Rashmi Bansal is at it again. After three blockbuster books, here’s a fourth one, co-authored with Deepak Gandhi. In a way, it is like the Harry Potter series — starting with an accidental discovery of a winning formula and then following it up with books based on a similar concept. In her first book, Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish, she talked about 25 entrepreneurs who had a degree from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. She followed it up with 25 who did not have the coveted MBA, and then she moved on to profiling social entrepreneurs. The latest book is about Dharavi, the biggest slum in Asia. As usual, the book explores what Ms Bansal has excelled in finding: success stories of entrepreneurs narrated over and over again, in much the same way that an inspirational speaker explains the essence of life through multiple narratives.
The problem is that Ms Bansal has an irritating style – which has gained popularity – that dumbs down everything into sermon-like stories without a methodological frame. It is a travelogue. It paints a rosy picture and helps one identify with the protagonist — “I could be the next Vijay in an Amitabh Bachchan movie”. Despite such a brash style, her writing cannot be ignored: an inspirational story here, some interesting stuff there — all discovered accidentally, all organised in a neat set of silos that make it appear to be within a theoretical frame.
To put the exuberance of Ms Bansal and of Mr Gandhi in context, one should read the book alongside Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a somewhat dark picture of Mumbai’s Annawadi slum, not far from Dharavi or from Bandra-Kurla Complex, but certainly far, far away from the optimism shown in Poor Little Rich Slum. Ms Boo’s work is rigorous, deep, incisive and persistent. It is not an academic book; nor is it an ethnographic work, as would be written by a sociologist or anthropologist. It is a piece of rigorous journalism. Poor Little Rich Slum, on the other hand, is a happy travelogue that multiplies the story of Slumdog Millionaire.
It narrates the story as told by the protagonist, without much verification. If Ms Bansal had applied rigour to her first book, she would have avoided labelling Subhiksha a “successful enterprise”. The early signs of decline were already showing up, but she showcased the promoter’s bravado.
If only Ms Bansal and Mr Gandhi had put Dharavi in the context of poverty, and 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, people from Dharavi who have made it outside, and people from outside who have positively “intervened” in Dharavi. These are somewhat distinct themes that are intermingled in the book.
The narrative flows, interspersed with slang as well as chats with the reader. The paragraphs are not more than three lines, grammatically more accurate than bullet points, but intended to be like bullet points. The book is rich in its presentation. It features many photographs of the slums, but, unfortunately, not all are relevant to the text. Photographs that show filth and squalor are not part of the discourse. The difficult conditions under which slum dwellers live, the physical threat to their lives, and the fact that their very existence is constantly under threat because of weak documentation do not come out clearly.
Dharavi has been grabbing much attention in the media, from financial institutions and policy makers. It has bank branches aimed at urban financial inclusion and has become a byword for poverty. In that sense, this was a natural destination for Ms Bansal and Mr Gandhi, because their model is based on pegging entrepreneurship as a larger, recognisable “brand”. Dharavi, unlike Annawadi, provides that “brand”.
Is Dharavi representative of the most low-income settlements in large urban sprawls? This question needs more rigorous indulgence. Yes, it represents a type of settled low-income settlement, with recognition, with access to amenities, and presence on the policy radar. The conditions in other places are more appalling, as in Ms Boo’s Annawadi. Dharavi has now become a symbol of slum tourism, of entrepreneurship and of financial inclusion. But there is a darker side to the problem of urban poverty. Also, the handicap to entrepreneurship in Dharavi and elsewhere might be different.
Having said this, Poor Little Rich Slum is one of Ms Bansal’s better books. It tells the protagonists’ stories without fluff and hits the nail on the head. It is a positive, feel-good book, possibly undeservedly in the rather dark bottom of the pit (or should we call it a pyramid?).
The reviewer is a visiting faculty member, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore
POOR LITTLE RICH SLUM
What We Saw in Dharavi and Why it Matters
Rashmi Bansal and Deepak Gandhi Pictures by Dee Gandhi
194 pages; Rs 250