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.

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