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. Continue reading

Knowing the Turf

During the last twenty years, there has been a parallel discourse on the economic and social developments in India. On one hand, the votaries of economic ‘reform’ do not tire of singing paeans to what they perceive to be an economic miracle that has transformed India into an economic power. This hunky dory narrative has been consistently challenged by numerous counter narratives, in the shape of numerous studies and in a more accessible manner, by journalists, activists and writers who have reported heart wrenching stories from the ground- P. Sainath’s Everyone Loves a Good Drought (1996), Siddhartha Dube’s Words without Freedom (1998), my friend Rahul Banerjee’s ‘A Romantic among the Bhils‘ (2009) readily come to mind.  To this literature Annie Zaidi’s Known Turfis a welcome addition.The book has seven sections, dealing with bandits in Chambal, chai, poverty in Madhya Pradesh and UP, contemporary Punjab, Sufism, the writer’s ruminations on what it means to be a Muslim in contemporary India and ending with the writer’s activism with an urban feminist group and an understanding of what feminism means for her. It is interesting that the the book should begin with fiction- the story of the Chambal dacoits, take the readers from fiction to fact as it were and end with the author’s discovery of her what she calls her turf.
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Jangalnama- Travels in a Maoist Guerrilla Zone- a review

Jangalnama- Travels in a Maoist Guerrilla Zone by Satnam, translated by Vishav Bharti- a review.

‘In the light of a candle, drinking maté (a local drink) and eating a piece of bread and cheese, the man’s shrunken features stuck a mysterious, tragic note. In simple but expressive language, he told us about his three months in prison, his starving wife, and his children left in the care of a kindly neighbor, his fruitless pilgrimage in search of work and his comrades, who had mysteriously disappeared and were said to somewhere at the bottom of the sea’. These copper mines – ‘ spiced with the lives of poor unsung heroes of this battle, who die miserable deaths, when all they want is to earn is their daily bread’

- Che Guevara, describing the life of a working class couple in the copper mines of Chuquicamata. (The Motorcycle Diaries)

At the age of 23, Che undertook a journey on a motorcycle across South America and wrote a journal based on it. The journal was published in a book form titled The Motorcycle Diaries a decade or so back. Satnam’s Jangalnama could well be a sequel to that book, written in the context of the Red India, as the Maoist controlled belt has come to be known.

There are differences, of course. Che was young, fresh out of medical college. He rode a motorcycle and was essentially on an adventure tour during the course of which he got to see the underbelly of South America and about which he wrote so eloquently. This journey was part of his education in becoming a revolutionary soon after.
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