Banks of insolvency
Utpal Kumar, The Daily Pioneer

Yamuna Gently Weeps, Ruzbeh N Bharucha; Sainathann Communication, Rs 700.

Born with a "Naipaulian" hatred for filth, dirt and clumsiness, I ignored for full three years the existence of the Yamuna Pushta slum, despite navigating through the ITO bridge regularly. That is, until the day my bike had a flat tyre and I found myself near the slum. In a few hours, I was exposed to a brave new world, which in a way helped me comprehend the idea of India - just as it took VS Naipaul three entire decades to appreciate the complexity of "the area of darkness". What had been till then indignant resignation, turned out to be an area of dogged perseverance of poor souls against a hostile environment.

While reading the book, Yamuna Gently Weeps, I re-experienced those eventful hours with the accommodative but indefatigable people.

The story of Pagal Baba and his single-minded obsess-ion with building a temple, the account of a few children looking for pennies in polluted drains, the tale of a young girl successfully performing the role of a householder and, of course, the narrative of a child, who "for some reason thought that I wanted to take his quadruped friend (puppy) away from him", perhaps due to a phobia of dispossession in a fledgling mind, are a few of the palpable instances. These accounts, along with riveting stills caught on camera, are the book's strength - not the section containing expert opinions, which seems caught up with being politically correct.

So far so good. Yamuna... takes a wrong course the moment it leaves the track of these touching accounts. It does not take kindly to the Supreme Court's order that "poverty could not be an excuse for living in slums" and that "nobody forced you (slum dwellers) to come to Delhi... if you are occupying public land, you have no right, what to talk about Fundamental Rights, to stay there a minute longer". Then, it says quite rightly that "less than one per cent of the river's pollution comes from Pushta slum dwellers" - the rest emanates from 16 odd drains of Delhi that vomit their waste into the river. Yet, it is difficult to agree with the writer and let the slum remain just because it provides the most viable option of livelihood for the poor - these constructions are after all illegal.

Though one must be realist enough to accept that slums cannot be totally wished away in developing countries like India, their presence is a stark reminder of our faulty urban planning. The situation is only allowed to worsen by the three-party "coalition of illegalities" - squatters (beneficiary of free land), slum lords (profiting from huge pecuniary benefits) and politicians (gainers of loyal voters) - that has created a situation where 30 per cent of Delhi's population lives in slums. There is, however, another beneficiary in this tale of endless agony - the Communists who still dream of ushering in a "revolution".

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek called the growth of slums an "opportunity" for a truly "free world" as the slum dwellers, though in urgent need of healthcare and minimal means of self-organization, are free - "free from all substantial ties; dwelling in a free space, outside the regulation of the state". Though Zizek warns against idealizing squatters as a new "revolutionary class", he sees them fit into Marx's definition of a proletarian revolutionary subject. With the apparent collapse of the anti-globalization movement, squatters seem to be the last resort for these jholawala idealists. No wonder the Communists along with a few spent politicians like VP Singh credulously visit demolition sites - this despite the fact that they have hardly done anything to bring squatters out of the mess they are in.

The price is a disincentive; but the book may be deemed a collector's item for its appealing photography and narrative. 

Copyright 2014 Ruzbeh N. Bharucha.