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Not much hope, but maybe just enough
on 22 March 2013
I must confess I picked this book up with some trepidation. The subtitle - "Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum" - and the cover (of my copy), a young boy sprinting up steps into bright sunlight, made me think it might be another of those. You know, those. The post-Slumdog reportage. "Yes, conditions in Indian slums are appalling. But wait! Look at the way the children run and play! The sights, the smells! The way they can still laugh, in the face of such hardship. The way they just get on with the life they've got!" (What else are they supposed to do?) "So life-affirming!"
The hope of it all!
"Slumdog" is a good film. And a lot of the reportage is also good, and if it's not it's generally well-meaning. But I find it all a bit discomfiting. It's human to believe in hope, but it seems to me that, as Westerners, focussing on the small hopes that slum-dwellers have might be a convenient way of deflecting our own guilt that people have to live this way. (And the likes of Amitabh Bachchan castigating "Slumdog" for focussing on a small part of Indian life might be an Indian way of doing the same thing).
I thought this book might be more of the same. It wasn't.
Boo is no polemicist. She's a true journalist, and she tells this story with a journalistic dispassion, making it all the more affecting. (She has a novelist's eye, though; at times, the prose is breathtaking.) The stories are set in a small slum, rather than one of the giant cities-within-a-city like Dharavi; a wise choice, as she manages to paint a picture of a whole community, almost like a small village. There are a lot of characters to keep up with, and at times it's downright confusing. But even this makes sense. After all, urban India is a confusing place, teeming with people.
Despite the wonderful writing, there were times when I felt I could not go on. When I read about the disease and the filth and children being bitten by rats as they slept. The fungus "like butterfly wings" that grows on feet in the monsoon season. The exploitation and corruption, the abuse of slum-dwellers by the authorities, the abuse of slum children by their own families. The unsolved murders and streets-sweepers left to die on the pavements, the infanticide and the many suicides. And the hope - what there is of it - is almost the worst. That a family, pursued by a rotten judicial system, might not go to prison for a crime they did not commit. That one slum-dweller might, just possibly, scramble over others and into a very slightly less hardscrabble life.
I cried again and again. I became very angry. Occasionally, I laughed out loud. At times I was so scared for the characters that I felt ill with it. And when I had finished, I thought about them all for a long time, and wondered what they are doing now, the ones that survived. Because, of course, there's no story-book ending. Jamal does not win his millions. He doesn't get his Latika. The story might end, but life in the slum staggers and claws and bites and struggles on.
The people of the slum do questionable things - sometimes terrible things - to survive. But I think there is hope. They also do good things. That people forced to live like this could ever be decent, live by any kind of moral code, gives one hope of a sort.