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Slums as Third-World exotica

Vikram Johri 

This is largely a happy book, and I mean that entirely derisively. It reminds me of what a Mexican-American friend thinks about Mumbai. An occasional visitor to India, he lauds the "festival on the street" even as he settles comfortably in his five-star room in a chic south Mumbai hotel. He disses "the violence of neoliberalism" as he sips coffee in the luxurious Starbucks that flanks the Taj. Leo Hollis reminds me too much of this species: Westerners moving around the world, directing their exoticising gaze at everything Third World, and expressing their fury at the rottenness of it all. Oh, please!

Sample the chapter on, you guessed it, Dharavi. An essential rite of passage for any well-meaning foreigner chronicling the Indian dream, Asia's "densest slum" evokes familiar reactions from Mr Hollis. Alleys "criss-crossed with a web of cables and wires connecting houses with the outside supply". Dharavi is "an alternative, a rebuke even, to the mall and the air-conditioned business park beyond".

Really? Would Mr Hollis rather that Mumbai were a cluster of Dharavis? As he takes the skywalk from Bandra station to the Bandra Kurla Complex, Mr Hollis pontificates, in that drearily glib style, on the mounds of slums that rise beyond the skywalk, "a squatters' colony that stood only a few yards across a rubbish heap from the busy tracks". Expectedly, we hear nothing about the attractiveness of the Bandra Kurla Complex as a business destination, or how its "neoliberal non-space" also provides employment to thousands of blue-collar workers.

I live in Mumbai, and I am witness to its dirt and grime. I am aware of the tough conditions in its slums and the difficulties with building infrastructure. At this time of the year, the city is wet, watery, washed out. It just doesn't stop raining. It's damp and dirty everywhere. Piles of garbage. The filth seeps inside you and makes you grumpy. It makes you procrastinate. It is, I assume, very bad for the economy.

None of these problems is new, nor are their solutions. Heaven knows that even non-corrupt politicians such as Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan find their hands tied by entrenched real-estate interests. What writers like Mr Hollis seem to miss is the real picture. Slum redevelopment has failed to work in Mumbai because slum dwellers refuse to give up the social and economic networks of the slums to move into high-rises - hence a flourishing market for renting out slum redevelopment properties. Some of them are on prime land, such as Lower Parel, and offer attractive options to white-collar migrants.

Mr Hollis is so busy concocting a narrative of collapsing cities and the coming apocalypse that he fails to parse the real dangers and threats of living in a metropolis. Unlike what Mr Hollis would have me believe, I am less likely to die of dysentery in Mumbai than at the hands of Marathi-speaking chauvinists. There is little clarity on Raj Thackeray's definition of who Maharashtra ought to be for - except perhaps those who can speak the native tongue.

For Mr Hollis, the city is primarily a "physical" place. And that is where reform ought to flow. Not necessarily. The city is also an imagined place, and nowhere is this more starkly in evidence than in Mumbai. For the working class coming to Mumbai from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the threat stems from their "snatching away" jobs from Marathi speakers. Well-meaning Marathi speakers concede that their type is perhaps not suited to manual work anyway, for reasons, they add wryly, of laziness and social standing.

For the middle-class north Indian, the question assumes a different dimension. As someone who speaks Hindi and English, I find myself navigating two Mumbais. One is the Mumbai of the Kala Ghoda festival and the vibrant SoBo art scene. Here, English is the dominant lingua franca, and one's background - regional or linguistic - counts for little. The other is the Mumbai of everyday work and living, the Mumbai of grocers and milkmen, bus drivers and waiters. It is here that Marathi is the dominant, and domineering, tongue.

It is also true that Marathi speakers blame outsiders for spoiling the culture of the city. When I came to Mumbai, I met a friend who had been pushed down by a bunch of Bihari lowlifes inside a subway. If it were not for the kick that she punched into the assaulter's groin, heaven knows what might have happened! I heard other stories. A Sikh taxi driver told me how Sikhs were never targeted by Raj Thackeray because they had a culture of upright living. I realised that it was perfectly normal to harbour such views in Mumbai.

For Mr Hollis, none of these nuances seems to matter, as he portrays the universal at the expense of the particular. Unreasonably, he draws similarities between Africa's telecom revolution and India's. Inexplicably, he compares Brazilian favelas with Mumbai's slums. It's all so grand that it is drowning in its own tedium.

Leo Hollis
400 pages; Rs 650

First Published: Wed, July 17 2013. 21:25 IST