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May 16, 2017 2017-05 Business Administration Faculty

New book gives voice to people who grew up in poverty in India

A new book co-written by a University of Illinois professor who studies subsistence marketplaces chronicles the daily struggles of 13 ordinary people living in India who grew up in poverty. Madhu Viswanathan, the Diane and Steven N. Miller Professor in Business at Illinois, is a co-author of “Voices from Subsistence Marketplaces.” The book aims to capture the voices of those whose struggles to secure the basics of life – food, water, shelter, medical care – would otherwise go untold.

Madhu Viswanathan (left), professor of business and Steven Morse, student.

“This book is really about giving a voice to people living in subsistence marketplaces and learning about their dreams, ambitions and search for fulfillment,” said Viswanathan, who founded and directs the Subsistence Marketplaces Initiative in the College of Business, a pioneering, bottom-up approach to the study of poverty and marketplaces for scholars and practitioners. “The idea is to amplify those voices, with minimal interpretation and academic theory behind it.”

The book, which was four-plus years in the making, including many back-and-forth trips to both rural and urban India for Viswanathan and his co-authors, isn’t prescriptive but is akin to a documentary.

“It’s a first-person account of the day-to-day existence of someone who grew up in poverty,” said Viswanathan, also the founder and director of the Marketplace Literacy Project, a nonprofit organization that helps enable marketplace literacy among low-literate, low-income people. “It’s about how the kinds of things that most people at higher income levels take for granted – access to clean water or medicine, for example – can become someone else’s all-consuming need. That’s why our initiative focuses on subsistence marketplaces.”

Viswanathan created the Subsistence Marketplaces Initiative to study such marketplaces in their own right and not as a means to some other end, such as creating new markets for outside businesses.

“We focus on peoples’ life circumstances to understand how they function as customers and conduct business in their own unique ways,” he said. “Each interaction is about learning a life story. I constantly learn from people’s lives. We truly do live our lives as a tale told.”

The researchers started with 15-20 people and, over time, winnowed the final tally down to the 13 stories in the book.

“Each of the 13 individuals we profiled in this book has shared their lives openly and passionately with us, and we are humbled by the opportunity to share their stories,” Viswanathan said. “We have met these individuals on multiple occasions and they include two of my own team members. Some of these stories were told in the sweltering heat of Chennai, amid the rolling power blackouts. Others were told to us outside small thatched huts next to sprawling rice paddies in rural Tamil Nadu. Everyone involved revisited the most painful parts of their lives in order to simply share their stories with us.”

Viswanathan said the book is a starting point.

“We would like to go beyond thinking of it as a book and instead think of it as a multimedia portal and an immersive experience where you can take a deep dive into these people’s lives,” he said. “The web portal will keep growing, but we are at a point where we can share these stories with multimedia to provide additional context. But at its core, no matter the medium, it’s people telling their stories to us. Their voices are the most compelling aspect of this project.”

The end goal is to paint a fuller picture and go beyond sympathy to “informed empathy,” Viswanathan said.

“We hope that readers develop a new appreciation for the hardships that others around the globe face every day as they struggle to meet even the most basic needs, while participating in the marketplaces near them,” he said.

Viswanathan’s co-authors on the book are freelance writer Tom Hanlon; John Hedeman of the University of Kansas; and Srinivas Venugopal of the University of Vermont.

Phil Ciciora | Business and Law Editor, News Bureau | (217) 333-2177