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BW Businessworld

Staying Rooted

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The author of Apna Street ,Julian Crandall Hollick, has recorded and produced radio documentaries about India for over two and a half decades for National Public Radio (NPR, USA), BBC & other agencies. As the book's cover proclaims, this is the story of how a group of pavement dwellers in Mumbai transformed their own lives and eventually the lives of several homeless people across India and around the world.

Apna Street spawns an incredible tale that spans over two decades. The book is written on the basis of the author's keen observations and the  time he spent with the book's main characters, the people of Mahila Milan; a group of women (and men) from Byculla who went about the task of building their capabilities to improve their lot over a course of more than twenty years. The narrative begins with the women's collective banding together to discuss their dream of a home for themselves in order to escape the misery of their huts alongside the pavement being frequently razed by the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC). Along the way, the book also provides brief sketches of a large number of interesting people ranging from G.R. Khairnar, the upright bulldozing official of the BMC to Jockin, the Magsaysay award winner who has been one of the drivers of capability building and spreading awareness about the rights of pavement dwellers. Hollick has also profiled various organisations such as the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) and SPARC, an NGO closely involved with slum and pavement dwellers in Mumbai.

Over 8 chapters, the author provides an almost fly on the wall peek into the lives of his characters through the documentation of his own experiences eating and sleeping with them (sometimes over each other!), spending a day rag-packing with the Sadak Chaaps (street kids), intervening with the railway police when some of his young friends are intercepted by the police and recording not just the highs but the lows (of which there seems to be no shortage) that his characters face. As Hollick explains in the introduction, he could have written a Slumdog Millionaire — rags to riches, feel good Bollywood story. But he has chosen to use the voices of his characters, the women, for the most part, and consequently the entire story has a rather raw feel to it. While the reading experience is not necessarily improved by it, the book provides inspiration of the highest order, despite the author's attempts to only tell a true story, with no attempts to sound breathless about it. And the last chapter of the book written in end 2010 despite its somewhat sobering discoveries about the lives of its characters, underscores the author's preference for using the voice of his characters to tell their story rather than him draw conclusions.

In the present era where hyperventilation in the media is the norm and almost anything is breaking news, this moving and inspiring story of our times is one that deserves to be told again and again.