Unflinching examination

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo; Penguin; Price: Rs.499; 254 pp

Arguably the world’s most examined and analysed urban conglomeration, the western India city of Mumbai aka ‘slumbai’, because half its population lives in degrading squalor which would have challenged the descriptive powers of novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870), whose emotional evocations of the wretched slums of Victorian Britain (Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol) and of Paris on the eve of the French Revolution (Tale of Two Cities) did much to arouse the dormant conscience of the British establishment in the 18th century. Unfortunately, despite over half a century of political independence and supposedly huge progress made in lifting millions of people out of poverty, Indian society has not yet been able to produce writers, reform pamphleteers or academics capable of sufficiently stimulating intelligent response to the worsening problem of urban blight, and widening disparities between rich and poor in urban India.

Curiously, the appalling living conditions of inhabitants of Mumbai’s squalid slums where the everyday frenzied struggle for survival of an estimated 8 million free India’s citizens mocks the grand aspirations encapsulated in the Constitution of India, seems to prick the conscience of foreigners and non-resident Indians much more than it does of native academics and writers. Among the recent writers who have captured the vice and iniquity of contemporary Mumbai are US-based Suketu Mehta (Maximum City, 2004); Australian writer Gregory David Roberts (Shantaram, 2003) and most recently Katherine Boo, a staff writer of the New Yorker and former editor of the Washington Post.

Reacting to a “shortage in India-based non-fiction: of deeply reported accounts about how ordinary low-income people — particularly women and children — were negotiating the age of global markets,” Boo spent over three years observing, reporting and documenting the lives of the residents of Annawadi, a slum habitation encircled by the gleaming new Mumbai International airport and several five-star hotels, by way of “written notes, video recordings and audio tape”, and accessing over “three thousand public records, many of them obtained after years of petitioning government agencies under India’s landmark Right to Information Act” to write Behind The Beautiful Forevers (a reference to an advertisement for flooring tiles on a wall hiding the slum from public view).

Let’s frankly admit it, writing about how the poor survive within an increasingly corrupt and oppressive system is unlikely to interest indigenous newly-rich academics or journalists. Deep within the collective Indian mindset is the belief that the poor have themselves to blame for their poverty. If only they studied and worked hard! But what about the reality that teachers don’t show up for work in crumbling government schools, and what’s written in government-sponsored textbooks is often factually erroneous and ungrammatical? And what about the fact that wages are low (Rs.28 per day vaults a citizen over the poverty line)? Details, details…

Admirably, Boo has devoted herself to investigating these mundane details which exasperate the Indian middle class, scholars (and journalists). In Annawadi and its environs, the extremes of human existence come alive. Within a stone’s throw of the grimy slum, is the glitter of three uber-luxury five-star hotels and the modern  international airport, which reflect the ridiculous priorities of the country’s brain-dead and conscience-less establishment. Boo doesn’t gloss over the significant fact that teachers of the neighbouring Marol Municipal School seldom show up for classes. Instead of addressing this problem, the local municipal councillor arranges for Asha, a politically ambitious woman who is actually a “seventh class pass” but has purchased a higher secondary school leaving certificate, to conduct remedial education classes in her hut in the slum. But Asha who aspires to rise out of Annawadi by representing the Shiv Sena, delegates the task to her daughter who is trying to earn a college degree by “by-hearting” psychology among other subjects. Little wonder that most of the children in the slum — all lumbered with alcoholic fathers — prefer to work, mainly as collectors of saleable garbage from the neighbouring luxury hotels and the airport, while also indulging in petty thievery (a high-risk activity) on the side.

The book’s main narrative is centred around Abdul Hussain (16), a dedicated garbage collector, who had the responsibility of looking after his family of 11 thrust upon him in his pre-teens because of his alcoholic father. Working silently and committedly, he is able to establish himself as the top garbage collector in Annawadi and save enough to make a deposit for a family home elsewhere. But to please his mother who yearns for a kitchen stone slab in her hut, in the process of installing it, he damages the common wall of his physically handicapped neighbour, who, outraged and somewhat demented, immolates herself. Abdul’s world implodes when he, his father and sister are arrested for provoking a suicide. Police harassment of the poor, an everyday reality of Mumbai’s slums, permits the author to unflinchingly examine contemporary India’s thoroughly rotten police-criminal justice system, in which torture is routine and families are ruined because of rents relentlessly extracted by police, doctors, witnesses and lawyers from the poorest of the poor.

Abdul’s tragic story apart, there are several poignant narratives of other residents of Annawadi forced by want and deprivation of the most basic necessities of civilized life, to compete with each other for survival. To read this book is to appreciate the crushing price that the very poor at the base of the country’s oppressively iniquitous socio-economic pyramid have to pay for slapdash government policies and weak institutions of governance.

Although the author of this gut-wrenching real-life narrative doesn’t offer or cite any solutions for addressing the swelling problem of Mumbai’s dehumanising slums, a simple solution to decongest Mumbai which will sharply reduce its slums, is readily available. If contracts to construct three four-lane toll bridges linking the eastern coast of Mumbai to the mainland of India a mere 5 km as the crow flies, are awarded to reputable foreign and domestic construction corporates, a new city with unlimited expansion capacity would spring up on the mainland, forcing real estate prices in Mumbai to crash.

But who in this nation run by clerks ever thinks big, bold and beautiful?

Dilip Thakore

Other underside city

Karma Sutra — Adventures of a Street Bum by Rajendar Menen; Harper Collins; Price: Rs.299; 191 pp

In Mumbai there are two undercities hidden — or attempted to be hidden — from the public eye. One is the grim world of the city’s soul-destroying slums, and the other is the sleazy undercity of sin and vice which springs to life under cover of darkness. While acclaimed long-form journalist Katherine Boo has brilliantly focused an unremitting searchlight on Mumbai’s creeping slums which have silently overwhelmed half the city, journalist and anti-HIV/AIDS activist Rajendar Menen explores the other undercity inhabited by sex workers, bar girls, drug addicts, migrant hustlers, runaways, etc, struggling to carve a place for survival — forget about respect and honour — in the mean streets of Mumbai.

Menen’s interest in Mumbai vice was sparked when as a journalist, he covered the first cases of HIV in Mumbai (and India). That is how he was introduced to the city’s streets and over two decades, in the fag end of the 20th century, he observed and wrote about those who were most affected by the dread disease. After years of living the life of a street bum, Menen was accepted by the shady citizens of this undercity as someone who had their interests at heart, and was not a mere voyeur. He developed a rare rapport and empathy with the shadowy residents of night-time Mumbai.

This book is mainly about my experience on the streets of Mumbai, one of the greatest cities of the world. It is about the darkness on the streets. It’s about the lives of the marginalised and their heroic battle against the enormous odds stacked against them every single day of their lives. It is about how they surmount it all without complaint: the true heroes of a karma that has shackled them… It is about the other side of midnight in a city that is also equally gross about its display of power and pelf,” writes Menen in the introduction of Karma Sutra.

Menen describes the pleasure districts of Mumbai — Kamathipura with its notorious ‘cages’, where “everything in the vicinity is more expensive (than sex), even a decent meal costs more”; Colaba and Kala Ghoda — the haunt of tourists and  places where every type of perversity is on sale. “No one cares as long as you didn’t tread on toes”, and suburban Juhu with its wide open beach where the author slept in the open when he was homeless for a brief period.

As he winds his way through cities, Menen pauses to relate the crushing poverty that drives girls as young as 14-15 into the brothels of Mumbai and the flourishing flesh trade countrywide. So desperate is the poverty in their villages that their lives as sex workers seem better in comparison. “In the brothels, at least, she gets a life. It is a difficult situation. What does she do? Both sets of circumstances are a living death.” Rescuing girls and sending them back to their villages — the official solution — is no solution at all. Most of them return to their profession. “Breaking in is traumatic for sure. But breaking out is worse,” he comments.

The city tour of Mumbai by night is divided into nine chapters covering Kamathipura where women are sold for a song, ladies bars “where men spend a lot of money to watch beautiful women dance — an extravagant but harmless way to spend time” but banned by the self-righteous state government two years ago; Colaba and Kala Ghoda, Asha Dan (Mother Teresa’s home for the dying and abandoned); Juhu; Saundatti (a small village in Karnataka where young women are consecrated as devdasis or temple prostitutes), Goa and Kathmandu (known for “full moon parties, nude sun-worshippers and flea markets”) and Kolkata and its famous red-light Sonagachi district.

Though for the most part Karma Sutra evokes the bleak lives of women forced into prostitution, Menen also touches upon the harsh existence of eunuchs or hijras, a close-knit community whose members are “intelligent, educated, widely-travelled, articulate, strong and united. Whatever the odds, they stick together. They share their earnings and there is great camaraderie among them. They also strangely, boast a refined, elitist clientele,” he writes.

Despite its sometimes exaggerated style (for instance “Mumbai’s streets are perforated with the carcasses of young, tender lives”), Karma Sutra exposes the stark reality of the lives of millions of marginalised citizens in India’s unplanned cities, brutalised by poverty, disease and the sex trade.

Jayanthi Mahalingam