|Deepak Gandhi and Rashmi Bansal at Starmark for the launch of Poor Little Rich Slum. (Anindya Shankar Ray)
Dharavi is an elephant of an issue with blind men scrambling all over it, each sees a small part of the picture and considers it to be the ‘whole’ — say Rashmi Bansal and Deepak Gandhi in their just released Poor Little Rich Slum.
So how was Dharavi, the slum? That seemed to be the, er, elephantine question at the Calcutta launch of Poor Little Rich Slum (Westland, Rs 250) at Starmark, Lord Sinha Road, on July 23. In the book, Rashmi, the author of non-fiction best-sellers, and Deepak, a management consultant and professor, share their experiences of living in the famous slum and their encounters with the many “Slumdog Millionaires” there.
And what did they find? A celebrity dancing shoemaker, leather exporters who would rather spend time in their Dharavi office than in their Pali Hill homes and a Rhode Island School of Design graduate who chose to work in Dharavi than in London or New York.
True stories, real people, hard facts, and pictures worth a million words — the book holds up the sunny side of slum life, not the poverty, dirt, hunger or disease.
For most of the audience, Dharavi was an alien land. “Hearing the authors was a complete eye-opener. Earlier there were just two movies — Dharavi by Sudhir Mishra (1992) and then Slumdog Millionaire (2008). But now there is a third, the Poor Little Rich Slum book trailer,” said reader Priyadarshi Chanda.
A t2 chat with the authors...
According to your book, you two were among the “blind men” groping in the dark over Dharavi. How did that change?
Rashmi Bansal: We spent nine months in Dharavi. Even today we can’t say that we have seen everything. But we made a sincere effort to see the whole from various points of views, without preconceived notions. We went in looking for some stories, but discovered a lot about ourselves, in turn.
Deepak Gandhi: The phrase is a fact. It is a very complicated slum with its own culture... very diverse from other slums.
How did the book come about?
DG: When Slumdog Millionaire released in 2008, I was in Vancouver, while Rashmi was in India. This movie was very distressing for me, as it projected a very different India. At the theatres [abroad] and elsewhere, people would often ask me if it was really that bad in India. All that I could say was, there is poverty, dirt, slums... true, but the situation is not as bad. It really got me thinking that something needs to be done, a balanced picture needs to be shown that would talk of the other side of the slum, too.
RB: There is a positive energy there, with quite a few enterprising people who despise sitting back and doing nothing, even though they are in the ‘slums’. This is what I call true entrepreneurship culture. They are not holding morchas, or crying or blaming the government.
DG: I have seen slums at the global level. There are bigger slums in Mexico, South Africa, Pakistan, in fact even Dharavi isn’t the biggest slum in Mumbai anymore. But it is one slum that has its own economy and that sets it apart.
How did you get together for the book?
RB: As a management professor and with his UNDP background, Deepak got to do a lot of case studies and research on the subject. But that work couldn’t reach out to the masses. We decided to do something that would have a research aspect to it but would reach out too, not just get stuck at seminars. So I added my writing background to his research and the book happened.
DG: As for the photographer, Dee Gandhi, well, we knew him from before. He practises ‘no-price-tag’ photography and we were also on a shoestring budget. He would be with us when we interviewed people. He knew the context and took each photo with some thought behind it.
RB: We had a fourth teammate, Abhijit Bansod of Studio ABD, who designed the book. When you fly into Mumbai, the first thing you see before landing are the blue sheets atop Dharavi. He wanted to have that whole feel, complete with an aeroplane flying and the Mumbai skyline in the background. I hope people realise why he used blue in the book, which is because of the colour of the sheets. Also, blue is a positive and vibrant colour.
What was your first thought after stepping into Dharavi? And your last thought when you left?
RB: My first thought was, “what on earth am I doing here!?” But while leaving, I realised that we shouldn’t judge people from what they appear to be.
Earlier I may have believed in doing away with slums, but that was before I went to Dharavi. You can’t just wipe them out, we need to look at everybody’s growth and development. Plus, they have some major uses. My waste, my kachra, goes to Dharavi to get recycled. If it is not there, where would the waste go?
DG: I lived in Calcutta for some 16 years, and the city sort of grew on me. Calcutta has a lot of poverty and slums too, but then most of the slum dwellers here would go outside and work, as drivers, maids, vendors... but nothing is happening inside. I would like to bring attention to the fact that the people of slums can replicate the Dharavi model in Calcutta, maybe with help from politicians and NGOs initially, but at least then they would live with dignity.
Did you stay in Dharavi?
DG:Yes, we did stay and it was a unique experience. Though not very comfortable, to be honest. But we wanted to feel how that life was. Normally, we would have come around 9 in the morning and stayed on till about 7pm. But what after that? We were curious.
RB: I’d say such experiences make you realise whatever you have is a lot and you should be grateful for it. I got to see some really interesting things — things that these slum people had, which we, ‘the better off’ people, lacked. Maybe we live in better houses and have all the facilities, but do we know our neighbours? We prefer to stay behind closed doors. In slums, people depend on and look after each other.
DG: I want to share one interesting fact. Consider this, 1:1,400 — that is the ratio of a toilet and the number of people using it in Dharavi. Food for thought.
Among all the stories, which ones are your favourites?
DG: By the end of our research we landed with more than 100 success stories, but not all could be incorporated into the book. We chose just a few, but those few are good enough to give an idea of what we want to express. The Slumdog Millionaire director [Danny Boyle] might start after us for this book, which kind of puts his negative portrayal of the slums to shame, but then this is the reality.
RB: You can’t choose any one story. Each is unique in its own way, and special too. I guess my personal favourite would be Jameel Shah’s. I feel his story is almost like a Bollywood movie, yet so real. [Jameel Shah came to Dharavi in 1995 as a kaarigar from Bihar. Fifteen years on, he is making dancing shoes for the who’s who of the glam world like Bipasha Basu, Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif!]