Friday, November 29, 2013

Reflections: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

This is a documentation of the poverty ridden lives of real Bombay slum dwellers who were residing near the Bombay Airport that was undergoing a beautiful and glamorous renovation a couple of years ago.  

Another book on Bombay slum dwellers, because there are so very few books and movies on them, right? That must have been my first warning. But, I truly expected something different. The title and the image on the cover gave me an irrational instinct that the book would be different, that it would somehow portray some aspects that have never been touched before - perhaps something uplifting about the human spirit, it’s tenacity and optimism even in the face of hopelessness. In hindsight, it was foolish of me to expect such things. And rightfully, all my expectations were brutally murdered and put to rest.

Remember the debate that photojournalists face on whether or not to interfere with nature and circumstances while reporting a story or an event? Which side are you on? In support of not interfering or interfering? Or perhaps like many, you sit on the fence and argue that it depends on the circumstances. For the most part, I understand that it’s not wise to interfere with nature’s course and to observe and record events for the benefit of awareness, education, and science. But when I see videos of upturned baby turtles struggling to right themselves up to swim away before a predator snares them, something in me just does not agree. I think it’s cruel to exploit the tragic plight of the turtle, and it’s even more inhumane of the photographer to not help it. It’s okay, every creature deserves to get a few random lucky chances… that’s also part of how Nature works… your small act of kindness is not going to disrupt the ecosystem. Isn’t it part of your innate humanity to want to rescue something that’s in pain and struggling in front of you? That too when all it takes is just a flick of your finger? You can report the truth, but why not stop the camera at some point to help instead of choosing to film the slow agonizing death of the animal? However, when a documentary captures how a predator hunts a prey, it’s disturbing, but as my husband reminds me, the lion also needs to survive, and it’s tricky to take sides, because no matter what, one of the two animals suffers in the end… so I sort of understand that interfering isn’t wise in such situations.  So, I do understand both sides of this debate and I often switch sides based on the footage and the circumstances.

That said, reading this book made me feel like watching a dozen writhing baby turtles struggling to right themselves up, but never do. And I got to read a few hundred pages of their slow torturous misery. Needless to say, this is the most depressing, excruciatingly painful book I have ever read, and will possibly ever read. I made the dumb mistake of reading this book on a vacation, and it ruined my mood. I was sleepless, guilt-ridden for everything I was blessed with, shocked, and terribly upset for days. It’s taken me quite a bit of will to revisit this book to write about it.

The author researches on the strategies that people in low-income communities employ in order to survive and rise above poverty. So this is her unbiased, honest, methodical research document. She states how rigorously research protocols were followed, how each “subject” was thoroughly interviewed more than 120 times in relation to some events, and how she left no stone unturned in her quest to report the truth of the stories. Commendable from a purely research standpoint, but there’s something unethical and inhumane when a researcher decides to objectively write about the rat bites that babies routinely endure than intervene in some little way. I understand that it’s beyond the capability of the researcher to help everyone in the slum or go out of her way to change their lives - that’s not her line of work, but some of the incidents in this book are clearly too much for anyone to just observe and record. These people are not subjects behind some one-way mirror… their lives are not open to research scrutiny and analysis. To me, it is an exploitation of tragic lives. What do the participants get in return for sharing their life stories? Advertisement and awareness? Forgive my ignorance, aren’t people already aware of tragic lives that slum dwellers lead? Especially those in Bombay? Do the graphic details and individual stories matter? I can understand if certain specific themes or social topics hitherto unknown are brought to light. But,  that's not the case. It doesn’t help much to regurgitate on the same themes concerning poverty and corruption in a developing country - it’s one more document stacked against thousands.  It’s one thing if reporting these stories would help the individuals in any way to get justice, charitable aid, or guidance, but I don’t think any of their lives have changed, or changed much. Maybe some of the readers have decided to help the individuals, or perhaps the politicians and policy makers in India will take notice, if at all. And if these benefits outweigh my irrational emotional outburst, I am sincerely relieved and happy.

This book is “insightful” and “fascinating” and “beautiful” mostly to readers in the West, or if you support photojournalists taping footage of helpless, dying animals. If you are from India, please do not inflict misery onto yourself by reading this book… you do not learn anything new.

Many will argue against my contention and harsh review of this award-winning book, and I can understand their points of view, but not agree with them, for this is how I feel - as emotional, irrational and silly as it might be. I may not have been able to eloquently articulate and put my finger on exactly what bothers me so much about this research document, but my instincts strongly rebel against it. 


SecondSight said...

Thank you!! I've been debating reading this ever since I actually ended up liking Shantaram, but your review settles this as one I can avoid :)

Neeraja said...

Oh this is NOTHING like Shantaram! I would be up in arms and go to war if someone compared this to Shantaram! Shantaram is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read... and this one is just a research document supposedly written with empathy.

Meens said...

I feel what you feel.

Neeraja said...

Of course, sista ;)