Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A room with a view

It's important that I put this post in context before I begin articulating my reactions to the matter at hand i.e. a subjective reading of Katherine Boo's, 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' that I completed the day-before-yesterday.
1. I am one of those who might have probably paraded a visage of cultivated distaste on looking out through an upper-level window from one of the star hotels around Annawadi to catch a glimpse of slum, spoiling the vista-view.
2. I am one of those who would not have had the time or inclination through my years of living in Mumbai to venture beyond the familiar boundaries of the Western Express highway to investigate a locality built around a sewage lake.
3. I did drive through the city on the day after the 26/11 attacks on my way to the international airport, and only registered the eerie calm that Mumbai seemed to be enveloped in without ever thinking about what the individuals that constitute its approximately 20.5 million population were thinking.

I am a product of my upbringing, my religion, my culture and my geography. What all those factors instilled in me at a very early age was a very real fear of the 'other' that followed me around wherever I happened to go and right into middle age. The 'other', in my case, isn't an easy encapsulation of persons in any way removed from the physicality, the plan of language and the access to material goods and services of those who were constantly around me. The definition of the 'other' in the class I belonged to constituted all those who spent all day, every day, performing tasks that my peers deemed extraneous to their perceived roles as those with a 'future'.

Parallels can be drawn between that 'sense of a future' from the treacherously oblivious childhood of mine, to the sagas of Asha and Zehrunisia and all that they do in their disparate ways to raise themselves and their families above the circumstances they find their lives caught in. But the main reason the lines will never intersect is that the access to that future is not obstructed by the humdrum and unpleasantness of daily living that we, the overlords of the overcity, have never bothered ourselves with. We have access to leisure, the time to think about things and the ability and resources to dream about what can be.
One of the main highlights of Katherine Boo's celebrated book is the portrayal of that disparity - the reality behind the dirty saris, the sweaty smelly bodies, the marked cynical lines on faces. There is no hiding from it, no literary relief as in most other portrayals of the city - of descriptions of Bollywood, forays into manic entrepreneurship or the romantic depictions of the main players in the game of corruption that runs through the city like a swollen river that bursts its banks at regular intervals. No wonder that the character most easily read in the book for me, despite my natural resistance to it, was Manju - the doyenne of a relatively privileged sangfroid that I could subliminally relate to.

Through the reading, I questioned, I found myself answered (especially on the vexing issue of why overt violence does not break out from beyond the slums more regularly), and I cringed and cringed and cringed at my complicity. A brave, brave, brave book by any standard.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

In support of ol' Günter

What Must be Said

By Günter Grass

Why have I kept silent, silent for too long
over what is openly played out
in war games at the end of which we
the survivors are at best footnotes.

It’s that claim of a right to first strike
against those who under a loudmouth’s thumb
are pushed into organized cheering—
a strike to snuff out the Iranian people
on suspicion that under his influence
an atom bomb’s being built.

But why do I forbid myself
to name that other land in which
for years—although kept secret—
a usable nuclear capability has grown
beyond all control, because
no scrutiny is allowed.

The universal silence around this fact,
under which my own silence lay,
I feel now as a heavy lie,
a strong constraint, which to dismiss
courts forceful punishment:
the verdict of “Antisemitism” is well known.

But now, when my own country,
guilty of primal and unequalled crimes
for which time and again it must be tasked—
once again, in pure commerce,
though with quick lips we declare it
reparations, wants to send
Israel yet another submarine—
one whose speciality is to deliver
warheads capable of ending all life
where the existence of even one
nuclear weapon remains unproven,
but where suspicion serves for proof—
now I say what must be said.

But why was I silent for so long?
Because I thought my origin,
marked with an ineradicable stain,
forbade mention of this fact
as definite truth about Israel, a country
to which I am and will remain attached.

Why is it only now I say,
in old age, with my last drop of ink,
that Israel’s nuclear power endangers
an already fragile world peace?
Because what by tomorrow might be
too late, must be spoken now,
and because we—as Germans, already
burdened enough—could become
enablers of a crime, foreseeable and therefore
not to be eradicated
with any of the usual excuses.

And admittedly: I’m silent no more
because I’ve had it with the West’s hypocrisy
—and one can hope that many others too
may free themselves from silence,
challenge the instigator of known danger
to abstain from violence,
and at the same time demand
a permanent and unrestrained control
of Israel’s atomic power
and Iranian nuclear plants
by an international authority
accepted by both governments.

Only thus can one give help
to Israelis and Palestinians—still more,
all the peoples, neighbour-enemies
living in this region occupied by madness
—and finally, to ourselves as well.

“Was gesagt werden muss” published in Süddeutschen Zeitung (4 April 2012)

Translation by Michael Keefer and Nica Mintz