Saturday, July 7, 2012

Book Review - Poor Little Rich Slum

               Poor Little Rich Slum, the latest from Rashmi Bansal and Deepak Gandhi,  begins with the old poem,  ‘It was six men of Indostan…Who went to see the Elephant’ Unlike those blind men of Indostan however, the authors of this book, in my opinion have succeeded in painting a picture of the Elephant with better clarity and resolution.  Poor Little Rich Slum is an out and out account of Dharavi (dhaa-raa-vi), Asia’s largest slum, as it stands credited and the grounds of Slumdog Millionaire as it was further popularized as. 
              The book has the feel and effect of a handycam taping a day in Dharavi, with a voiceover by the authors that steps aside occasionally to let the locals talk. Focusing on the Dharavi Redvelopment Project at the outset, the authors proceed to obtain a critical opinion for themselves on what goes into life at Dharavi and why all this fuss about DRP anyway. What follows is a glimpse into the reality that has lingered over Dharavi ever since it all began, one that leaves you amazed, confused, touched and outright speechless in the end.

              With my usual judging a book by the cover exercise, I anticipated this account would either be a story of accomplishment – Check it out, we did a study in a well known slum; or a manuscript for one of those documentaries that Social workers come up with – dark, questioning  and uncomfortable. The fact is, it was both, but without being cocky and arrogant like the former or depressing and blameful like the latter. This was an honest account of things as they are, from a group of people who chose to venture into the study with as much nervousness as any individual that chooses to do something right because he believes in it.

             The account takes us into the lives and existence of Dharavi folk, natives and immigrants alike. It speaks mostly of how, under what we see as grime and slush, are living beings who do not seem to share the same world as us, but sustain in a dynamic world of their own; with the same kind of dreams and aspirations as ours, but deprived of an easy entry ticket. To the urban eye Dharavi sounds and appears lost. Listen to the voices in this book and you’ll know you couldn’t have been more wrong. For Dharavi is a huge pulsating heart, that beats with the spirit of its people, a thousand success stories running through its spine.

             Every story presented, reeks of optimism and survival of the human spirit through the toughest of times; hardwork is a habit at Dharavi and it is not considered an imposition, which is what makes its inmates an enigma. What you make out of the stories in this book are entirely up to you because whatever I might conclude would only be subjective. But in the stricter view of a book review:

What worked for me:

     1.       Tiny chapters with delicious pictures at every turn and spaced out printing.
     2.       Simplicity of narration that didn’t try to wallow in sorrow, blame urban dwellers or delve into the poetic for effect.
     3.       The beautiful pictures by Dee Gandhi.

What didn’t work for me:

     1.       It is a bi-lingual narrative given the interviews with Dharavi residents featured, but I personally felt there should have been an English translation for Hindi dialogues for folks who are not familiar with the language.
     2.       One sore fact remains that, after the roller coaster ride through Dharavi this book takes us through, I could, in the end, still not understand what the authors’ stand is on the DRP. Do they agree? Do they not agree? Do they want us to decide?
     3.       I personally feel, Dharavi is too huge a study to be put into one single book and while the earnestness of the authors stands appreciated, it is only the tip of the iceberg that is featured between these covers.
     4.       A majority of these stories are of success and achievement. Of how people made it through hardship. But reality has an ugly side to it and in a place like Dharavi one can only assume a stronger presence of it. The authors but only touch lightly upon it. So the question in the end becomes – Do you want us to save Dharavi only for its successful side?

      My verdict:
Poor Little Rich Slum, to me is like a vitamin pill. I know I will browse through it when my urban life gets dull, boring or depressing because if, with an environment like Dharavi and no luxuries whatsoever, men and women can work their butts off to chase after their dreams, I should be able do a hundred times as much. 

3.5 / 5

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!

Image courtesy :

Do you like this review? Agree, disagree? Drop in a comment. Let's discuss :) Happy reading!


  1. About the bilingualism in the book, I feel that it is required to preserve the people's emotions in their words. Like whem you translate thirukkuraL from Thamizh to English or Kabir Dhohe from Hindi to Thamizh, etc, the meaning will be understood but not the feelings and the real intentions or ideas.
    It would've been the author's idea that the people who might not understand the language, may be they wouldn't be able to understand the real feeling behind those words. Especially when the author has taken a tough subject and has made it an honest review of how things are in a place like dharavi and has managed to not let it sound demeaning or blameful, like you have rightly mentioned.
    I think I'll read this book if in case I get a chance. Good review.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Very nice post- loved it! Here is my review of the book:

  4. @bala: you certainly have a point there and it applies when the writing is poetic and expressions stem from the artist's emotion. When the dialogue however is supposed to give you an insight into how this place and its people are, retaining the language might retain the essence of the environment, but ultimately not reach the reader. Like one other blogger had rightly pointed out, translations could have been added as an appendix. By the way, you can borrow my copy anytime :)

  5. @Deepz : Thank you :) Will check out your opinion too.

  6. I too liked the honest opinion presented in the book but yeah, the author does not explore much into the bad realities of the slum. Perhaps, the Slumdog millionare exposure was too much?

    But, I like the non-judgmental approach taken by the author with DRP.

    Destination Infinity

    1. Coming to think of it, this book sounds like Slumdog Millionaire. The movie, theatrics aside, did show us different faces of Dharavi. This book achieves the same to an extent don't you think? While optimism and success stories are definitely heartening, reality still looms overhead, like you and I have concluded from our reading of this book. That also is an achievement for the author, I guess :)

  7. Oh wow. This is such a well worded review! I mean, really. I enjoyed this book too and feel along similar lines as you do, but you've written it out so well! :)

    I'm joining this blog! :P

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Hi : I like your review however, have read the book and would like to address what did not work for you. As I understand each one will have their take from the book however, let's be fair to the authors.
    1. do not feel that authors should make their stand clear about DRP. Though they have to an extent under disguise stated their thoughts in the book. They are authors and should have neutral stand.
    2. bi-lingual works as it captures the soul and emotions of the people. Though appendix is fine but what about the flow of the story, instinct.
    3. Dharavi is huge and one book will not make a difference but am sure there will be more to follow. The initiative has just begin.....
    4. I believe there is no need to highlight the plight, the depressing state of Dharavi and the hardships faced by people since this is what the foreign films,media even our own people love to project and is known to every citizen. Why just Dharavi but about all slums. The book lifts the veil from just this...and helps us see the positives. The book again does state that it needs development.
    . I loved the book and the simplicity of it. No where the authors have preached anything nor have wielded a social baton. It is simple, it is encouraging, it is Indian.

    1. Hi Pluto Oblivion :) Thank you for dropping by.

      Well I do agree with being fair to the authors. I understand their dilemma in wanting to bring out how much ever they can about Dharavi into the feature as feasible. My review is from the point of a reader and I felt there could've been a little more clarity on the stand. More like a pointer perhaps. I certainly agree that bilingual style of narration captures more soul but when you need to appeal to a wider audience, interested in your work, a little help in the form of an appendix would've been an added plus. While I agree with you on the fact that movies have exploited only the bad in Dharavi, it still remains a part of the set up nevertheless and while I give full credit to the authors for having brought out the optimism, there are still so many lives that need upgrading within the same environment. Like you rightly said, this is just the beginning of our understanding of the Dharavi vibe and I hope there are more features that follow up with Rashmi's work and bring out an honest outcome in whatever way possible.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.