Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “India”

ElCicco #CBR4 Review #51: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo


Katherine Boo is a journalist who has won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and various writing awards, including the 2012 National Book Award for non-fiction for Behind the Beautiful Forevers. For this work, she spent 4 years gathering information on the slums of Mumbai, particularly the Annawadi slum near the airport. Her question in approaching this research was, “What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society?” Boo has frequently covered poverty and the attempt to rise above it in her highly regarded research. Far from a dry, tedious study of poverty and opportunity, Behind the Beautiful Forevers reads like a novel. Through her extensive interviews with residents of Annawadi and access to public records such as police, hospital and education records, Boo paints a detailed picture of the rise and fall of particular families and individuals against the backdrop of government corruption and a booming Indian economy that goes bust in 2008. In the e-book form, readers can also see short videos of Annawadi and its residents.

A few families and individuals dominate Boo’s research. The Husains are at the heart of the story. They are a Muslim family and therefore part of a minority, and the fact that they have become successful trash pickers makes them the object of envy and resentment. Eldest son Abdul (a teen) more or less runs the family business alongside his mother Zehrunisa. Abdul is a quiet young man without many friends, but as we discover throughout the story, he wants to be a good person and do the right thing. He understands that his family’s success could be the cause of trouble for them if they are not careful. Their neighbor Fatima or “One-leg” is a disabled woman married to an alcoholic. Her disability makes her an object of derision, and Fatima resents the way her neighbors treat her. Desiring to be valued, she takes in a variety of lovers but is mocked all the more by her neighbors for this. Asha is a savvy, ambitious woman who aspires to become the slum lord and then to move beyond the slum to the “over-city.” She tries to use the corrupt governing system to help herself and her family. Among the residents of Annawadi, Asha is recognized as the person who can get things done or make problems go away. She has important contacts among the police and in her political party. When an argument erupts between Fatima and the Husains, trouble rains down upon both families. Boo then exposes the corruption among the police, in the judicial system and in the hospitals that deal with the poor. As Boo writes, “The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage …. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”

Boo shows readers that the slum-dwellers are hard working and ingenious at finding ways to make money and at trying to rise up in conditions that militate against such success and mobility. Their very poverty, however, prevents them from working together to collectively improve their lot and leads to fierce competition. In some cases this competition leads to self-destruction and in others, it leads to improving your own situation only at the expense of others’ well being. Asha creates a non-profit that filters money away from legitimate programs and into her own pocket. She says, “How can anyone say I am doing the wrong when the big people did all the papers — when the big people say that it’s right?” Abdul, who wants to be a good person says, “I tell [Allah] I cannot be better because of how the world is.” In her afterward, Boo addresses what outsiders see as indifference toward suffering in the slums. She writes that the seeming indifference toward suffering and death, particularly among children, “… had a good deal to do with conditions that sabotaged their innate capacity for moral action.”

In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Boo treats the residents of Annawadi with respect and compassion and gives readers a new perspective on poverty and the poor — a perspective that many politicians and policy makers in the West would benefit from considering.

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #15: The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

When you fall in love with an author, it’s a great feeling knowing that there is a whole back catalogue waiting for you. The Hungry Tide was to be My Big Summer Read, but it’s a lot shorter than the Ibis books, and I got a lot more reading done than just this one…

The setting of the novel alone is a thing of beauty. The story is told against the backdrop of the Sundarbans (Google it! With pictures!), an archipelago of islands half submerged by the waters of the Bay of Bengal. Ghosh’s descriptions of the nature of those islands are beautiful, and even when you realise that the action takes place in the present, it still feels mysterious and as far removed from modern life as possible. Here, two strangers meet. Kanai Dutt is travelling to Lusibari from Delhi in order to help his aunt sort out some paperwork of his long-deceased uncle. He has been to the Sundarbans before and knows what to expect, but still struggles with the contrast of his middle-class existence in the capital and the hardships his aunt and her village suffer. He is immediately atteacted to his fellow traveller Piya Roy, who is of Indian descent, but grew up in the U.S. She has come to study the local variety of river dolphin, and although she does not speak Bengali, she is determined to get her observations under way. She promises an eager Kanai to visit him in Lusibari, and finds a local fisherman, Fokir, to take her. Although they can barely communicate, Piya is drawn to Fokir, who seems the impersonation of the uneducated, hard-working, yet happy villager. But things are not as simple as Piya or Kanai expect, and the Sundarbans are a place where nature takes terrifying forms…

While I enjoyed Amitav Ghosh’s writing and loved the setting of the novel, the story left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s a pretty straightforward almost-love story that ends in a predictable tragedy, and I would have expected more of Ghosh. On the other hand he again crammed a ton of information in a relatively short book. Each subject is fascinating in itself, be it the story of the Gangetic river dolphin, local folklore or recent history of the Sundarbans. But taken together, the book seemed too short for such a wealth of information. I had the feeling that in order to make space for facts, Ghosh neglected his characters a bit. Both Kanai and Piya in parts are mere stock characters – the scientist with very little experience in matters of the heart, the mundane heartbreaker who is a bit too full of himself. Fokir was the most interesting character of the lot but remained, literally, silent for the most part.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the book. But it felt a bit like Ghosh was aiming higher and ran out of energy, or time. His more recent novels achieve their goals. This one seems to me like an exercise, the preparation for bigger things to come.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #75: The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

An awesome novel set in contemporary Bombay, which explores the parallel and intertwining lives of two middle-aged Indian widows—Sera, a well-off Parsi woman living happily with and through her pregnant daughter and son-in-law, and Bhima, her Untouchable maid of many years and the long-suffering grandmother to the orphaned Maya.

Sera had been a sensitive, loving, enlightened and intellectually curious woman until she was married to a rage-filled beast of a man and shackled by Indian tradition to both her husband and to her equally insane mother-in-law who, at the opening of this novel, is paralyzed and dying but still manages to strike terror with a glance. Bhima had married for love, until tragic circumstances and the brutality of India’s caste system led to the dissolution of her happiness. Granddaughter Maya is the only bright spot in her life, attending college and pointing to a future away from the slum and the hard life which Bhima has become resigned to. And then the 17-year-old Maya gets pregnant, and that future dissolves, eventually leading to a shocking climax.

The novel presents a devastating portrait of life in modern India, an expose not only of the medieval caste system still functioning in many parts of the country, but of the many religious and cultural traditions which shackle the mind as well. Sera and Bhima have a special bond built over many years of intimacy, and yet Sera—for all her enlightenment–cannot transcend her own “middle-class skin,” in the words of the author. Bhima is never allowed to forget who she is nor to whom she owes her allegiance. Her own enlightenment at the end comes at a terrible price.

Author Umbrigar writes beautifully, painting unforgettable pictures with her words and recreating the unique sights, sounds and smells of India in every sentence. This is a book that squeezes your heart and will keep you up nights long after you finish it.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #29: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

A Fine Balance is a novel set in India in 1975 during the rule of Indira Gandhi and her infamous “Emergency,” which was used to smash her political opposition and ended up terrorizing large portions of the population as well. As in his later book Family Matters, which I reviewed earlier for Cannonball Read, Mistry targets the corruption, the superstition, and the caste system which degrades his native country, but in A Fine Balance, his tale is also overtly political and unrelenting in its hostility to the Gandhi regime, while his later work is more personal and, perhaps, more subtle as well.

The plot of A Fine Balance centers around four individuals who come together in their difficulties, and ultimately lean heavily on each other for survival. Two are Untouchables, impoverished tailors—uncle and nephew—who had fled their village and its caste bigotry, only to end up living in garbage dumps and doorways in an unnamed “city by the sea,” which is presumably Bombay, today called Mumbai. The two tailors are hired by, and eventually permitted to live outside the home of widowed seamstress Dina, a feisty woman whose failing eyesight forces her to hire the tailors while serving as the “go-between” to a company that supplies the materials and the patterns for the dresses the tailors sew. And finally, there is college student Maneck, obliged to leave his village home and unhappily attend school in the city while boarding with Dina, his mother’s old childhood friend.

Each of these figures has suffered tragedy and disappointment, but together, they manage to draw out the humanity in each other. Dina slowly discovers that her Untouchable employees are, in fact, real human beings, and along with Maneck, they become the family she never had. But in the meantime, political anarchy, racism, forced sterilization, unimaginable poverty, and both personal and institutional corruption swirl around the little family, and our two innocent tailors stumble from one horrific calamity to the next while the reader cringes in horror at the repeated abuse and suffering they are forced to endure.

In addition to his four main characters, Mistry peoples his novel with many different victims of the social system he indicts, ranging from the legless beggar Worm and the half-mad Monkey-man, to the manipulative Beggar-master and the murderous hair thief. An amazing tapestry of Indian life is presented to the reader, but even with the bits of humor the author manages to weave into it, its colors are obscured by the filth–both literal and figurative–that is Mistry’s India . Reviewers have called A Fine Balance Dickensian for its unstinting portrayal of the hopelessness of the human condition in 1975 India. But I found that hopelessness also infected Mistry’s writing itself, for by the end, he offers no escape for either the protagonists of his story, or for his own poor country.

Valyruh’s CBR4 Review #3: Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry

From a westerner’s point of view, the nation of India is one big enigma. It is a nation proud of its ancient heritage and yet divided against itself by dozens of dialects. It is a nation which won its freedom from colonial rule but which remains straitjacketed by racial, class, and religious strife. It is a nation which explores the leading edge of advanced technology but many of whose people remain mired in unimaginable poverty, illiteracy, and blinding superstition. Thus it was with a certain wariness that I picked up Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry, not certain whether this Canadian-based Indian author was going to bash his native land or apologize for it. In fact, Mistry does neither. He presents us instead with the story of three generations of a single Parsi family living in the city of Mumbai, whose loves, hates, disappointments and successes –albeit flavored with the unique spices of India—are as universally recognizable as those of your next-door neighbor.

The story begins by taking a page out of Shakespeare’s King Lear:  79-year-old family patriarch Nariman is a victim of both encroaching Parkinson’s disease and of his embittered adult stepdaughter and acquiescent stepson, who keep him virtually imprisoned in the large but decaying apartment he has deeded to them out of guilt over his loveless and faithless marriage to their now deceased mother. When Nariman breaks an ankle during one of his stolen strolls outdoors, he is quickly shunted to the crowded apartment of his dutiful daughter Roxanna and her husband and two young sons. There he is lovingly cared for by Roxanna and his grandsons, while son-in-law Yezad, a modern Indian man proud of his free thinking ways, becomes increasingly stressed by the financial and other demands that caring for the dying old man entails. When Yezad devises a cock-eyed scenario for elevating his position—and his wages—at the sports equipment store where he works, things at first go comically awry, but then Yezad’s life rapidly begin to disintegrate. From this moment, Yezad’s mental and emotional decline begins to parallel that of his father-in-law’s physical one.

Along with this primary plot, Mistry provides us with stories behind the stories of the many characters—major and minor, tragic and comic—that people his novel and which offer a poignant insider’s view of life in contemporary India, with its still-entrenched caste system and the corruption, superstition, violence and thuggery which passes for religion and politics in parts of India.  The end of his story provides an ironic twist that forces the reader to cast his minds’ eye back to the beginning, but Mistry also leaves us with a declaration of his faith in the new generations and in their ability to someday forge an India free of its many shackles.

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