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No Place for the Poor

Kalpana Sharma

By Marie-Caroline Saglio-Yatzimirsky
Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 379, Rs. 995.00


So much has been written about Mumbai’s Dharavi—the ‘slum’, the ‘city’, the ‘urban settlement’. Books, articles, feature films, documentaries—an idea of Dharavi has emerged through multiple sources. Its illegality, its dirt, its poverty and its violence all provide grist for the media mill. At the same time the entrepreneurial spirit of its denizens and their resilience is also celebrated.   Yet, after all this do we really know Dharavi or do these broad overviews overlook characteristics that we can only understand if we look at places and people in much greater detail. We know from existing literature that although Dharavi is a ‘slum’, it is unlike other slums in Mumbai. We know that it is virtually a ‘little India’ given the mix of languages, religions and castes that comprise its population. We know it is productive and contributes to the city’s economy. But if you start asking questions about any one group of people living in Dharavi, you find that there are multiple layers of information still waiting to be mined. Indeed, as this reviewer also noted when she wrote on Dharavi a decade back, there are many books to be written about each of the communities and groups of Dharavi.   Social anthropologist Marie-Caroline Saglio-Yatzimirsky has done precisely this. The strength of her work is that she has studied in depth one group in Dharavi, the Maharashtrian leather workers. The choice is particularly relevant in Dharavi’s context. Leather work has defined Dharavi for decades. It became home to tanneries that treated raw hides brought from the abattoir across the creek. It became the centre of leather artisans crafting a variety of goods from footwear to wallets and bags. Even after the major tanneries closed, Dharavi continued to deal in leather. Today, according to Saglio-Yatzimirsky, leather work represents 15 per cent of the businesses in Dharavi, the third after clothing (20 per cent) and pottery (18 per cent).   The handling of leather has traditionally been assigned to the lowest castes. In Dharavi, it was the Chambhar and Dhor communities who were principally involved in the tanneries and in the manufacture of leather goods. They came to Dharavi as family units, or from a particular village in Maharashtra. While the Dhors handled the raw hides, the Chambhars considered themselves artisans working with leather. By tracing the journey of these groups as they settled in Dharavi, the author explores the role of ...

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