Nov 152012
 

There’s little Indians hate more than foreigners writing (or making a film or insert your chosen art form here) about the country. This sentiment is particularly evident in a city like Bombay. “Why do they want to see only the negative side of the country?” is one question. “Who do they think they are?” is another. “Why don’t they focus on their own problems?” All, of course, are valid questions, and I’ve asked these very questions, particularly when I lived in India, about various documentaries and films that portrayed Bombay and, indeed, India.
But now that I’ve written a novel set in Mumbai from the comfort of my living room in the U.S., I have a different take. Possibly because I did get a few , “Sitting in America and writing about us…” sort of comments — mostly said half in jest. Anyhoo, that’s the reason for my reversal.
Hypocrisy? Perhaps. But I’d like to think of it more as a disinterested view.
A previous blog post chronicles a list of my favorite books on Bombay.
It’s only on revisiting that post today did I realize that four of the five books on the list were written by authors who don’t live in the city. Among them is Katherine Boo, the author of Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, which won the National Book Award last night for Nonfiction.
Here’s what I wrote about the book at the time:

Reporter Katherine Boo’s telling of life in a Mumbai slum can be daunting reading, but it provides stark and necessary relief to much of the narratives emerging from India in the Western media about India’s growing prosperity.

Here’s what I liked about Boo’s book: She neither patronized nor infantilized the subjects of her book. Now, that’s a rare trait in most of us with relatively privileged upbringings who deal with the poor or poverty. Boo’s focus comes from her career, which has been spent reporting on poverty in cities like Mumbai, but also in American communities.

Her reporting on the mentally retarded in Washington, D.C., won her a Public Service Pulitzer in 2000. Here’s what the awards committee said about her work at the time:

“Awarded to The Washington Post, notably for the work of Katherine Boo, that disclosed wretched neglect and abuse in the city’s group homes for the mentally retarded, which forced officials to acknowledge the conditions and begin reforms.”

Her article “The Marriage Cure”, which reported on Oklahoma’s efforts to promote marriage as a way out of poverty, won a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing in 2004.

What is especially remarkable about Boo’s reporting is that she’s avoided the allure of reporting on the world’s “big events,” preferring instead to focus her attention on social issues. Here’s how the Guardian described her in a recent profile:

“American reporter Katherine Boo decided early on that hers would be a different route. Once and only once did she agree to write about life at the top: in 1993, as a reporter at the Washington Post, she was commissioned to write a lengthy magazine profile of the new vice-president, Al Gore.
Afterwards she felt it had been pointless. “I get tired of obsessing about characters,” she says when we meet in London. “I feel like there’s a lot of people who want to do that kind of work, and they’re really good at it. I think social issues are kind of worthy things that people graduate from, to a large extent. In journalism, if you get to be really hot stuff, that’s where you get to go – to the White House! – and that’s too bad.”
So Boo, then in her late 20s, returned to her vocation: writing about the lives of the poorest people in America.”

I highly recommend Beyond the Beautiful Forevers if you haven’t read it yet. It’s a remarkable work of reporting that delves deeply into the lives of people whom the rest of us do our best to ignore.

Sep 042012
 

Can a city like Mumbai be the setting for noir? Here’s my take:

In the 1980s, I lived on a street in Bombay that housed the Soviet cultural center. Western movies took years to make it to theaters — that is if they came at all. We listened to music that had been popular in the ‘60s. And there were two cars on Indian roads: the Premier Padmini and the Ambassador, an elephant-like giant modeled on the Morris Oxford. Nothing ever seemed to happen. But that placidity belied some tumultuous changes shaking the city. The biggest one was the shuttering of the textile mills, Bombay’s lifeblood for much of the past century. Along with those mills went thousands of livelihoods, people who’d been trained to do nothing else suddenly out of a job. And the unions that were supposed to protect them were being slowly coopted and destroyed.
Fast forward 20 years. The Soviet cultural center is now a car showroom. Hollywood movies are often released in Bombay before they are in the West, and music choices are as diverse as any other place. And there are cars; plenty of them, along with showrooms to sell Audis and Porsches and anything else you may want. But this dramatic change belies a constancy among those left behind: the old man pulling a wooden wheelbarrow laden with goods that weigh three times as much as he does; the half-naked beggar seeking pennies from the passenger who has shut the have-nots away; the migrant worker who comes to the city full of hope only to be told he doesn’t belong here. These stories aren’t unique to Bombay. A similar scenario has played out in countless other places. What they have in common is a city that’s at once welcoming and cruel, and residents at once despondent and full of hope.
That’s where noir comes in.
To me the genre has always been about characters: flawed, cynical characters, characters down on their luck, with a bleak worldview. The best place to find such people is a city.
Cities represent the best society has to offer: arts, culture, diversity, opportunity; a vital life force if you will that makes a nation hum. But they also represent the worst of humanity: crime, greed, apathy, poverty; those aspects that we’d prefer to conceal.
Both these attributes are apparent in a city like Bombay, and they are all the more apparent because of the dramatic increase in wealth — and the consequent increase in income disparity — India has seen over the past two decades. This is fertile ground for noir. Any story that focuses on such a city and its characters is bound to have elements of the genre. Indeed, Indian filmmakers have been among the first to successfully exploit this with a series of recent gripping crime dramas. Now, for a city the size of Mumbai, crime is surprisingly low. But what noir teaches us is that when you scratch below that veneer of cosmopolitanism, the world is much more interesting. That’s true whether you’re living in Mumbai, New York or Rio.

Jun 192012
 

I wrote last week about crime statistics and crime fiction and how the relative absence of one from a particular society needn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t produce the other.
I revisited that thought last night as I read a blog post by the brilliant David Simon.

If you’ve known me for any length of time you’ve probably heard me rave about Simon’s The Wire. It’s my favorite TV show, not just because of its brilliant plot, performances and writing, but because it tells the story of a society in decline. Now, we often tend to gloss over the less appealing aspects of our cities, but The Wire not only stares those defects in the face, it forces us, the audience, to confront all that is wrong.
Continue reading »

Apr 202012
 

My book, Murder in Mumbai, is being published July 17 by the Penguin Group’s new digital imprint, Dutton Guilt Edged Mysteries. You can pre-order it here 

Gateway of India
Mumbai, Chaotic, confusing and pulsating with life has fascinated writers. There is something about the city that, even those of us who love it, can never comprehend. In most books, the City of Mumbai – with its crowded alleys, its overflowing drains, its overworked public transport system its maddening traffic, its’ people who never stop to star – is as much a character as any of the protagonists. A city which despite all its warts still has heart of gold – but that heart is hidden away under layers and layers and layers.

While writing “Murder in Mumbai”, i tried to get some of the quirks of my city – especially the way it moves seamlessly from Bombay to Mumbai

Here are, in no particular order, some excellent books on the city:

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found — Author Suketu Mehta returns to the city of his birth in this brilliant work of narrative nonfiction. Mehta examines life in Bombay, its people, its businesses, its crime and its prolific film industry. But the chapter that left the biggest impression on me was the final one, about a Jain diamond merchant who renounces his material life and family in search of enlightenment.

Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie’s most-famous novel is one of my favorites. Much of it is set in the city he loved, one that perhaps sadly no longer exists, except in the realm of memory.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers — Reporter Katherine Boo’s telling of life in a Mumbai slum can be daunting reading, but it provides stark and necessary relief to much of the narratives emerging from India in the Western media about India’s growing prosperity.

Mumbai Fables — A recent discovery, this book by Princeton professor Gyan Prakash is a historic telling of how a group of islands that were gifted by the Portuguese to the British as dowry eventually became India’s commercial powerhouse. It tells of Bombay under the British, the rise of the communists, of the Shiv Sena and the city today. It’s surprisingly one of the few historic accounts of Bombay’s growth.

Bombay, Meri Jaan — The title to this collection of essays — which translates to Bombay, My Love — says it all. With essays by Kipling (he was born in the city), V.S. Naipaul and, perhaps my favorite one in the collection, Duke Ellington.