Recently, book club player that I am, I met in one of the 3 book clubs which I attend in fits and starts, all found online. This nameless one meets in a food court, because where else in this city of food, “can one meet without having to buy food and drinks”? A resolutely undistractable book club, members and itinerant readers do not bother with the niceties of making acquaintance, still less sowing the seeds of friendship. They are incurious about each other. Like some kind of spy network, we all get emails from the convener about the venue of the meeting and the name of the book, blind copied at that lest we be tempted to bother each other with salutations. No phone numbers are exchanged. Just the book, ma’am!
Anyways, we discussed “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Kathleen Boo. This is a book about life in a slum close to the Mumbai airport and behind a concrete wall peddling some product that promises beautiful forevers. Many questions arise such as the ethics of the outside gaze which I thought was careful. The author, not an Indian, (meaning Caribbean generalists, not from India) embedded herself in the slum and within families. She chronicles the mostly bleak and sometimes quite tragic lives of those living there. We get a sense of the auto-pilot instinct for survival, the not even acknowledged daily courage needed to fight up for the small and finite leftovers. Rancor and jealously hang malevolently over the community. Boys, starting as early as 6 years, hone the skills of scavenging, sorting and valuing waste for recycling. This is the pathway into manhood, a manhood that offers just more of the same, even while everyone dreams of breaking out, breaking away into the beautiful forever, meaning maybe, a service job in a hotel.
At the book club someone who was from Mumbai but has lived outside for quite a while reflected that growing up there she was not aware of this kind of poverty. And then the BC mulled over the awareness of poverty. My first response was skepticism. I find it hard to believe that anyone can be unaware of the grinding poverty that courses through and circles mega city life, any city for that matter. But no doubt privilege can act as a blinder or a soporific shielding us from angst. How many of us know much about the details of the lives of those in our hard-pressed urban areas and rural villages?
I thought about this later reading an editorial, by Russell Brand, a popular culture artiste of some variety, but known to me only as a social justice provocateur and engaging writer. In an article in New Statesman on inequality he confessed to being way more outraged by his cell phone charges than by the exploitation of those making his cell phone. He was being glib-cute to make a point about human nature. How the suffering of others can be abstract or abstracted; how we can be overwhelmed by the scale of the change needed and by the inconvenience to us personally that such a change would require.
This week gone I was in another country and had the opportunity to visit a community of women who have migrated to the city in search of economic opportunity. Theirs is a life of work, hard work, manual labour, responsibility, obligation. Their histories and presents are ones of limited and exacting choices. They do what they must, they make do with what they have. Some are recyclers, scouring the city to pick out the value from the discarded, others work long night hours moving heavy freighted bundles within markets as porters. There is no concept of weekend; an unaffordable luxury for those who only get paid when they work.
I have no point in writing this and I am rambling, but it is weighing on me.