on February 12, 2012
I found this book riveting, thought provoking and highly annoying. The author has distilled what she explains in the Author's Note was a large number of interviews, research into government documents and time spent in the Mumbai slum where the book takes place. The result is a set of appealing characters who live difficult and precarious lives on land adjacent to Mumbai's International Airport. Partially submerged during monsoon season, at the mercy of everything from international financial markets to local police, the author movingly described the energy, and luck, required simply to survive from one day to the next. And any day might bring catastrophe.
Typical of the best of New Yorker writing, this author is able to make a point by obliquely calling attention to it. And that point is the devastation of poverty and the overwhelming odds required of those trying merely to accomplish what most readers of this book undoubtedly take for granted: a fair society that appropriately rewards hard work. The myth that by leaving their rural Indian communities, moving to a big city and being willing to work extremely hard that they can better the lives of themselves and their families.
None of the characters in the book are villainous. Some, such as Asha, are selfish, but the author is careful not to reduce any of the characters to a caricature. Yes, Asha is selfish, but there are reasons for that, and she does accomplish things for her community, even if her motivations are less than saintly. Other characters, such as Asha's daughter Manju, are intent on helping others. But the overwhelming requirements for simply getting through the day leave little room for distracting activities. When Manju's best friend swallows rat poison she is determined to save her friend, but worried about the time she can afford to devote to this. No one can afford the luxury of altruism.
Because of the careful attention to details of the characters daily lives, the ambiguities inherent in negotiating their world are made understandable, believable. If you are unable to feed your family with recycling legal garbage, is it really wrong to recycle stolen articles, particularly when those items are pieces of aluminum, miscellaneous screws, ketchup packets? The answer is that we in first world environments and middle class lives are unable to answer those questions honestly, because we simply can not accurately judge the decisions the people in this book must make. Is it wrong to beat your daughter who will not comply with the requirements of modesty that will allow an appropriate marriage? Is it wrong to sniff industrial solvents to relieve the boredom and agony of a life spent hungry searching through trash for salable items?
The language is colorful, and rarely are relationships, even familial relationships, described in loving terms. There is a good portion of salty language in this book. "Tomorrow if he does not sit with you and study, I will break his legs and pour kerosene on his face." That is fairly typical. But because of the endless (and endlessly oppressive, depressing) details with which these stories are told, that language, and the continual violence underlying so much of the book, is realistic, even understandable.
So why did I find this book so annoying? Because the author fails miserably in putting her well told tale into any larger context that has even a semblance of factual rigor. It is extremely odd that while the author adds a long note to assure the reader that she has spent a vast amount of time and resources to accurately tell the story of this slum and its inhabitants, her only explanations of their plight are stereotyped one liners utterly lacking in factual substantiation. Early in the book we are told that there are only three avenues for advancement: entrepreneurship, education, and politics with corruption. Again and again politics are equated with corruption, without a single fact to support this gross simplification. Political corruption is endemic in many countries, including India (and Mexico, where I live) but to simply equate the two without any analysis of this simplified summary is annoying, to put it mildly.
Manju, a college student, runs a school in the slum that is supposedly run by her mother, who has a 7th grade education. We are given a detailed description of this school, and Manju's teaching. But do we have any sort of overview of education in India? We are simply told that schools of this type are run by nonprofits financed by government money. "It was of little concern to them whether the schools were actually running." Really? And what is the factual basis for that sweeping generalization?
It is not that I particularly disagreed with the sweeping generalizations made by the author, what annoyed me was the utter lack of a factual basis for these broad generalizations. The New Yorker fact checkers would not have been amused.