May Reading

Behind the beautiful forevers by Katherine Boo

I cannot say this is an enjoyable read but is certainly absorbing and disturbing. Some people may have seen the recent Kevin McCloud TV program in which he spent time attempting to live in the Mumbai Dharavi slum. Whatever your response to McCloud as a presenter, I think few viewers could not have been moved by the window his program opened into the intensity of life in such extreme circumstances. I therefore welcomed the opportunity this book presented. Katherine Boo has substantial Pulitzer Prize winning credit as an objective researcher and writer unafraid to closely examine the lives of the poor, challenged and disadvantaged. Perhaps as a consequence of her marriage to Sunil Khilnani, a professor of politics and director of the India Institute at King’s College London, she has turned her eye and her team of researchers, onto the Annawadi slum located adjacent to the Mumbai International Airport (you can see it on Google Earth).

The result is closely insightful into the lives of its inhabitants of all ages, racial groups, creeds, and politics. It records their daily lives and struggles and their attempts to deal with an environment that is constantly full of confronting change whether through chance or external influences. I cannot say it left me with a warm feeling for humanity but it did leave me with admiration for the way these people continue to hope and struggle. This not a book of mawkish sentimentality or emotional appeals. It is an objective rendering of a reality

There is a group of individuals around which much of material is woven and it is difficult to not develop some emotional responses toward them. I can only offer a few extracts to give a flavour of what is offered. Please do read them.

An example that gives insight into the nature of work, need and interpersonal dealings …

‘Among Saki Naka’s acres of sheds were metal-melting and plastic shredding machines owned by men in starched kurtas – white kurtas, to announce the owner’s distance from the filth of their trade. Some of the workers at the plants were black-faced from carbon dust and surely black-lunged from breathing in iron shavings. A few weeks ago, Abdul had seen a boy’s hand cut clean off when he was putting plastic into one of the shredders. The boy’s eyes had filled with tears but he hadn’t screamed. Instead he’s stood there with his blood-spurting stump, his ability to earn a living ended, and started apologizing to the owner of the plant. “Sa’ab, I’m sorry,” he’d said to the man in white. “I won’t cause you any problems by reporting this. You will have no trouble from me.’ Pg 15

One of the individuals we learn about is 12-year-old Sunil. Here he finds ‘gold’ – his own scavenging spot.

‘Some of the taximen tossed their cups and bottles over a low stone wall behind the food stand. On the other side of the wall, seventy feet down was the Mithi River – actually a concrete sluice where the river had been redirected as the airport enlarged. The drivers probably liked to imagine their garbage hitting the water and floating away, but Sunil had climbed the wall and discovered a narrow ledge on the other side, five feet down. By some trick of the wind in the sluice, trash tossed over the wall tended to blow back and settle on this sliver of concrete. It was a space on which a small boy could balance.

Of course, if he stumbled, jumping down, he’d be in the river. Sunil knew how to swim, having learned at Naupada, a slum next to the Intercontinental Hotel that went underwater each monsoon. He’d never heard of anyone drowning in Naupada, though. Naupada was the local definition of fun. The Mithi River with its unnatural currents, was the place with the body count. After a few jumps, he trusted his feet.

The ledge stretched four hundred feet from the taxi stand to a traffic ramp, and people driving up the ramp sometimes slowed and pointed at him as he crouched there, high above the water. He liked the idea that the ledge work looked dramatic from a distance. In truth, it was less scary than working Cargo Road or scavenging during the riots, with the “Beat the Bhaiyas!” men running around. And he was willing to take risks in order not to be a runt … His sack grew bulky and awkward as he moved down the ledge, and he learned to concentrate only on the trash immediately in front of him, looking neither down nor ahead.’ Pg 39

One morning, Sunil sees the beginning of the end for an older scavenger, whose death even yields someone a profit.

‘One dawn in late July, Sunil found a fellow scavenger lying on the mud where Annawadi’s rut-road met the airport thoroughfare. Sunil knew the old man a little: he worked hard and slept outside the Marol fish market, half a mile away. Now the man’s leg was mashed and bloody, and he was calling out to passersby for help. Sunil figured he’d been hit by a car. Some drivers weren’t overly concerned about avoiding the trash-pickers who scoured the roadsides.

Sunil was too scared to go to the Police Station and ask for an ambulance, especially after what was rumoured to have happened to Abdul. Instead he ran toward the battleground of the Cargo Road dumpster, hoping an adult would brave the police station. Thousands of people passed this way every morning.

Two hours later, when Rahul left Annawadi for school, the injured man was crying for water. “This one is even drunker than your father,” one of Rahul’s friends teased him. “Drunker that your father Rahul retorted unimaginatively as they turned onto Airport Road. Rahul wasn’t afraid of the Police; he’d run to them for help when his neighbour dumped boiling lentils on Danush, his sickly baby. The man of the road was just a scavenger, though, and Rahul had to catch a bus to class.

When Zehrunisa passed an hour later, the scavenger was screaming in pain. She thought his leg looked like hell, but she was bringing food and medicine to her husband, who also looked like hell in the Arthur Rd jail.

Mr Kamble passed a little later, milky-eyed and aching, on his tour of businesses and charities, still seeking contributions for his heart valve. He had one been a pavement dweller like the injured man. Now Mr Kamble saw nothing but his own bottomless grief, because he knew miracles were possible in the new India and he couldn’t have one.

When Rahul and his brother returned from school in the early afternoon, the injured scavenger lay still, moaning faintly, at 2:30 pm a Shiv Sena man made a call to a friend at the Sahar Police Station about a corpse that was disturbing small children, At 4:00 pm constables enlisted other scavengers to load the body into a police van, so that the constables wouldn’t catch the diseases that trash-pickers were known to carry.

‘Unidentified body’, the Sahar Police decided without looking for the scavenger’s family. ‘Died of tuberculosis’, the Cooper Hospital morgue pathologist concluded without an autopsy. Thokale, the police officer handing the case, wanted to move fast, for he had a business with B M Patil Medical College in Bijapur. Its anatomy department required twenty-five unclaimed cadavers for dissection, and this one rounded out the order.’  Pg 153

A Perfectly Good man By Patrick Gale

I really enjoy most of Patrick Gale’s output and it is good to seem him back on his favourite Cornish locale with familiar environmental and social influences incorporated. As usual, he is interested in the shades of interpersonal relationships and the hidden secrets that drive things along.  A clue to the nuances in this book about the life of an Anglican priest lies in the carefully chosen ambiguous title ‘A Perfectly Good Man’.

There is plenty of activity (including some that try to capture the sense of the past as in the case of anti-war demonstrations) as well as the beautifully sketched settings. The book certainly grabs the reader’s attention by opening with the suicide of a 20 year old paraplegic, a full understanding of which we never fully comprehend until the closing pages. This is typical of his extended ‘gradual reveal’ technique. In order to do so, Gale uses the tactic of presenting chapters as specific times (ages) in different characters’ lives. Initially, this is a little off-putting as they are largely out of time sequence. However, there are not too many characters to lead to the reader confusion and he succeeds in using this approach insightfully to see characters and situations from different perspectives.

I came to like his central character, Barnaby, very much having (briefly) attempted Thomas à Kempis’ ’Imitations of Christ’ myself when young and callow and having had good friends in the clergy over the years. Barnaby is no saint, though he clearly strives to be a truly good man. Perhaps this name choice reflects a duality between possible rural Scandinavian origins and that derived from St Paul. I have certainly known men like him.

If there is a weakness, it lies in the almost cartoon-like weakly sketched Modest Carlsson, the bizarre baddy, whose evil is almost comically inept and whose shades of characterisation are largely left unexplored. The plot device that has him wreak his final vengeance is also unfortunately rather inept.

Barnaby is told as a child ‘Please don’t feel you always have to be good. Sometimes you’re so good it hurts to watch you.’ By the closing pages, this is no longer the case but we are certainly left with warm feelings for a ‘perfectly good man’.

Rare Bird of Truth by Neal Drinnan

I have read and retain Drinnan’s ‘Pussy’s Bow’, ‘Glove Puppet’ and ‘Quill’. I have not read ‘Izzy and Eve’ so I will soon have to complete the set after this enjoyable page-turner offering.

I find that book seems to operate on two levels. On one, there is a wonderfully colourful yet searching examination of London and Ibiza, business-life and leisure-life viewed through a drug-addled lens with which Drinnan makes bones about being well acquainted. Many of the wonderfully named people who inhabit this world have instantly recognisable real-life equivalents. It is this view that probably generated the ‘Time Out’ quote ‘Neal Drinnan is to literature what the Pet Shop Boys are to music.’

The second level is closer to Drinnan’s own life. The book was published in 2010 after he sero-converted in 2006 and had, under treatment, problems with the re-emergence of life-long depression. He has written about this and his dealings with the drugs he was prescribed to deal with HIV and his ‘black dog’.

Happy Birthday HIV

The last third of the book includes Virgil’s dealings with his dubious doctor and informs us about his changing perspectives with prescription and ‘recreational’ drug use. There has to be some of the author speaking here to make the change in plot pacing more acceptable as well as the somewhat glib denouement.

It is hilariously intriguing that the still centre of the manic world he portrays is an almost otherworldly retreat (a total opposite of Ibiza in most respects where real calm and time for self-examination can be found) is essentially a sex-on-premises venue. Drinnan works this mine of possibilities quite well with lots of initially unguessed-at plot developments attached. It is one of several parallel universes through which Virgil moves.

This is a veritable cyclone of a novel (certainly the first 2/3). It all starts off relatively simply, if oddly, with a handful of jaded characters in a jaded setting (Ibiza) and then proceeds to gather speed, whirling more and more unusual and colourful individuals into ever more densely mixed relationships. One starts to wonder when it is all going to disintegrate and it does – spectacularly! This is mostly handled well except that the above references to prescription drug use seem to slow things down somewhat.

It is all somewhat a case of ‘Line of Beauty’ taken to a drugged excess with a lot more fun at the excess of those gloriously named characters (an Australian with the moniker Virgil Mann? – how could he have survived the Australian education system?)

‘Rare Bird of Truth’? –   I think there is quite a lot of that to be found here.

~  John C.


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May 21, 2012 · 1:57 pm

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