no millionaires in this slum

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?

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2 Comments

Filed under slumdwellers in Mumbai

2 responses to “no millionaires in this slum

  1. I visited India twice in my twenties and early thirties. I was overwhelmed by the experience and the extremes of everything. Strangely it led me down a philosophical path that shifted me towards what felt like a new understanding of humanity. How could people survive in those conditions and laugh and smile? How could the absolute poorest of the poor still find a meaningful role in life. I felt that I had witnessed the spirit of human kind in it essential form. “If I choose to be happy I can be happy” seemed to be a fundamental element of Indian life. It put all forms of wealth and time and worldliness into a new perspective. Sure there were still the oppressed and the despised and ultimately the miserable, but this didn’t seem like the dominant mode. Mind you, I can’t imagine going back at my current age. I would need to be part of a gently escorted group exploring the extremes in other than a backpacker guise with some certainty of not contracting the dreaded Delhi belly..

  2. Thanks, Little Hat; I’m glad you went there when you were young. I didn’t, and like you, I now feel I couldn’t do it; even if I were part of a group like you describe, I would be so horrified by the conditions the underclass live in, and feel so helpless, I think I would not be able to take the positive meaning from it that you did. And this book, for all its celebration of the spirit of the slumdwellers, exposes the terrible duplicity of capitalism in a country where democracy seems to be more of a facade than a reality, and the best intentions of government and outside agencies are corrupted by all the opportunists in between, and the people at the bottom of the heap are powerless to change anything, all they can do is survive for as long as they can and try to keep their bodies and their families together.

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