Monday, 15 October 2012

Two Books: One fantastic, one frivolous

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo

For me, this is the book of the year, and undoubtedly the best book written about contemporary India. If I were still in the habit of recommending books I would say read this book. If you’ve ever read the words India’s growth story then this is the story of the people who are fueling India’s growth: The sweat and bones on which India’s growth pyramid will be built.

A couple of days back, a young Indian journalist, on twitter: Finally read Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers. So well written but its just another 'life in an indian slum' plot. What next?

That in a way encapsulates the popular attitude towards not just the people living in the slums, but also good writing. Both are transient. We need to quickly move away and onto whatever’s next.

Two reasons (for sake of brevity) why this tweet caught my attention.

Firstly, “the plot” is the real life of people (some living, some now dead) of Annawadi, the slum that everyone who flies into Mumbai can see from the airplane window. It maybe far-removed from what we’d like to consider reality, but it isn’t make-belief. All the events, people and their names in the book are real.

Secondly, what next? Well, how about instead of tweeting inanities spend time on a ‘story’ with dedication and tremendous humanity as exemplified by Katherine Boo. Or, perhaps show a little empathy, if humility and kindness are hard to muster.

In passing, I’d like to quote the last few lines from the Author’s note:

“In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of the mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of the governments and market, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.

It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in undercities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blistering hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be–…

If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?”

That’s a question we need to ask more often. Read the book, not just for the people in it but also for the person who wrote it.

Here is an interview with Katherine Boo where she talks about, among other things, the dilemma of writing about poverty.

The Marriage Plot – Jeffery Eugenides

Firstly, I am grateful to be in a city with great public libraries. In a perfect world books would be freely available to anyone who desires to read them and one would never need to buy a book, until and unless, one really loves it or wants too. Also the books that get over-hyped in the media are generally not worth their attention or our money. If you combine the two facts you’ll understand why governments are so eager to shut down public libraries.

Secondly, now it’s crystal clear why American adaptations of ‘great British novels’ are, as they’d say in this part of the world, a complete cock-up.

Thirdly, were Jane Austen’s books simply about the ‘marriage plot’? W.H. Auden in his “Letters to Lord Byron” summed it up the best:

"You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of 'brass*,'
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society."

How much has the economic basis of society changed since the times of Auden and Austen? Even in this age of feminist-era heroines, despite the availability of separation and divorce as an option, have our expectations from relationships or basic desires undergone seismic transformation? For many women, in many parts of the world, marriage still remains a high-stakes game.

Most importantly, Jane Austen's heroines, for example, are such well articulated characters, they display real emotional and moral depth that makes us care about what happens to them, despite the differences in our circumstance. That's something Jeffery Eugenides seems to have overlooked in his limited reading of 19th century literature.

(Re-)Read Austen or Auden instead. Their complete works are available in a library near you. Did I tell you I am so grateful for public libraries?

*Brass in informal English means money or cash.

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