Thursday, June 18, 2015

Excerpts from a Book

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Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers is about the people who live in a Mumbai slum called Annawadi, near the international airport. Below are excerpts from that book -some read:

Annawadi sat two hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road, a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late. Chauffeurs in SUVs honked furiously at the bicycle delivery boys peeling off from a slum chicken shop, each carrying a rack of three hundred eggs. Annawadi itself was nothing special, in the context of the slums of Mumbai.


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Less respectful terms for Tamil migrants were in wider currency. But other poor citizens had seen the Tamils sweat to summon solid land from a bog, and that labor had earned a certain deference.


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Better still for Abdul, a frenzy of Chinese construction in advance of the summer's Beijing Olympics had inflated the prices of scrap metal worldwide. It was a fine time to be a Mumbai garbage trader, not that that was the term passersby used for Abdul. Some called him garbage, and left it at that.  

 
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Asha had developed her sharp tongue as a child, working the fields of an impoverished village in northern Maharashtra. Pointed expressions had been a useful defense when laboring among lecherous men. Discretion and subtlety, qualities useful in controlling a slum, were things she had learned since coming to the city.


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Asha took note in that winter of hope:


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Robert rented the fake zebras, along with a cart, to the birthday parties of middle - class children - a tun to honest work he thought the judging gods might factor in.

Robert's chief contribution to Annawadi history had  been to bring Asha and other Maharashtrians to the slum, as part of a Shiv Sena effort to expand its voting bloc at the airport. A public water connection was secured as an enticement, and by 2002, the Maharastrians had disempowered the Tamil laborers who had first cleared the land. But a majority is a hard thing to maintain in a slum where almost no one has permanent work. People came and went, selling or renting their huts in a thriving underground trade, and by early 2008, the North Indian migrants against whom Shiv Sena campaigned had become a plurality.


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What was clear to Asha was also clear to the Corporator of Ward 76, the elected official of the precinct in which Annawadi sat: Robert now belonged to his zebras. He'd lost interest in the Shiv Sena and the slum.


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"The big people think that because we are poor we don't understand much," she said to her children. Asha understood plenty. She was a chit in a national game of make-believe, in which many of India's old problems - poverty, disease, illiteracy, child labor were being aggressively addressed. Meanwhile, the other old problems, corruption and exploitation of the weak by the less weak, continued with minimal interference.

In the West and among some in the Indian elite, this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations: it was seen as blocking India's modern, global ambitions. But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.

From page 5 to 28 of Behind the Beautiful Forevers

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Sunday, June 7, 2015

Rahman at the Beacon

Saw Allah Rakha Rahman at the Beacon Theatre recently. What was unusual about it for me was how easily and smoothly it all happened without planning anything. Usually, these days everything involves so much planning! A simple thing like seeing a movie at the children's film festival ends up becoming a 12 step plan. First, as soon as I get their program, I have to go through the selection, read the synopsis and see what looks interesting. Invariably, the movies that I'd like us to see are either on the wrong day or at the wrong time. So, I have to go back and match our schedule to theirs and settle for the 2nd or 3 rd choice movies. Then, go to the web site to book the tickets. I always forget the password I used last year and neglect to save it anywhere. So, after spending a few stressful minutes figuring it out, tickets are booked and saved, then one must remember to mark the calendar and set the reminder because the movie day could be 4 to 6 weeks away. I do this every year and yet, end up seeing a bad movie every once in a while; but it's worth it. It's one of those annual rituals that I feel, I must perform: Because it's an international film festival and you do get to see children's movies from all over the world. And sometimes, quite unexpectedly, you get to see a really good one. Like this year for example, our second choice movie turned out to be very good. Better perhaps than the first choice might have been - who knows! We never got to see our first choice. Even after some additional showings were added, they all got sold out before I had a chance to get to the ticket site. 

The one we saw is called Secrets of War, a beautiful movie -good for the above 10 age group. The story takes place in a small Dutch village during the time of 2nd world war. There are no scenes of war in the movie but a story of friendship between two middle school -age boys and a girl and how it is affected by the war. Some movies are like books- they unfold slowly as if you are gently turning the pages. This one is like that. A slightly bluish, grayish book because clouds of war do loom over the village; but  in the middle of it all children try to live their normal daily life and that makes the war recede into the background. 

Compared to the effort it took to see that movie, the Rahaman concert was a cakewalk - as if I was in Prabhadevi; he was performing at the Ravindra Natya Mandir: I walk over to the theatre, buy tickets and go and see the show two days later. It was that simple! Except that the theatre and the city were different. I was grocery- shopping at Fairway over the Memorial Day weekend. Saw his name on the ticker at the Beacon Theatre which is across the street. Luckily, the box office was open when otherwise the city looked deserted. Summer/Spring is a beautiful time to stay back in New York, especially on the weekend when many New Yorkers leave to go to the beach or their country homes and the streets are nearly empty but not quite. Stores and restaurants are open but less crowded than usual and the weather is beautiful! It's also a busy tourist season but you only run into them if you go to Macy's or to Times Square.    

As it turned out, the Rahman concert was also sold out, eventually, but I was able to get good seats just a few days before the show. I love many of his songs. Tu hi re, tu hi re, tere bina mai kaise jiyun from the movie Bombay is one of my favorites. I believe, that movie is a remake of a tamil film.  There is a tamil version of the song also - exactly the same tune - tamil lyrics. Years ago, in a concert (also here in NYC) Hariharan, who sings in both the languages, started it in hindi and mid- way through the song switched to tamil lyrics. Those in the audience, who wanted him to sing a tamil song, absolutely loved it. It's nice to see how seamlessly Indian singers can switch languages. In this concert, the lead female singer did that with a couple of songs and I wondered if a non -Indian couple sitting next to us understood any of the languages and realized that the language had been switched. For that matter, I am not sure my son who is somewhat familiar with hindi was able to figure out the language-switch and exactly at what point in the song it occurred.  

The whole concert was sort of bilingual or rather tri- lingual or quadri -lingual, if you will. There were a couple of english songs - one jazz number and one from the movie The Hundred-Foot Journey and one punjabi song from the movie Highway and quite a few songs in the beginning were in tamil. 

At the end I thought if a teenager from New York or Mumbai, who is reluctant to go, says after seeing it that "it was kindda cool" concert then it must be so. Although, I feel some of the singers could use a wardrobe upgrade. 

It was a school night for us. We walked over to the theater around 7:30 pm after all our routine weekday things were taken care of and walked back home around 10:30 pm through the relatively quiet streets of our city on a beautiful spring night. To be able to see a world renowned Indian musician this way,  can happen- as Cindy Adams would say- only in NewYork kids, only in New York. 


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