Facts and fictions

Martha Nussbaum has written an interesting review in the TLS of two books about India. They are Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Siddartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India.

The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India

I’ve read and reviewed here the former, and haven’t read the latter. Nussbaum shares my caveat about Boo’s book, namely its use of novelistic techniques. She writes in her review:

“The English novel was a social protest movement from the start, and its aim (like that of many of its American descendants) was frequently to acquaint middle-class people with the reality of various social ills, in a way that would involve real vision and feeling. Dickens wrote of child labour, Frances Trollope of the stigma of illegitimacy, Thomas Hardy of seduction and class exclusion. In some cases novels of social oppression had large consequences….. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath had a comparable impact, educating the American public about the plight of migrant workers and producing support for New Deal legislation.

When the poor are in a distant country, narrative that conveys the texture of daily lives is even more urgently needed.”

But she argues that novelistic techniques should be confined to novels, while non-fiction demands analysis and evidence. She concludes:

“Katherine Boo and Siddhartha Deb could easily have included enough historical and economic analysis to permit their readers to come to some conclusions about such matters, but they did not. The result is that their books have great power to provoke emotion, but little to channel that emotion into constructive political action.”

For myself, I think that’s fine – it’s the author’s prerogative to have a book do only one thing. There’s room on the bookshelf for emotion as well as economics. However, I do agree with Nussbaum that – whatever rhetorical approach is taken – one needs to keep the boundary between fact and fiction clear.

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Innovation – in English

Yesterday I posted about an excellent book, Katherine Boo’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers. I found two new English words there, I think specifically Indian innovations. One was ‘overcity’ – the Mumbai where the rich and powerful live, in contrast to the slum where the book is set. The other ‘by-hearting’, the learning by rote of school work.

It reminded me of another magnificent word, ‘pre-poning’. This is the opposite of postpone. Instead of putting something off until later, you bring it forward. It was used by the Indian telecoms regulator in announcing that the deadline for submitting bids for a spectrum auction was going to be far earlier than most potential bidders had previously thought.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum

Time to go and pre-pone my lunch….

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No limit to markets in the slum

Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum is a wonderful read. It recounts a series of  dramatic events that occur in Annawadi, a slum next to Mumbai Airport, where she spent months meeting residents and observing their lives. Like all good reportage, it gives the reader a vivid impression of place, and Boo has a novelist’s ability to convey character. In fact, my one complaint about the book is that she uses the novelistic device of voicing the characters’ inner thoughts – for me, this undermined the authenticity of the detailed reporting of the physical conditions, the work, the danger, the smell and dirt and noise, and so forth. On the other hand, the focus on character makes it a very enjoyable book.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum

The business at the centre of the tale is recycling rubbish, which also featured in the episode of Welcome to India I watched last week. I won’t spoil it by giving away the ‘plot’. However, I was particularly struck by the absolutely central role monetary transactions play in everyday life. It is a commonplace to say corruption helps trap countries like India in poverty. I suddenly realised that there is a vicious circle, because poverty also traps people in corruption. The sort of favours and kindnesses that people in my society wouldn’t dream of demanding payment for all require handing over cash in the slum. Money is so short that nobody will do something for nothing. Besides, there is a chain of transactions to sustain. Policemen are paid so little that they demand bribes, a slum entrepreneur needing to pay the bribe to keep the police from closing her business as it lacks a permit therefore has to ask for cash to help out a neighbour, and so on.

Anyway, it was thought-provoking to realise how monetised all these relationships were in the light of having read recently Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Behind the Beautiful Forevers makes it brutally clear that these moral limits are income-contingent: a very poor community has far less scope for scruples than a wealthy western one with a social safety net.I think Sandel’s widely cited example of the immorality of paying people to hold your place in a queue would be met with simple bemusement in Annawadi.

Worth reading alongside this book: Sukhetu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found; Working Hard, Working Poor by Gary Fields; and Portfolios of the Poor, which uses diaries to record how people with almost no money use what they have. There are some good background features on Katherine Boo like this one in The Daily Telegraph and this New Yorker video.

Annawadi

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