Slumming It

Daniel Brook in The Baffler:

FergusonDharaviSlum00076163.4_72In a speech to the financial elite of India delivered in Mumbai in 2010, president Barack Obama opted for an unusual form of flattery. He saluted “all the Mumbaikars who get up every day in this City of Dreams to forge a better life for their children—from the boardrooms of world-class Indian companies to the shops in the winding alleys of Dharavi.” It was a notable name-check. Despite the president’s mangled pronunciation, his audience of well-heeled Mumbaikars all knew what Obama was talking about. Dharavi is their metropolis’s most famous slum.

Were Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to come to America and do the same—hail the impoverished workfare mothers of Anacostia while on a state visit to Washington, say, or give a shout-out to the tenants of Harlem’s housing projects during a speech on Wall Street—it would be an uncomfortable moment. But, of course, it would never happen. If Modi’s speechwriters tried to throw in a mention of a famous impoverished neighborhood, higher-ups would surely excise it. The American myth of equal opportunity is greatly cherished, they would inform the prime minister, so in the interest of being a gracious guest, let’s not mention the places that call it into question.

But Obama’s tribute to Dharavi went over remarkably well. Those present at the tony U.S.-India Business Council summit seem to have taken it as the compliment he intended it to be. By the time the president sang the praises of Asia’s largest slum, as it’s known (although these days Karachi’s Orangi neighborhood is challenging it for that dubious distinction), the ideological precedent for this sort of thing was well established. Through a decade of academic apologetics and media mythologizing, Dharavi had been transmuted from India’s most shameful urban space—the warren of exploitation, filth, and disease that it plainly is—to the pride of Mumbai.

Read the rest here.