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Later, as his driver pilots his Honda Accord through traffic, Mehta is smiling. "This is a good day," he says. "A dream come true."

At first glance, Mehta, resident of an elegant apartment building on swank Napean Sea Road, a longtime member of the British Raj–era Bombay Gymkhana and Royal Bombay Yacht Club, does not appear to be a Dharavi dreamer.

"You could say I was born with a golden spoon in my mouth," he remarks at his West Bandra office overlooking the Arabian Sea. "My father came to Bombay from Gujarat without a penny and built a tremendous steel business. An astrologer told him his youngest son—me—would be the most successful one, so I was afforded everything." These perks included a top education, plus a sojourn in the U.S., where Mehta studied architecture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

"For me, America has always been the inspiration," says Mehta, who made a fortune managing his father's steel business before deciding to develop real estate on Long Island's exclusive North Shore. "Great Gatsby country," he says, detailing how he built high-end houses and lived in Centre Island, a white community with "the richest of the rich"—such as Billy Joel, who recently listed his mansion for 37.5 million dollars.

"The slums were the furthest thing from my mind," Mehta says. This changed when he returned to Mumbai. He saw what everyone else did—that the city was filled with a few rich people, a vast number of poor people, and hardly anyone in the middle. This was most evident in the appalling housing situation. The city was split between the Manhattan-priced high-rises that dotted the south Mumbai skyline and those brownish areas on the map marked with the letters ZP for zopadpatti, aka slums.

Downtown business people railed that the slums were choking the life out of the city, robbing it of its rightful place in the 21st century. After all, India was no longer a post-colonial backwater famous only for the most wretched people of the Earth and the gurus who appealed to gullible Beatles. Now, when a computer broke in Des Moines, the help desk was in Bangalore. Economists were predicting exactly when the Indian GNP was likely to surpass that of the United States. If Mumbai was going to achieve its stated destiny of becoming a world-class metropolis, a rival to China's soaring Shanghai, how could that happen when every bit of open space was covered with these eyesores, these human dumps where no one paid taxes? For Mukesh Mehta, if India were to become the ideal consumer society, it would have to develop a true middle class—and housing would be the engine. The slums would have to be reclaimed.

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