Half slum, half paradise: Two tales of the Indian city

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

Capital: the Eruption of Delhi by Rana Dasgupta

Katherine Boo Capital

“He let his mind drift as he stared at the city, half slum, half paradise. How could a place be so ugly and violent, yet beautiful at the same time?”

Chris Abani

Quoted in “The Planet of Slums” by Mike Davies

India’s recent spurt in urbanization pales in comparison with that of China, where the urban population has increased from 26% in 1990 to 50% in 2010. During a similar 20 year period India’s urban population went up from 25% to 31%. However, it is a significant shift when seen in the context of the pace of the preceding 90 years — it took 90 years for it to increase from 11% in 1901 to 25% in 1991.

According to a recent report, an astonishing 49% of India’s wealth is now owned by 1% of the super rich.

Behind these statistics are the lives of the people and individuals who are living through these transformative years. Two recent books, focused on the two largest cities in the country–Delhi and Mumbai, explore these lives in the times of this transition.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is by an American journalist, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Katherine Boo married to an Indian and the other Capital: The Eruption of Delhi is by the British-born writer of Indian descent, Rana Dasgupta, who is married to an Indian as well and now lives in New Delhi. The contrast between the two books is remarkable- Boo explores the lives of the poor in one of Mumbai’s slums while Dasgupta converses with the rich and super rich of the country’s capital city.

Katherine Boo’s tells us the humane stories that we just don’t hear any longer in the mainstream media or even popular cinema. The characters in Boo’s book live in Annawadi. This Mumbai slum of 335 huts and 3,000 residents is next to the international terminal and surrounded by four 5-star hotels, is home to people segregated by boundaries of caste and community. There is a Tamil dalit community in one part, a Maharashtrian in another and a Muslim section, all cramped into the one acre area.

The division goes even deeper as each family–and each individual within the family–is in a struggle for survival. It becomes evident very soon why the poor never rise up against their oppressors or the rich. They are more often than not embroiled in a ferocious and immediate struggle with those who are equally, if not more powerless.

If Boo’s stories seem like fiction, it is not only because some of the situations the characters go through are dramatic, at times incredibly so, but because they are probed with a sympathetic and non-judgemental precision. Even when the characters commit a minor crime, one knows that there are other sides to that person and the grind they are going through.

Among the more flamboyant characters are Asha, a woman slumlord of the Maharashtrian Kunbi caste, trying to make her way up the social ladder by joining the Shiv Sena and Manju, her idealistic college going daughter. Then there is Zehrunisa, whose rag picker family of 11 is envied by their neighbour, Fatima. The latter, jealous of her relatively more prosperous neighbour immolates herself, landing Zehrunisa’s husband Karam, their son Abdul and daughter Kehkashan in jail and into long and difficult court cases. The family not only loses money that it had saved, but also for a long time, their livelihood that they earned from scavenging for plastics and other waste material around the city.

There is a Tamil dalit girl who commits suicide because she doesn’t want to get married to a person of her parent’s choice back in a Tamil Nadu village. A young scavenger boy is killed by the guards around the airport, and yet another commits suicide. The lives of the inhabitants of Annawadi, like those in other slums the world over, are lived precariously.

The first published definition of a slum reportedly occurs in the convict writer James Hardy Vaux’s 1812 Vocabulary of the Flash Language, where it is synonymous with “racket” or “criminal trade.” The lives of the poor who now live in what we understand as a slum is deeply intertwined with the original meaning of the word.

While their ‘crimes’ are minor in nature, that of the ones documented in Capital are of a mammoth scale and masquerades as ‘development’ and progress. It is significant that while the names of all people in Boo’s work are real, most names in Dasgupta’s stories have been changed.

The central themes around which Capital revolves are greed, decadence and corruption. As one wades through the book, it is not difficult to understand, why. It is inevitable when the stories are about the rich and ultra rich of Delhi. There is a long one about Mickey Chopra, who could well be Ponty Chadha’s son. There are tales about how private specialist hospitals squeeze money from their patients. There are stories about broken families and debauchery. There are explorations into the lives of Punjabi businessmen who transformed themselves into the very-rich despite having started with little or capital after they moved to Delhi as refugees in 1947.

After a while, the narration seems like a ramble around the city’s mostly plush lanes, in a way reflecting the manner of Delhi’s own accidental evolution into the city it now is. It moves from one person’s story to another’s, from one topic to another, with long and often meandering interjections.

Dasgupta’s writing, though easy to read, seems repetitive after a while. A few incorrect facts, even though minor, marr the narrative. Sanjay Gandhi was not Indira Gandhi’s eldest son, Manmohan Singh had not really been “calling for such (neo-liberal) reforms for many years” before he was appointed the finance minister and the Dravidian and Shiv Sena movements were not directed against Punjabi businessmen. His long refrain on the aggressiveness of Khatri Punjabi business to their Kshatriya (soldier caste) origin is at best speculative. Like Suketu Mehta in The Maximum City, the author seems to have been unable to resist the temptation of taking the reader on autobiographical and nostalgic journeys.

This is not to say that there are not occasional flashes of insight and interest. In the middle of the book, the author has a long conversation with a social worker and the residents of a slum within the city, and in the last chapter, he beautifully describes the river Yamuna that flows across the city and is converted into a sewerage carrying the city’s waste.

Capital’s objective to understand how the city’s rich imagine their city makes it an interesting but an inadequate study. The rich do not lack the means to convert their imaginations into reality as can be seen in the opulent malls and gated communities that have sprawled in and around Delhi. It is the poor and the dispossessed whose imaginations need words in order to be discovered and described. In this respect, the work falls short in its ambitious drive to imagine the city. However, seen along with Katherine Boo’s book, it provides a striking contrast.


Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

3 thoughts on “Half slum, half paradise: Two tales of the Indian city”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: