Saturday, February 16, 2013

My Ambivalent Reading of Books on India

For many years after I came back from India, where I lived as a child and teenager, I looked for books in English by Indian authors and/or about India. Starting in the late 1970s, there was a wonderful outpouring of such books available in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere; this was part of the blossoming of literature from other nonwestern countries becoming widely available in the West. At first, I tried to read each one that came across my path. I even wrote a column about “India books” for my school’s alumni newsletter. Soon there were far too many such books to read, but I kept reading some portion of those being published. I always preferred novels, but read some nonfiction as well. Now when I run across a new title, I sometimes feel – rather than being excited and getting the book as soon as possible – that I “should” read this new book, but don’t automatically actually want to. It is a wonderful dilemma to have such a wide variety to choose from. But it is strange to feel almost jaded now. The widely praised “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” (Random House, 2012), by Katherine Boo, is a case in point. I felt I “should” read it, resisted reading it, and finally did in fact read it. This book provides an unprecedented insight into a Bombay slum and the people who live there; it is also beautifully written, almost novelistically so. But I must admit I had to push myself to finish the book. I fully admit the reasons were within me, not with the book: a kind of cowardice in the face of acknowledging close up the poverty, the corruption, and the oppression of the poor and of women. Boo was embedded in this world for several years in order to write this book; her project and this book are amazing achievements. She has opened up, just a little, but more than anyone else I know of, a small window into a world full of pain, uncertainty, and sadness, very occasionally intermixed with some of the joys that, fortunately, most humans experience despite everything. The people she spent time with are portrayed so well, so realistically (or at least so it appears), so movingly. She doesn’t condescend or sentimentalize. “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” certainly deserves all the accolades it is receiving, and I am glad I have read it.


  1. Stephanie, I particularly appreciated this blog! I was determined to read Katherine Boo's book because of my impending trip to India. When I read it I was truly pleasantly surprised. The people portrayed were very real and, though their situation was dire, I didn't feel it was always irredeemably bad. There was a resilience about some of the characters.

    1. Thanks, Mary, for your thoughts on this book. And you are absolutely right about the resilience of some of the important point.


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