BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS by KATHERINE BOO

There have been few books that have moved me as much as this extraordinary book by the Pulitzer prize winning journalist Katherine Boo.

It is a stunning read, and one that every thinking Indian should read –  well, not just Indians, everyone who has a heart and a conscience should read it, but to Indians it will have a special resonance.  And it should be mandatory for everyone in Mumbai.

Ms Boo chronicles the lives of some of the dwellers of Annawadi, a Mumbai slum, close by the airport but a lifetime apart from the world of travel and hotels and leisure as it is possible to imagine.

As a respected, award-winning journalist, Ms Boo invested years in this book, visiting the slum so frequently that the inhabitants soon ceased really noticing her as an outsider.  They all had their tragically difficult lives to get on with, scraping together every paise they could find to try and keep body and soul together, so there was little time for sitting and staring at a foreigner.

And so, for years, Ms Boo visited, talked, watched, observed, interviewed, recorded, filmed, checked, cross-checked –  and then some.

And the result is this amazing expose of life at the bottom of the pile.  Literally, since we meet scavengers, children who collect rubbish for a living.  We meet people who have a just-about home – rickety huts next to mounds of sewage.  Life doesn’t get much worse than in Annawadi.

Ms. Boo’s narrative is quite simply extraordinary, when you realise (and this is not a plot spoiler, by the way) that her book is not a work of fiction, but 100% pure fact.  Everyone of those slum dwellers, corrupt officials, bribe-taking policemen, venal nursing staff –  every man jack of them exists. And is named.

This book pushes reporting about poverty and corruption in India to a whole new level.

And throughout this compelling, albeit oftentimes heart-breaking chronicle, you never for a moment glimpse the presence of the writer, Ms Boo.  She does not insert herself into the narrative for even a fleeting moment.  She sits, listens, observes and lets the children and adults of Annawadi do the talking.

And how they talk.  Here is the ambitious Asha, who sees politics as the way out of the desperate poverty of the slum :

 

 

Her dutiful daughter Manju, the girl hoping to be the first female graduate from the slum, studies hard, though often not really understanding everything she is being supposedly taught.  So she “by-hearts” everything :

 

Asha is the ultimate pragmatist, banking everything on the success of her daughter, for who she has words of advice :

 

The inhabitants of this appalling slum lead equally appalling lives of deprivation and degradation, tempered by a weary awareness that there may well be a better world out there.  It’s just not for them.  They see the airport and the airport hotels and the flashy cars, but always through the prism of what rubbish and garbage this brave new glittering world may leave behind for them, the bottom of the social pile.  The rag-pickers and scavengers.

 

 

I have to say that after reading this sensational book, I look at the filth and rubbish that lies all around my Delhi neighborhood with a slightly different view.  I loathe the rubbish.  But then again, I would, wouldn’t I ?  It is a blight for me, not a business opportunity.

I found the criticism of the Cooper Hospital amazing, because 20 years ago, when I lived in what was then Bombay, I had to take the illiterate, non-Hindi-speaking wife of one of my Nepalese staff there for some unidentified stomach complaint, which our local GP couldn’t identify.

When I went to admit her, I nearly died.

A waiting room full to busting with hundreds of poor Indians, row after row after row, all waiting patiently.  One tiny hole behind a thick grille into which you had to contort yourself to speak.

Everyone told me “They are closed for lunch”.

But, I hate to admit it, I played the foreign card.  My woman was writing in agony, as were many other people in the waiting room, by the way.  People were bleeding too.

I marched right to the head of the queue, to the quiet, weary smiles of everyone else waiting –  why are Indians so consistently polite to foreigners ? –  and when the person behind the thickly grilled window said, in Hindi, “Closed,” I played my second card.  That’s the one where I pretend I can’t speak any Hindi, and act appallingly stupid to boot, not understanding basic hand gestures and facial expressions.

I’m not proud.

So I walked behind the counter, pushed open his cubicle door, and insisted my poor Nepalese lady got admitted.

Eventually they did admit her, mainly to get rid of me, I suspect, because I just stood there talking louder and louder, until she was taken to the ward.

I remember we had to provide all medicines and food, and I also remember throwing a scene at the state of the bed-sheets, making them strip the filthy many-times-used ones and put clean ones on for her.

So clearly some things haven’t changed in 20 years.

I’ve told this Cooper Hospital story many times over the years, but never has it resonated the way it did when reading this book.

When the poor of Annawadi die, there is little reason to pay them any more attention in death than in life :

 

There isn’t an aspect of the world about them that doesn’t seem to exploit the poverty and lack of status of these slum-dwellers.  The police, NGOs, hospitals, social workers, even Sister Paulette –  they all abuse or ignore these people.  I loved the vignette of the Congress party workers delivering manhole covers, just before the elections –  and then promptly taking them back for use in another slum.

Do yourself a favour and read this amazing book.  It’s not always an easy read.  Beautifully written, incisively observed, but the subject matter is searing and uncomfortable at times.

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” (the title is delicious, once you understand what it means) is published by Hamish Hamilton and the hardback costs Rs499.

I’m going with 10/10 for an amazing read.  Thoroughly, unconditionally recommended.

If you would like to buy the book right now, nothing could be easier – simply click on one of the links below.

KIPLING SAHIB by CHARLES ALLEN

“Kipling Sahib” by Charles Allen is a well-written, well-researched, fascinating look into the Indian part of Rudyard Kipling’s life, those relatively few years he spent in India, but which marked him for life.

And for literature.

Charles Allen brings to this book all the detailed yet seemingly relaxed research of every single book he writes about his beloved India.  He is a writer who wears his scholarship easily.

A writer who loves India, writing about a writer who loved India, and a reviewer who lives in and also loves India, obviously makes India an essential part of this review. And the country is there, in all her noise and confusion and contradictions, especially when seen in the Victorian context.

The book traces the life of “Ruddy’s” parents, Lockwood and Alice Kipling, and their arrival in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1865. Rudyard was born in Bombay and loved the city of his birth instinctively, and the sights and smells and sounds of those early childhood years would colour his imagination for ever.

Over 30 years later, he would write of Bombay with obvious affection :

“Mother of cities to me,
For I was born at her gate,
Between the palms and the sea,
Where the world-end steamers wait.”

It was in this happy, protected world “between the palms and the sea” that Ruddy and his younger sister Trix lived the cosseted life of all colonial children – slightly ignored by their parents, doted on by their Indian servants, and allowed to run wild.

Allen paints a portrait of British India, and its strict hierarchy, into which the Kiplings never quite fitted in –  neither parents nor their clever, talented, but rather unconventional son.  This sense of not quite fitting in colours so much of Rudyard Kipling’s writings –  both poetry and prose – and explains the fascination he always had with the Tommy, the underdog, the outcast, the other side of the imperial British coin.

Pitifully few letters of Rudyard’s have survived, somehow managing to escape the ruthless holocaust of his later years, which saw papers, letters, drafts, scraps –  all the tools on which a biographer depends – being burned by the author and his wife.
And he was such a prolific letter-writer, which makes their absence more keenly felt.  But Allen painstakingly and skilfully weaves the few letters that survived, with those sent to Rudyard, with newspaper reports, and with diaries, to give the reader a lively, colourful glimpse into India, and how it affected the young Kipling.

Being sent back Home – i.e. to cold, dreary England – at a very early age had a lasting effect on Ruddy and his sister Trix.  They hid the truth about their brutal school from their parents, and went for years never seeing their family, let alone the heat and noise and colour of India, which both children missed so badly.

When he eventually returned to India, as a fledgling journalist, Ruddy was by then a teenager, on the cusp of manhood. His family then lived in Lahore, in the hot plains of the Punjab, and the young man set about re-discovering the land of his birth.  He inherits the sense of social exclusion that dogged his parents, never quite feeling fully at ease in British India, while simultaneously subscribing to many of its views.  Many of Kipling’s writings, read in the cold, harsh light of 21st century PC thinking, are shockingly xenophobic, but Kipling did no more than echo the views of the society in which he lived.

Rudyard Kipling emerges from this book as a fully-rounded man, at times very likeable, at times not so likeable at all.  He is brilliant but flawed, arrogant and insecure, and above all, never fully at ease in society.  “Kim” and the “Jungle Books” are just the most famous results of this feeling of not quite fitting in, of abandonment, observing one’s own society from the outside.  It is with a sense of pleasure that we learn that Alice Kipling called her infant Ruddy “little friend of all the world.”

In conclusion, a small personal aside : what strikes the 21st century reader of “Kipling Sahib”, especially if an Indian resident, is how some aspects of the country have changed so little.  The country that the Victorian Kiplings inhabited was as noisy, engaging, often maddening, sometimes frightening, and, sad to say, as insanitary then as now.

Just one example.

Here is Charles Allen quoting a history of Bombay by J.M.Maclean, who was writing before the senior Kiplings arrived in India, but he could well have been writing about India in 2010 :

“All round the island on Bombay was one foul cesspool, sewers discharging on the sands, rocks only used for the purposes of nature…To travel by rail…was to see in the foreshore the latrine of the whole population of the Native Town.”

“Kipling Sahib” is published by Little, Brown and sells in hardback, in India for Rs 795.

If you wish to buy the book, now you have read this review, just click on the link below.

Couldn’t be easier.

CALL ME DAN by Anish Trivedi

This début novel of Mumbai-based Anish Trivedi is well-written, sharply-observed, and a great read.

The main character, Gautam, is a 30-year old lower middle-class young man, still living at home with his parents and sister.  Their life is frugal, traditional and distinctly joy-less. To his parents’ despair, Gautam doesn’t have what they term a real job, for he works in a call centre.

At work, in the world without time-zones, Gautam morphs into Dan.  Dan is witty,  rather the young man about town.  Dan drinks, which Gautam certainly wouldn’t.  Dan is cosmopolitan, a bit of a flirt.  Dan is, well, quite different from Gautam.

Anish Trivedi successfully brings both voices to life, steering his character(s) through surburban life, through the grind of work and daily commuting, through love’s ups and downs, through family dramas.

The author is a keen observer of social mores.  Seeing Dan interacting with Sondra, his foreign female colleague –  all blonde hair and throwaway lines – we watch as “Dan” wings it through water-cooler moments with her, making mental notes to himself to google the words he doesn’t understand, without ever missing a conversational beat.  His need to learn, to widen his horizons, to keep the veneer of sophistication in place is finely noted.

The prejudices in suburbia are finely chronicled by the author.  Michelle, Gautam’s long-suffering girlfriend, is a Christian and automatically perceived by his family to be unsuitable.  To be fair, Michelle’s family is equally unenthused by Gautam. Gautam’s best friend Naseer is a Muslim, much to his parent’s dismay.  Anish Trivedi sketches this world of petty prejudice and mistrust without ever falling into clichés, and we wince with discomfort at the un-PC world Gautam/Dan inhabits, while acknowledging just how horribly true to life it all is.

A fun read.  An affectionate portrayal of a hero trying to be more than the sum of his parts.  And an utterly delicious cameo of the station chai-wala.

CALL ME DAN was published in August 2010 by Penguin, and costs Rs 250.

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