Monthly Archives: November 2012

On Behind the Beautiful Forevers

In her book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo presents an image of the Indian slums with unusually dynamic characters.  She vividly portrays the characters’ intertwined lives, differentiating her own writing about India from the often static portrayal of impoverished Indians in “squalor: the ribby children with flies in their eyes” shown in the commercials meant to raise money for people living in third-world countries (Boo author’s note).  Rather than blindly portraying success stories or attempting to evoke pity, Boo depicts a diverse range of emotion; ambition, resignation, joys, and pain. She recreates an India in which there is both the relatable presence of universal human emotion and the foreign shock of life in the slums. The India depicted in Behind the Beautiful Forevers shows the heart-breaking effects of corruption upon the hopes of the impoverished slum residents—a slum in which the residents must make sacrifices for the government, rather than the government aiding them, and where hopes and inspiration are so often turned into resignation.

In many developed countries, there is the idea that citizens should not fear their government, but that the government should act in fear of the citizens.  Thomas Jefferson said “when the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” This idea seems natural in our society, which makes India’s slum-life seem so foreign. Boo shows the reader what life is like for those who are victimized by the government, but who do not have the means or desire to fight back. The children in the book share some of the same universal worries as most children.  “Sunil” for example, “was spooked by the deaths and the rumors, but of more immediate concern was the fact that his younger sister had grown another inch, increasing the height gap between them (154, Boo).” Yet, their sparks of hope and resistance to cynicism are changed by the harshness of the slum environment.  While the scenes of children committing suicide out of fear for undeserved beatings and everyday hardships make the book heart-breaking, the scene in which Abdul—the book’s last stronghold of hope and innocence—admits defeat to poverty and corruption, is one of the book’s most powerful moments. Abdul tells Boo that “for some time [he] tried to keep the ice inside [him] from melting…but now [he was] just becoming dirty water, like everyone else.” He “tells Allah [that he] loves Him immensely…but…that [he cannot] be better, because of how the world is (Boo, 241).” In her description of Asha, a woman who hoped to rise above everything, Boo describes the ultimate effects of poverty in combination with government corruption, noting that “something bright in her had been eclipsed(Boo, number).” The people within the book show remarkable will and resourcefulness, and the tragedy of the novel is that their own government and birth hold them back, though they might succeed in other societies.

While Boo’s work seems unique in its exploration of the diverse of personalities and struggles within India’s airport slum, it sometimes seems that she only tells one side of the story. Although she received almost complete praise for her work of non-fiction, Paul Beckett criticized her for a lack of social representation, for being overly selective with whom she interviewed. Becket claims that, “behind the Beautiful Forevers” is an interesting book. It is an admirable book. It is a moving book. But it is not an authoritative book, which is disappointing given the extraordinary detail in it. We see the trees so closely that an ant can’t crawl up an inch of trunk without attracting our intimate attention to its precise path, the size of its steps and the topography of the bark it crosses. But the forest is painted in a messy, monotone, ominous, dark, dark brown (Paul Beckett, “The Let Down of Behind the Beautiful Forevers”). Beckett believes that because Boo interviewed the underclass, often avoiding the “other characters and trends in the book outside of the slum, which are held chiefly responsible for the slum dwellers’ collective misery,” she loses some of her journalistic “authority,” her ability to be a valid source of information on the true status of India and instead becomes more of an activist than unbiased reporter (Beckett, The Let Down of…). Shashi Tharoor, in a review of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, states that Boo, “ who has an Indian husband, has not just lived with its people and gotten to know them; she has penetrated the dynamics of their relationships, acquired insights into their psyches, breathed the polluted air that suffuses their fears. Her empathy for the slum-dwellers, striving against impossible odds to earn enough for “the full enjoy” they can only dream about, is total (Shashi Tharoor, Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers).”  This empathy, which Tharoor mentions in praise of the book also suggests that Boo is inherently biased, and that her selective interviewing helped her convey her sympathies rather than to portray the whole truth.  However, her choices, her selectiveness and restraint, are what lend the book its power.  The emotional force of the book is legitimate, the lack of representation for those who she and the people she interviews in the story might lessen the impact of the story save for Boo’s extensive research into government documents. While we might have heard about corrupt officials’ motivations for beating and taking bribes from the impoverished, for Boo’s story, the documents as well as the flagrant dishonesty within much of the government leave little room for redeeming excuses. It is unlikely that through interviews with the corrupt officials Boo would find a reasonable excuse for transforming a child who committed suicide from a “vulnerable witness to a murder [and] the victim of police threats and beatings” into a “heroin addict who had decided to kill himself because he couldn’t afford his next fix” in official public record, or for allowing the police to force the impoverished to pay bribes to avoid violent beatings  (Boo, 172).  In fact, Boo does portray several acts of kindness from government officials, and the rarity of these accounts within the story makes the government seem all the more corrupt. As she hoped, Behind the Beautiful Forevers reveals “the means by which government corruption and indifference erase from the public record the experience of poor citizens (Boo, 251).”

Tharoor states that “[Behind the Beautiful Forevers] is astonishing on several levels: as a worm’s-eye view of the “undercity” of one of the world’s largest metropolises; as an intensely reported, deeply felt account of the lives, hopes and fears of people traditionally excluded from literate narratives; as a story that truly hasn’t been told before, at least not about India and not by a foreigner (Shashi Tharoor, Book Review).” Overall Boo’s work remains significant because it reveals a side of India which we rarely see, in vibrant detail, bringing color to the emotions of each of the individuals in the story and highlighting India’s social problems. While one could complain that she does not detail the complexities of historical context and government perspective, Boo focuses in, centers on the story she finds important and reports on it, reports on the complexities of human interaction in relation to a changing India. She chronicles the side of India that the Indian government would rather remain unseen.  Her extensive “fact-checking” and countless interviews give her the authority to report on the lives of the people of the slums (Boo, 250). While Beckett criticizes Boo for missing the forest for the trees, Boo acknowledges that the “story of Annawadi is not representative of a country as huge and diverse as India,” but instead focuses on the impoverished within an area small enough to gain perspective, yet similar to many Indian slums. She has authority because she is not trying to tell the story of India, but rather demonstrate the effects of the Indian system on the impoverished.  Overcoming the obstacles to effective reporting posed by her class, gender, ethnicity and language, Boo follows their lives and experiences in an effort to understand the problems of poverty from the bottom up. The result is a searing account, in effective and racy prose, that reads like a thrilling novel but packs a punch Sinclair Lewis might have envied (Tharoor, Book Review).


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Travels in Siberia: Incomplete Grandiosity

In The Culture of Time and Space, Stephen Kern notes that impressionist artist Cezanne, “wanted to fuse perceptions and conceptions—the way we see things from a single point of view and the way we know them to be from a composite of views. Experience tells us that the opening of a vase is circular but when viewed from the side we see it as an ellipse. Cezanne combined these two perceptions visually with multiple perspectives (Kern, 142).”  Similarly, Ian Frazier, in his book Travels in Siberia, combines the stereotypical expectations of Siberia, with rich history and his own experiences traveling across Siberia. He explores stereotypes and preconceived notions, bringing a new perspective to an area of the world that seems to remain detached in an era of constant communication. Ultimately, however Frazier leaves Siberia with an unfinished understanding of it. Although Frazier manages to shed light on cultural and historical factors which shaped Siberia, and manages to make a place as remote as Siberia, seem both familiar and charmingly foreign, Siberia remains in “incomplete grandiosity” that it started out with in the beginning of the book.

Kern claims that the encroaching “railroads ended the sanctity of remoteness…” and that “the telephone permitted businessmen to buy and sell from afar without leaving their offices and at the same time expanded their “territory” and forced them to reach out further (Kern, 213-215).” He also notes that  Jules Verne’s novel “[Around the World in Eighty Days] projected a new sense of world unity [in the early 19th century] that became ever sharper in the decades that followed as the railroad, telephone bicycle, automobile, airplane, and cinema revolutionized the sense of distance(213,  Kern).” Technology increasingly makes the world seem smaller, more accessible, and more relatable, yet Siberia, which Ian Frazier seeks out in his book Travels in Siberia, escapes that accessibility. Siberia remains an indescribable, undefined, borderless landscape of ice and exiles.  Siberia, like Russia described in the “lines by Tyutchev…cannot be understood by the mind…cannot be measured by ordinary measure: She has her own particular stance—all you can do is believe in her (Frazier, 191).” In the minds of Americans Siberia became a cultural symbol of social exile, while “Russians from Moscow and St. Petersburg tend to have exaggerated ideas about Siberia” as well (Frazier, 152). For all of Frazier’s attempts to find a common ground between America and the Russia he has fallen in love with, he finds that despite the similarities between small towns in Russia and in America, he doesn’t “think anyone who saw Yakutsk would be reminded of Elwood, or of a place like it. Elwood is another small American town that has passed through stages of early settlement, enthusiastic development, industrial boom, and recent decline. In those terms, its frontier years ended ages ago. Yakutsk,[representative of Siberia] on the other hand, is still a frontier place, still hanging on to the writhing wilderness by its fingernails (Frazier, 390).”

Frazier doggedly attempts to investigate prison camps during his travels, but part of the darkness of Siberia, the wilderness of it turns out to be partially in the ingrained repression of painful memories.  Where Americans would dutifully commemorate lost-lives, the Russians prefer to forget. Siberia, remains a chronicle of this habit, with prison camps left untouched and unnoticed, preserved only by Siberia’s icy climate. One could classify Siberia as an unkempt memory—a collection of mementos left to slowly fall apart. At one point in his travels, Frazier “ passed a village that Victor said he remembered as a lovely place in his childhood”  but which Krushchev ruined(Frazier, 174). “The remnants of the village could still be seen, crumbling at the feet of out-of place and also crumbling 1950s-era high rises (Frazier, 174).”  Siberia is the product of overthrown governments and harsh climates, characterized by nasty weather and brutality, yet Frazier seems to love Siberia nonetheless. In his comparison to America, and the Wild West—of  kitschy film fame—and the beloved road trip, Frazier notes that,  “In America we love roads. To be “on the road” is to be happy and alive and free. Whatever lonesomeness the road implies is also a blankness that soon will be filled with possibility. A road leading to the horizon almost always signifies a hopeful vista for Americans. ‘Riding off into the sunset’ has always been our happy ending.  But I could find no happy-ending vista here, only the opposite. This had also been called the Convicts’ Road or the Exiles’ Road. Not only was it lonesome, but it ran permanently in the wrong direction, from the exiles’ point of view. Longing and melancholy seemed to have worked themselves into the very soil; the old road and the land around it seemed downcast as if they’d had their feelings hurt by how much the people passing by did not want to be here (Frazier, 220).” Ultimately, Frazier finds few redeeming qualities in Siberia. The mosquitos are unbearable, the landscape often swampy or bitterly cold, the sides of the road filled with trash. The redeeming qualities of the books come from the wanderlust characteristics of it.

Frazier chooses a risky style, telling his story like a travelogue interspersed with historical notes. His style however, emphasizes just how spectacular the experience of Siberia really is. Siberia makes the story, it evokes reactions, it creates unusual stories. Had Frazier traveled through Iowa and used the same type of plot development, it likely would have been very dry. Yet somehow, the extraordinary situations created by the broken down van, Sergei’s ingenuity, and the foreignness of the whole thing create both tension and humor.  The architect “Sitte insisted that the rhythmic distribution of spaces in pleasing and functional patterns should be the top priority. He argued that urban spaces should be enclosed to give them a definite shape. He also criticized the horror of empty space that repeatedly led planners to put statutes and monuments in the center of town squares (Kern, 158).” This horror of empty, undefined spaces, lend Siberia its mystery and its terror. Both the fear and the draw of the unknown draw Frazier back out into Siberia, and define the Russian’s definitions of Siberia. Siberia was known for is ruins and its repression. Frazier makes Siberia sound unappealing and yet, one suspects that Siberia provides for him the one destination to cure an almost insatiable desire to escape and explore.

Ultimately, Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, does not make Siberia a more welcoming and warm place. Frazier acknowledges Siberia’s flaws, the proven stereotypes, the forced resourcefulness of the people. Instead Frazier achieves the effect of the French poet Mallarmé who insisted that poetry must “paint not the thing, but the effect that it produces.” Mallarmé suggested that “the line of poetry..should be composed not of words but of intentions, and all the words should fade away before the sensation.” The power of Frazier’s Siberia, comes not from the reality of Siberia, but from the reactions, the emotions that Siberia evokes within Frazier. Mallarmé wrote about his own work, Herodiade, “If only I’d chosen an easy work! But, precisely, I, who am sterile and crepuscular, have chosen a terrifying subject, whose sensations, if they are strong, reach the point of atrocity, and if they are vague, have the strange attitude of mystery… I have, moreover, found an intimate and unique way of painting and noting down the very fleeting impressions. I should add, which is even more terrifying, that all these impressions follow one another as in a symphony, and I often have entire days when I ask myself if this impression can accompany that one, what is their relationship and effect … You can guess that I write few lines in a week.” Frazier who chose a similarly terrifying and mysterious subject seems to be plagued by the same problems. Weaving historical scenes into his travels across the ice without plot development, could have made the book unbearable. Still, Frazier, like Mallarmé, managed to synthesize these scenes, intuitively recognizing the significance of their “relationship and effect.”

Frazier ends the books brilliantly. He manages to capture the impossibility of truly capturing Siberia, relating the vastness of its history and relates his concept of Siberia:

“From time to time I contemplate the phrase ‘the incomplete grandiosity of Russia.’  I’m not sure who said it originally, or how I happen to have it in my head, but it describes the country. Russia’s grandiosity, good or bad, doesn’t end. It just trails off into the country’s expanses like Kutuzov’s army evaporating before Napoleon. The incomplete grandiosity pursues itself out there in Siberia somewhere…Incomplete and cruel grandiosity (468, Frazier).”

He doesn’t buff away the roughness of the Siberian landscape and the people who occupy it, but he remains enamored with Russia. The beauty of Siberia can be found in its mysterious history, its inaccessibility, and its continued mystery in an increasingly familiar world.

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