment, dreams and works towards a better tomorrow.

This book is a MUST READ and no review can fully capture all that it has to offer. In addition contacts of most people whose stories have been covered in this book have been provided. I only wish that the book contained an index. Further, while a few snatches of conversation/thoughts in Hindi (India's national language) of those who stories are contained in the book are transliterated in English, the book could have provided a translation of the same as a footnote, to help an international audience.

Photograph in this blog post has been used as per the terms of the Creative Commons License. It has been downloaded from

You may also like to check out the interview with Rashmi Bansal on BlogAdda.

Sign up for the Book Review Program for Indian Bloggers. and get free books! Participate now!


Catarina said...

Interesting that students in Mumbai were more intested in helping starving people in Darfur than in their own country. Not least since half the world's poor are on the Indian Subcontinent.

Glad to read about the examples of Indians who do give a helping hand and the ones that made it despite being born in a slum like that.

Lubna said...

@Catarina: The feeling was that these people are not starving, some of them even have a TV. Starvation in Dafur got more sympathy.

Bethany Lee said...

Oh Lubna! This book sounds incredibly interesting to me! I have always been intrigued by India, having met people who are from India and they always being so welcoming and loving. This book sounds like it would be a great peek into real people there, with their real concerns and issues. I'm going to purchase this one. Thanks for sharing it.

Bethany Lee said...

Bummer! The FlipKart entry for this tells me I can only buy it if I'm in India! I wish there was an e-book version of this!

Lubna said...

@Bethany, it is available on Kindle, let me add that link now. I forgot to do so. Thanks for your visit and do buy this book. I recommend it highly.

Marina Sofia said...

It sounds like a fascinating read. How do you think it compares with Katherine Boo's book 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers', also about a Mumbai slum?
And thanks for visiting my blog. I look forward to reading more of your reviews

Lubna said...

@Marina: Thanks for visiting. Yes, there is a common thread, however, these are short stories dealing largely with the spirit of entrepreneurship.

Bindhurani said...

Lubna, the book sounds very interesting. after the movie, Slum-dog millionaire, slums were getting more attention, I thought. Once, in Canadian TV, they showed the slum,and some thriving businesses. It is amazing that some people are good to find a fortune and create great businesses even in a slum. Great stories. Someone, some day will find a way to bring clean water and better conditions to the slums... I hope.

Lubna said...

@Bindhu: Amen to that.

Carlo St. Juste Jr., L.Ac said...

What a very inspirational and powerful book. India is on my list of countries I will travel to because it is so rich in culture and values. The stories of the dreamers who pushed forward and didn't let anything block their path is a story that hits home. To give back to the community says much about a person's character. Thank you for the review and I will be adding this to my reading list.

Lubna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lubna said...

Thanks Carlo, you will love this book. It also has a story of a doctor who treats those living in Dharavi with acupuncture and he is training people in this science.

J.L. Campbell said...

Sounds like a good book. It's interesting that so many migrate to urban areas in search of a better life and end up in situations hazardous to their existence. I hope the book does much to open the eyes of those who can make a difference.

Lubna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lubna said...

Thanks, J.L. Campbell, for dropping by. Unfortunately, poverty is the problem and life in rural areas isn't any better for those who migrate to Mumbai. The government is doing its bit, NGOs are trying hard, yet the problem of poverty is HUGE.

Destination Infinity said...

I too read this book and found it very inspiring. If people under such conditions can be cheerful and hopeful of a better future, it should be easier for us to be positive about life.

Destination Infinity

Jules said...

As a relative has upgraded her electronic book...for travel, I might be acquiring a Kindle soon. I've written down the title and authors so I can attempt to take a small leap into the electronic book world. Though I will always be a lover of 'real' books. :)

There are many places in America that resemble this area. Some old, some due to natural disasters quite new. Our congregation has helped to collect funds and people to help rebuild these areas.

Knowledge is power. I wouldn't necessarily count the daily paper in that arena as their content, even though they say it is not bias, is I think influenced by their owners and the quest for profit.

Thank you again for a interesting review. All people are real - their circumstances just dictate how they are viewed.

Dilip said...

Nice to know so much energy flows are there in Dharavi. Interesting review. Thanks Lubna.

Bethany Lee said...

I'm so excited Lubna! I just received this book on my Kindle! I bought it from your link! Can't wait to read it. :-)

Relyn Lawson said...

This sounds fascinating.

Lubna said...

Thanks for dropping by.
@Destination Infinity: Yes, it is an inspiring book
@Jules: It is truly the community that can care, the government can do only so much.
@ Dilip/Relyn: You must read this book. It is awesome
@Bethany: Glad you brought the book. Happy reading.

JP said...

This is definitely a book I would be interested in reading. I have been fascinated with India and have read many books by Indian writers who write in English. Including Salman Rushdie, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Aravind Adiga, R.K. Narayan, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Vikas Swarup and Manu Joseph.
Thanks for making us aware of this book.

Lubna said...

@JP: Wow, some of those you mention are also my fav Indian authors.

Anonymous said...

Lubna, I am downloading this book on my Kindle for myself and my son to read. He is used to a material world and it would be good to share optimism and altruism and a realisation that poverty is still rampant in the world. Thank you for a good review. - Alison

Lubna said...

Thank you Alison.