Monday, February 20, 2012

Book review: Behind the beautiful forevers

Katherine Boo with her first book

To really understand the labour of love that has gone into this book, it is more than essential to know who the author of this book is: Katherine Boo.

Katherine Boo is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post. Her reporting has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur “Genius” grant, and a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. For the last decade, she has divided her time between the United States and India. This is her first book. In her own words, she has been writing and reporting on people living on the other side of affluence, under the poverty line, in her own country, the United States. Since the last ten years, after she fell in love and married her Indian husband, Sunil Khilnani, she has been dividing her time between India and US.  Since, 2007 upto 2011, she has been working on this project of trying to find how those who live on the very edge of megacities like Mumbai, trying to make both ends meet, take to the changes that globalization has brought to India. It is with this keenness of observation, painstaking work of interviewing, re-interviewing, observing, collecting data and collating them, writing out a journal of events and talking to the persons all of whom feature in the book, finding and working with translators, government archives, police and many other bodies, that she finally wrote a book, which is a true story, as raw as raw can get. Because it is about those people who live just behind a massive wall on the beautiful Airport Road, to Mumbai’s Sahar Airport, a cluster of peoples who came mainly from Tamil Nadu, UP and Vidharbha, who make up the meat, the blood and the society called Annawadi, just Behind the beautiful forevers. In the book, Katherine has gone deep under the skin of all her characters, as if she had inherited India, in her bloodline and her birth. It is her shadow self, as it were. And given a taste of the reality to even those who live, love and sweat it out in Mumbai.

About the book:

Annawadi is a small strip of land, about 200 yards, just behind the high wall that hides the scum from the high class jest set, global Indian in and out of Sahar Airport, Mumbai.

This small space is rife with activities that almost run all across Mumbai is terrains one may call, spaces where those who live below the poverty line, as the cities scum and slum dwellers, making a day to day living, by collecting, organizing, selling stolen goods and rich people’s waste and throw away – the scavengers. Dirty, diseased, depressed, despondent, the inhabitants of Annawadi, make their living, by close knit neighbourhood all of whom are involved in making two ends meet by competition, squabbles, fist fights, daggers, knives, curses and daring, a life so different from those who live on the other side of the wall.
The central story revolves around two families, one of Zehrusia, her husband and her children, the most handy and helpful being Abdul. They share the tin wall with the One Leg, whose backside protrudes and lips are lustrous red, as in the afternoons, when her husband is at work, she entertains one lover after another, only for a few rupees. Yet, it is not her wayward behavior that caused a flurry of events to follow, that brought life to a stand still for Zehrusia’s family. It was in fact, the latter’s desire to have a kitchen of her own, a mere wall made of brick which could hold a shelf or two. But this ignited a sequence of events that play out themselves, exposing the rot that stinks in the whole system – call it the police, hospital or whatever. But did we not know all about it all? Not, it’s one thing to read about it, it is quite another, to sit there with the with all the characters in the book and go through it ourselves! So vivid it the experience!

But what was the great Asha doing while the two families were driven to disaster? Asha, from drought driven, Vidharbha had at twenty seen poverty and lack of education. At forty, she had used her charm to get herself ahead and while she was a teacher by profession, she had been taken to warm the beds of some politicians and policemen, including the local politician of the Annawadi. She didn’t mind; after all she was able to cater to higher dreams in her heart – her daughter Manju was going to college and studying Psychology, while holding a hut school in her own hut.  She was hoping to give her in marriage to a highly placed groom in the near future. As the custodian of Annawadi, she tried her best to be a good Council to Zehrusia. But the cost of freedom was too much to pay for mere scavengers!

Through out this book the reader is faced with life that is forever on the edge and yet life that never loses hope and the struggle, despondency, even death, all are part of a hope that never leaves the heart that one day, they will see a life, on the other side of the beautiful forever.

What then is the Beautiful Forever? Read it all, in what I deem as one of the best book I have laid my hand upon, a book, everyone, who lives in Mumbai, or loves Mumbai or ever has lived there, must read.

Last but not the least: A sure BIG Literary Award to Ms Karharine Boo, I predict. Or I will be dashed!

: Behind the beautiful forevers
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Group)
11, Community Centre,
Panchsheel Park, New Delhi 110 017
Author: Katherine Boo
Pages: 252
` 374

Read the book:
Audio book:

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The literature of the elite

Sunil Gangopadhyay

The literature that is being created in our country through the medium of the printing press, is still primarily the literature of the elite. We have a country where only an average of 60% of the population is moderately educated. It is fair to assume that no more than 15 – 20% read literature. We have, therefore, a literature for which 80 – 85% of the country’s population is totally absent. Should this literature not be considered utterly unreal?” – Sunil Gangopadhyay in a memorable speech delivered at the 2010 Sahitya Akademi Award Presentation Ceremony in New Delhi.
Taking it from there, he went on to cite the example of a poor boy and his father who came to his house regularly to beg by singing songs. In fact, they came so often and sang songs, three in all, that Sunil Gangopadhyay too had learnt the lines by listening to them. On enquiry, it was found that the songs had been taught to the father by his Guru and later he taught the son the songs. Gangopadhyay had even learnt of the name of this guru from them, but had not heard of this guru, or a poet, writer by this name. He did not ask of course, if his guru was a beggar too.

Strangely, one of the songs even crept into the movies but of course the credit of the lyrics went to the composer and not the original poet/guru who had composed it.
Hundreds and thousands of poets have concealed their identity and not made much ado about their creations he went on to say, perhaps because they were too modest to “show” off their lines. Besides, only after the printing press came into being, words could find a name attached to the person who had created those lines. Many poets took advantage of this, many did not. Therefore, there is and was a huge base of the unsung poets who did not care to be out in print and that does not feature in what is called literature of today.
Going on to speak of Jean Paul Satre denouncement of Saint Jean Genet, whose writing of his Autobiography from the prison gave him a place in French Literature, Gangopadhyay, cites an example of the elite rejection of literature that does not meet their pre-decided criteria, as Genet was an anti-social, a lout but he wrote in an act of self-expression, a book which he himself hardly believed would create such a revolution in French literature. The right to self-expression is universal. In countries like India, where poverty may be one of the most critical reason why literature of those who are not publishing through the printing press are shaded out, we have a bigger monster here called the caste system, which adds insult to injury, by preempting that literature of the upper caste may prevail over let us say the Dalits whose voices are unheard, except for a few like Dilip Chitre. There may be a wealth of literature under the poverty line and on the other side of the LoD ( line of  discrimination) based on caste.
This has then given rise to religious groups which consist mainly of the downtrodden. In Bengal Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s movement which has grown to a humongous size now, called Hare Rama, Hare Krishna movement was essentially a movement of the poor and impoverished, although Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu belonged to a high Brahmin caste. He became a Master of the deprived, because he did not believe in the caste system. He drew to himself a huge crowd of people, hungry for a let up from their condition, by embracing a movement that gave them equal status, in the love of the Divine Krishna.
Gangopadhyay went on to say that from time to time some writers do write about the impoverished peasants and working class, and the uneducated. Yet, we are still very far from reflecting the true colour of these neglected segments of our society and although their lives are rich with poetry and music, only a fraction reaches us, the elite readers and writers of literature.
However, whatever may be the case, Gangopadhyay, had ended his remarkable speech with the observation that Radio, TV had reached every corner of the country and the resurgence of Dalit literature was heartwarming, because, this indicated that the times, they are a changing.
( Abstract taken from The Indian Literature, Sahitya Akademi’s Bi-monthly Journal, March/April 2011  issue, pgs – 21-27)

A few of my points:
The recent uprising of Literature Festivals reiterates the fact that Literature is for the elite, the educated, widely travelled and ready to flaunt their work, at the same time, it has been instrumental in creating more awareness and accessibility of the wider audience to the authors as well. 

The literature of those who chose not to make much ado about their work and not chase publishers has still not been tapped. They will go without recognition, or the pleasure of our eyes ever going through their thoughts.
Many, who have made it to feminist literature, will continue to disown, literature by women who also chose to keep a low profile. Indeed, they will not be called India’s Women, who created a stir in other people’s heart, when they sang or wrote out of their own. They will continue to be considered not among those, approved by a select society of feminists, who are in the same category as the elite who see their works printed and who attend Literary Festivals. I say this with profound sadness when a well-known person from one of Bengal’s well known literary families said about my mother, who indeed, had been too shy to publish and yet, magazines like Desh, published her work called Janini,  which brought stalwarts like Bhibutibhushan Bondhopadhyay to our door in search of this writer, who was my mother,  - “But we don’t consider your mother, excuse me for saying it, one among the woman’s voices in Bengal. If that was the case, there are hundreds and thousands of such voices in Bengal.”

RIP Sunil da

Orbituary: The Hindu, 24 October, 2012: