Thursday, 23 February 2012

Behind Mumbai’s ‘Beautiful Forevers’

When a big bank goes bust in Manhattan, forcing a thriving construction site in Mumbai to shut down and the price of recyclable scrap to plummet, entire families in the slums of India go hungry. This is the butterfly effect of the harrowingly interrelated global economy described in Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo's first book, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity."
This narrative nonfiction work catalogues a period of three years, beginning before the global market crash of 2008, of the Husain family, supported by a teenage trash-buyer named Abdul, and others who scrape together a living in a slum called Annawadi on a half-acre of polluted land beside the gleaming Mumbai international airport.
Mumbai is a city "that has this incredible contradiction," says Boo says over the phone recently from her hotel room in New York City. "It's expanding, it's prosperous, yet 60% of its residents live in poverty. It's one of the richest cities in India, but life expectancy is less than in other places."
She chose to base herself in Annawadi, which she describes as a "sumpy plug of slum," because of the contrast provided by its location and because it was a manageable size and she was allowed, however wearily at first, to shadow its residents.
The result of these exhaustive efforts has garnered rave reviews and elicited comparisons to the work of Charles Dickens and his skillful portraits of urban poverty. In order to gain the detailed insight with which she writes about her subjects, Boo says she had to "earn" her facts. This enabled her to write about a frame of mind or way of thinking not because somebody told her about it, but because she witnessed it repeatedly. She'll discuss that process and the nature of life in Mumbai's slums at a Zocalo event Wednesday night at the Skirball Cultural Center.
Annawadi, which is home to 3,000 exhausted souls, is hidden from view of the airport by a fence papered with ads for fancy Italianate tile that repeat the words "beautiful" and "forever" over and over again. This is where the book gets its title.
The economy in Annawadi is fueled by those salvaging, stealing and recycling trash and scraps. The book depicts a modern India in the throes of embracing the Western-spun dream of unchecked capitalism and the upward mobility that supposedly comes with it — one that is helping to break down what many deem an anachronistic caste system.
The great irony exposed within the book's finely wrought pages, however, is the lie of equality in the new age of global markets, particularly when it comes to the extremely poor.
A staff writer at the New Yorker, Boo had written extensively about poverty and the disadvantaged in America. She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2000 for a series of stories for the Washington Post about group homes for the mentally impaired.
Boo wanted to better understand how the infrastructure of opportunity was working in the world's most impoverished places and decided that the best way to do that was "to stay in one place to see who got rich and who didn't." She became interested in using India as a prism through which to view the mutability (or not) of poverty after meeting and marrying an Indian man nearly a decade ago.
To write "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," Boo lived in Mumbai for three years, visiting Annawadi with an interpreter on an almost daily basis, trailing its residents, interviewing them extensively, taking notes, scouring public records and lending her Flip video camera to the slum's children.
The end product is a richly detailed tapestry of tragedy and triumph told by a seemingly omniscient narrator with an attention to detail that reads like fiction while in possession of the urgent humanity of nonfiction. In Boo's Annawadi, a cripple named One Leg who likely drowned her 2-year-old daughter in a bucket because the child was sick sets herself on fire and blames the act on Abdul out of jealousy of his family's relatively elevated position in the slum.
That terrible event and its aftermath serve as the book's main plot as Abdul and his family are forced to deal with India's corrupt criminal justice system.
Throughout, Annawadi is revealed as a place where police beat and deprive the homeless, and where hopeless souls fish for food in a blue-black sewage lake. During monsoon season, bare feet butterfly black fungus; maggots breed in wounds wrought by trash picking; and a little boy who cuts his hand completely off in a plastic shredder apologizes to the plant's owner and promises not to report the incident.
This landscape of misery is made even more striking by the fact that the disadvantaged of Annawadi prey upon the even more disadvantaged, causing what meager upward mobility there is to be gained at the expense of the book's most tragic figures.
"Is globalization good or bad?" asks Boo. "What I'm trying to show over time is that people are very vulnerable. I had never given any thought to the economics of recyclable trash."
To maintain the material's urgency, she "tried to write down some of the experiences that I had almost immediately after the experience so I wasn't coming to them cold years later and building a scene with Lego," says Boo, who while reporting the book lived in a simple but nice apartment that "had running water all the time" as well as a bed, a desk and two chairs.
"People say, 'Could you have lived in Annawadi?'" she says. "I could not. I would have spent so much time doing just the work it takes to live that I couldn't possibly have worked."
- Jessica Gelt/Los Angeles Times

Sanjeev Bhaskar to return as The Indian Doctor on BBC One

Sanjeev Bhaskar’s bemused Dr Prem Sharma is back, as the second series of the award-winning BBC One drama ‘The Indian Doctor’ returns this month.
Coronation Street star Ayesha Dharker will continue as Dr Sharma’s wife Kamini whilst new cast members include Indira Joshi who plays Pushpa, Kamini’s mother.
Set in rural south Wales in the early Sixties, the show tells the remarkable story of the first wave of doctors from the sub-continent – more than 18,000 by some estimates – who were brought in by the government to address a critical staff shortage on the National Health Service.
Ironically enough the program was the brainchild of Enoch Powell who recruited medical professionals from throughout the Commonwealth.  The often highly qualified doctors found themselves not with prestigious posts in London but pushed by the medical establishment into socially deprived areas or remote communities.

The first series of The Indian Doctor explored what became a revelatory experience not only for the new immigrants but for the communities to which they were posted.  Some members of the fictional village of Trefelin find the doctor to be a curious oddity whilst others display outright antipathy.
The stoical Dr Sharma however tries to make the most of his circumstances whilst appeasing his glamorous and rather dissatisfied wife who feels terribly short changed and longs for even a “passing acquaintance with civilization”.
In the new five part series, smallpox hits the community and Dr Sharma and Kamini find themselves at the centre of the emergency.  Prem and Kamini have to work together to discover the source of the outbreak and vaccinate the villagers against infection.
As he tries to deal with the medical challenge at hand, Prem must also contend with the arrival of Kamini’s mother Pushpa, an overbearing mother-in-law who is bewildered by the couple’s new life in rural Wales.
-    Vijitha Alles
The new series of The Indian Doctor stars 2.15 pm 27th February 2012 on BBC One and BBC One HD.

Rishi Kapoor lights up scratchy Indian Week launch at LSE

The perennially charming Rishi Kapoor lit up proceedings as India Week, the London School of Economics’ week-long celebration of all things sub-continental, got off to a rather disappointing start Monday night.  
Despite the setting being one of the world’s leading centres of learning, the event, which promises to celebrate the dynamism and upward mobility of modern India, was distinctly low brow and lacked polish.
Four decades of appearing in Bollywood cinema however has given the legendary Kapoor a singular polish.  He was humble, effervescent and displayed impeccable manners and injected plenty of Bollywood glamour to the proceedings.
Joining him on stage was Professor Rachel Dwyer, of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and a woman whose remarkably intimate knowledge of all things Bollywood led Kapoor to exclaim “She knows more about my family than I do!”
Whilst the opening night of India Week was meant to be a panel discussion about Bollywood cinema in general, the conversation between Kapoor and a clearly star-struck Professor Dwyer diverted into a trawl through what is certainly a quite prolific and celebrated career in cinema spanning 42 years.
Beginning with Rishi Kapoor’s first appearance on the big screen, as a toddler in one of his father Raj Kapoor’s films, to his most recent and arguably most critically acclaimed incarnation – as the fearsome, Qawwali-singing pimp Rauf Lala in ‘Agneepath’ – the discussion meandered at a pleasant pace through Kapoor’s career, taking in his love life and work with iconic directors such as Manmohan Desai.
Aside from Professor Dwyer’s brief and enlightening defence of Bollywood’s melodramatic tendencies, the evening failed to shed any light on the impact of Indian cinema and its’ increasingly global relevance.
India Week, organized by the Indian Society of the London School of Economics, aims to highlight all aspects of India’s rise as an economic and cultural superpower and will host a number of high profile speakers aside from Rishi Kapoor, including Shiv Nadar of Hindustan Computers Limited and Anvar Hasan of industrial behemoth TATA.
Significantly, India Week is open to the public for the first time since its inception.  The Indian Society and its academic advisors have given themselves a terrific remit with the aim being to address the successes as well as concerns in a wide variety of fields; from Bollywood and philanthropy to politics and the economy.
Providing the proper context is imperative for its success and Monday night’s inauguration lacked just that.
Thankfully, things can only get better.
-    Vijitha Alles
For event tickets, visit