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My first contribution to Confluence was a review of Katherine Boo’s remarkable book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers in the October 2012 issue. Her painstaking study of the Annawadi slum in Bombay is a devastating exposition of the part played by local police, local government officials and Shiv Sena in enriching themselves at the expense of hapless slum dwellers who lead precarious lives in a stinking wasteland next door to a 5-star hotel whose occupants are quite unaware of its existence. Most of the slum children eke out their existence picking and sorting waste.
A few weeks ago, in mid-December, I went to see the dramatized version of the book at the National Theatre in London’s South Bank. The well-known director, David Hare did not disappoint us or deviate from the shocking truths unearthed by Boo. The stage sets and design transported us convincingly to Annawadi, which borders Sahar Airport and the large cast played their parts to perfection, with Meera Syal playing an important role with her usual brio.
Hare had decided to fillet the book, taking a few of the most significant incidents which portray best the daily horrors of slum life whilst at the same time foregrounding the main characters whose lives had been closely studied by Boo for four years and who display an amazing ability to improvise survival skills. Their lives depict the elementary truth that only the fittest survive. In extreme conditions, the strong drag down the weak. Any gains are not for sharing. In an unforgiving world, dog eats cat. Boo’s book is about an Indian slum but can one transfer her insights into the survival mechanisms of people under great pressure to the body politic of India itself? I believe one can.
Her study exposes the huge fissures in Indian society, the apparently unbridgeable gap between rich and poor and the deeply depressing stigma of corruption in all ranks of government. In the last two years, India has been exposed to the critical gaze of a horrified world as news of innumerable rapes of women hit the headlines. In India, rape is the ultimate dishonour for a woman especially in the countryside. Death might be preferable. With news of so many rapes, is it surprising that tourists decide to give India a wide berth? It seems the odds are stacked against women in India. We often hear of the most appalling violence including rape visited on ‘low-caste’ women in rural parts of N India. Isn’t their poverty and segregation enough punishment? Yet religion plays a big part in people’s lives. There are powerful female goddesses whose blessings are invoked and who have to be placated with offerings of various kinds made by worshippers at temples. Why then are so many women ill-used?
The dowry system has not gone away although it is supposedly unlawful. Its practice continues to lead to horrific maltreatment of young brides by greedy in-laws. Not so long ago, brides in Northern India seemed to have the tendency to die ‘accidentally’ whilst cooking on kerosene stoves. Their parents had failed to grease the palms of the new family and it would be easy to find a replacement for her. Pity the young woman who insists on giving birth to female infants. Obviously the husband and in-laws are not familiar with the science of reproduction. It is sperm which determines gender. If only Henry VIII had known this! Sadly, women continue to be blamed for producing the ‘wrong’ gender of child in many quarters. And female infanticide continues to this day despite the risk of prosecution. A vicious circle is created by the dowry system making daughters a liability. Female infanticide skews population statistics and men in Northern India often have to find brides from states outside their own.
There is a deep canker at the heart of Indian society. It seems there is a conspicuous lack of compassion or moral compass in certain sections of society. But the number of gurus continues to proliferate across the length and breadth of India. We hear of the amassed wealth of some of them post their deaths. Enough gold, gems and cash to feed the nation are found hidden away in strong rooms. How had the guru established such a hold over his flock? Through some sleight of hand perhaps? Did the guru preach the virtues of love and compassion, of respect for all humanity or indeed for all living creatures? The concept of compassion is the corner stone of Buddhism which became the state religion during the reign of Asoka in 300BC but was undermined probably by the machinations of Brahmin priests who did not relish their loss of power and who restored Hinduism to its original status thus ensuring their own lofty position as of the highest caste…
Quite recently, the UN released some shocking figures which conveyed the news that the highest rate of slavery in the whole world is located in India! How could this be true? Perhaps in Arabia or Africa but surely not in India! But yes it is true because the UN bases its figures on the number of children forced to work in mills and factories for pitiful wages in conditions injurious to health and safety. In Southern India a system of bonded labour is practised which is a form of slavery. Young girls work long hours for very low wages producing yarn from cotton in mills. They have been signed up by their parents for a period of three years. This is the first stage of the transformation of cotton into garments that are exported abroad for sale with huge profit for the mill owners. In the North, children work in carpet factories. All these children are missing school and there is little or no prospect of a better future for them. Their parents need the money. That this is happening in India today is shameful. In contrast, the super-rich flaunt their wealth in the construction of palatial homes. That flaunting is even exported abroad where Indian billionaires wish to enlarge their properties in urban areas by adding three levels of basements to showcase cars or to house a cinema. Such display must massage inflated egos.
Arundhati Roy has written an impassioned essay entitled India’s Shame for the December issue of Prospect magazine, in which she describes the continuing hold of the caste system in present-day India. She does not mince her words in revealing the wretchedness of the lives of ‘untouchables’ which is sanctioned by Hinduism. There are devout Hindus who would say that suffering is the price to pay for sins in a past life. Therefore we can deduce ‘untouchables’ must have been very sinful in a previous life. Does that mean that no help or succour should be offered to them in this life? For how long are we going to continue with the arbitrary division and sub-division of society, each with prescribed boundaries of lifestyle supported by the concepts of ‘pure and impure’. My grandmothers’ lives were governed by the idea of ‘pollution’ and how best to avoid it. In this day and age of free movement and mixing with others, this idea has no value.
Very recently, we witnessed on television, scenes of rejoicing in India over the successful launch of Mangalyaan, the Mars orbiter mission. India is the first nation to reach Mars at the first attempt and the first Asian nation to do so. Clearly this is wonderful news and Indians can be justly proud. But this emphasizes hugely the yawning gulf between this success and the primitive living conditions for millions of Indians. There is no lack of intelligence and enterprise in India; the middle classes seem comfortable enough but the very visible face of poverty continues despite the many trumpeted development projects. The UN has fund pockets of poverty in India worse than in sub-Saharan Africa! Can we not drop the idea of ‘high’ and ‘low’ caste and accept people as they are? What will be the Hindu view of life forms in other planets now that we have got as far as Mars? Will aliens be ‘untouchables’? Perhaps the only way to show that caste division has no place in modern society would be to undermine it through comedy. Laughter rather than anger and tears might work.
Malathy Sitaram was the first Asian
teacher of English in Wiltshire schools.
She was the first Asian to be appointed
to the Swindon Bench of Justices of