I review books for a state newspaper; every so often (about 1 in 12) they send me one that is good; one in 100 may be outstanding.
This year it’s early days, and my lucky number is coming up more often, for my first two reviews for the year have been terrific reads. One of them is good, a mid-life crisis memoir that is a compelling page turner. I’ll talk about it in my next blog.
The other book I’ve reviewed is outstanding, a masterpiece of that hybrid genre, creative non-fiction, in this case in the sub-genre of foreign reporting: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo.
Boo took over three years to collect the material for this recreation of life in a Mumbai slum called Annawadi, that has grown like a mushroom colony on the edge of a sewage lake behind the international airport. She did uncounted hours of interviews and archival research. The interviewing was deep, grass roots, intimate, and she tried to be present at the events she describes, since, as she says, “as the years passed, some slumdwellers recalibrated their narratives out of fear of angering the authorities.” She found children to be the most reliable witnesses, for they were “largely indifferent to the political, economic, and religious contentions of their elders, and unconcerned about how their narratives might sound.” She has managed to create the illusion that you are there, inhabiting that place, smelling those smells, suffering those hurts, abuses, losses and disappointments, knowing something of how it feels to have next to nothing, to have to scavenge for garbage every day to make a few rupees, to live in shanties with only one public toilet and one water tap (which is rusted, doesn’t work properly, and only operates for set hours) between 3,000 residents who live in about 300 shanties, and to live in a system in which police extort money from the people they are supposed to be protecting, and entrepreneurs scam off national and charity schemes meant to improve the conditions of the poor and lower caste by setting up fake schemes of education and social improvement and pocketing the money. Everyone is on the make, charity and mercy are corrupted words, compassion may cost you more than you have to give, and justice is long-winded, erratic and unpredictable. Yet there is love, and most of them do the best they can to preserve and protect their families and help out their neighbours.
I won’t try to summarise the story line, as there are lots of reviews on the net you can read, but most of all, I want you to experience this book at first hand. If you’ve been to Mumbai, you will recognise the slimy stinking underside of it, and if you haven’t (like me) you’ll thank god for books like this that can let you walk in the other person’s shoes, for a few miles. But of course, that makes me ask, what good does it do to read about it? What can we do to change anything? And I’m afraid, my answer is, nothing, except understand a little better what lies behind the mirage of capitalism in a third world country. And of course, I might be quite wrong and ‘colonialist’ in even calling India a third world country.
What’s to do?