For other thoughts on the New Raj, check out my other blog: The Scruffy Rube
In 2007, I went to Mumbai for the wedding of two colleagues. The ceremony was grand and lovely, the reception was the same, all held in one of the finest hotels in the city. After several hours of laughing, dancing and dining, I hopped in an air conditioned taxi and headed for the airport, off on another adventure.
The ambassador taxi, classically-styled and sleek on the dusky streets and in the darkened night, was often my preferred mode of transport. I could recline on a springy seat, and bounce along peering outside to the tumultuous traffic around me, or the cityscapes and country sides if my view wasn’t obstructed. On the airport road, we raced past walls plastered in advertisements for coke and cars, for skin bleach and kitchen tiles, all the while my eyes were scanning, sweeping up all the memories of the stars and the road and the signs.
But beyond my eyes and behind those signs was the Annawadi slum the subject of Katherine Boo’s award winning best seller Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a superb example of modern nonfiction-storytelling. Readers walk alongside the characters, through the crowded slum lanes and past the sewage lakes, confronting real-life dramas too easily ignored. The Hussein family struggles to move up in the world, not to a mansion, but to a more muslim friendly slum across town. Minor politico Asha hopes to move up, not to parliament, but to the position of slum lord…or slum lady perhaps. Their stories, and the quests of others like Fatima, Manju, Sunil and Kalu tap into an essential human striving, a natural desire to do a little better, gain a little more and to obtain the pride that goes with it.
Boo’s beautiful writing captures identity, style and a culture built on community: even if that community isn’t where we’d expect it. We can undersand sons and daughters seeking the blessings of their families and friends as they prepare for marriage, whether its in a slum or the finest hotel in the city. And we can understand how a garbage picker needs a guide to help and protect them as they start in on one of the few career paths open to them.
The goal of all this is not to guilt the reader but to reveal a place too often ignored. It’s not to shame us all, but to invite us to reexamine our preconceptions. I used to laugh about the “New Raj”, the wealthy foreign elite who used India as a playpen; I freely admit what I couldn’t see in the back of that Ambassador cab: I too am part of the New Raj, but now I am mindful of it.