Saturday, April 07, 2012

Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Published By:  Random House
DOP:   Feb7, 2012
Genre: Narrative Non-Fiction

Helloooo Everyone!  It's been ages, I hope so much you are all doing well. I'm really sorry I haven't been updating this blog, but life's been busy oft late and horror of horrors, I haven't been doing much reading!  I think I've read all of 2 books in 6 months.  A truly awful record for someone who used to read a book a week.   Anyway, I have come to the sad realization that even if I make the time to read, I may never have enough time to write an in-depth review, so I've decided to introduce mini reviews, or maybe, just the title of the book I am reading or one I hope to read.  This way, we can all still stay in touch.  Like the idea?  I sure hope so!

A few weeks ago I read Katherine Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers".  To be honest, I wasn't really looking forward to reading one more book about life in a Mumbai slum, after all,  I've had them as neighbours for years and I thought I knew everything about the folks that live there...but, I was happy to be proved wrong.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Katherine Boo spent three years( 2008-2010 )in a Mumbai slum called "Annawadi" situated on the fringes of the city's international airport.   In 1991 labourers were brought in from the villages of Tamil Nadu to work on the runway and once construction was completed, instead of returning to their villages they decided to stick around in the city of dreams and thus the slum "Annawadi" came to be.   Why anyone would want to live in “a sodden, snake-filled bit of brushland across the street from the international terminal" is a baffling question to many, but because rural poverty is bleaker than urban destitution, many rural migrants choose the latter.  Over the years Annawadi has undergone many changes, not just cosmetically but also demographically and many of the Tamilian labourers, have since moved elsewhere leaving room for new migrants from all over the country making it a microcosm of India-on-the-margins.

Through the lives of several protagonists the reader is able to get a glimpse into what life may be like in a Mumbai slum.  Abdul Hussain, the bread winner of the only Muslim family in the slum is a garbage picker/sorter and seller. It's the only thing he has ever done and so naturally he is somewhat of an expert at it, and as a result of his long, daily slog his family is perhaps the most prosperous family in Annawadi.  Abdul and his family are highly resented in Annawadi, not because they are Muslim, but because economically they are doing better than most of the neighbours.  Caste may be the main cause for discrimination in rural India, but Boo finds that in the slums, economic envy is the new discrimination.

 Then there's Fatima, or  "One-Leg" as she is better known.  Because she is disabled and a woman, Fatima has virtually no standing in the slum but she is determined to have a good time, even if society deems she should not.   While she may possess a couldn't-care-less attitude Fatima also has a violent temper and it's one of her rages that leads to some of the most riveting events in the book which allow Boo to access government hospitals, the criminal justice system and the enormous web of corruption that much of India is enveloped in.

 Another fascinating person character is Asha who is married to a good-for-nothing drunkard but thankfully she has enough ambition for the two of them.  By latching herself onto a small-time politician she becomes a "fixer" (someone who is able to grant favours  in the slum for a fee) and in that way, she is able to send her daughter to college to become the first female college graduate in Annawadi.

And finally, there's Kalu, who braves the barbed wire of Mumbai airports to get at the recycling bins, the contents of which he sells to Abdul; and Sunil, a smelly and courageous scavenger with a head for heights. It is in knowing these two scavengers that the reader realizes that no matter how tough the lives are the kids of Annawadi are, they never stop dreaming.   Their dreams aren't big ones, many a time their dreams don't even involve leaving the slum for a better place, all they want is to better themselves, to climb that next rung on the ladder.  And yet, despite the dreams, hopelessness is sometimes rife, the rate of suicide in a slum is quite high.

It is through these remarkable protagonists that Boo manages to paint a lively,colourful and yet poignant (depressing too) picture of slum life.  Sometimes I found the narrative read like Alaa Al Aswamy's "Al Yacoubian Building" where each resident family had a stand alone story to tell and yet contributed to the bigger story of Mumbai, but more fascinating to me was how globalization impacts the slum dwellers, their fortunes rising and waning along with the price of certain global commodities.   Most of the people in this Annawadi slum rely on garbage as a livelihood.  When the economy is strong, construction is booming and the demand for aluminium, copper, iron, steel etc. is high, so is the value of the commodity-related waste.  Similarly, when there's a worldwide recession and builders run out of money forcing constructions to come to a stand still, it hits the rag pickers like a tidal wave.  In this way Boo gives the butterfly effect of globalization a human face.

This video above, filmed in collaboration with some of the children of Annawadi, gives a glimpse into the daily lives of the people she encountered there.

Now all that remains is to allow you to pick up the book or the audio book (which is what I used) and allow Katherine Boo to take you along with her into Annawadi, where tales of treachery, comedy, heartbreak, betrayal and resilience make this a mesmerizing read.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Barcelona Diary (Sep 2011) Las Ramblas

  Las Ramblas in Barcelona is a large pedestrian street lined with restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops, flower kiosks and bustling with tourists, locals, hustlers and performing artists from almost every genre.

Depending on whom you ask, you will be told that the promenade is either a "must-see" or "to be avoided at all costs". I tend to fall in the former category.  While Las Ramblas abounds with pickpockets, Pakistani men wanting to sell you their Chinese-made toys and over- priced restaurants with bland food, it's a MUST for people-watching!  And that's not all, Las Ramblas is dotted with some beautiful turn-of-the-century buildings like the Liecu Opera House (our apartment was right next door to the Opera) and the Boqueria Open Market, it also has some amazing art deco sculptures.

The very crowded Las Ramblas, tree-lined Las Ramblas, the nerve centre of Barcelona.  
At one end of Las Ramblas is the huge Place de Catalunya and at the other end, the old port.  It would take you no more than 20 mins to walk the entire length of the promenade from end to end.

As I mentioned, some old and beautiful buildings line Las Ramblas.  This patisserie here is called "Escriba" and every morning I would step inside for an almond croissant for breakfast, although Escriba is better known for their life-size chocolate models of famous personalities!

Human Statue 1 - Las Ramblas

Human Statue 2 - Artist - Las Ramblas

The human statues, on their little homemade plinths, are a huge attraction on Las Ramblas.  People constantly want to pose with them.  Some can stand absolutely lifeless (in the most difficult poses) for hours together and some are constantly entertaining.  Many are waiters, or actors that wait while they look for the perfect acting part.  Las Ramblas simply wouldn't be Las Ramblas without these human statues.

One of the highlights of Las Ramblas was its open air market, Mercat de la Boqueira.  After I was done buying my croissants at Escriba I would dash into Boquiera for some fruit juice.  Boqueira is home to every conceivable fruit, sea food and ham and is an absolute feast for the senses.  And if you understand Spanish it's an ideal place to eavesdrop on recipes!  I was watching people buy mussels, it was so funny how everyone seemed to have his or her own way of cooking the mollusc!

Boquira photos courtesy my good friend, Anjum Poonawalla.

Remember when I said a walk down Las Ramblas yields unexpected surprises?  Well, here's one!  A modernista dragon designed either by Joan Miro or Gaudi ( I can't remember) for a former umbrella shop.  Las Ramblas is full of little gems like this one...but you have to look for them...a veritable treasure hunt!

Modernista Dragon designed for a former umbrella store.  Las Ramblas is full of excellent finds like this one.

Another interesting building on Las Ramblas, the Eglesia de Betlem
...notice the beautiful green-capped portals and relief.

La Riera Baxia, El Raval.  
El Raval is a neighbourhood bordering Las Ramblas.  Unlike Barri Gothic or the "Old Town" which still maintains its medieval charm, El Raval is an edgier neighbourhood with artists and immigrants from Pakistan, Indonesia, East Europe and Morocco filling the apartment blocks down its streets. La Riera Baxia (image above) is a street in El Raval well known for its vintage stores. I was lucky enough to buy a Valentino bag here.

The streets of El Raval are very colourful both literally and figuratively.  Throw a stone and it's bound to land on a graffiti-splattered facade.  This is a really great neighbourhood to explore if you enjoy street art!

Housing project El Raval

El Raval, because of its proximity to the City Center is destined for greatness.  Infact, it's a district in the throes of transformation.  However, at the moment, it is a barrio of great contrasts.  Turn in to El Raval from Las Ramblas and you're suddenly accosted with high end boutiques, restaurants,cafes and art galleries..but walk to the other end and you see crumbling housing projects or dilapidated buildings in narrow alleyways.

Barri Gothic Square. Close by and housed in five adjoining medical palaces is Museu Picasso which is well known for its collection of Picasso's early works.   The image above is a reprint of Picasso's "Self Portrait with a Palette" from 1906. (Unfortunately, you don't see the palette in this print )

Monument to Christopher Columbus:  At the Port or Harbour end of Las Ramblas is the impressive Columbus monument. Although still debated by some, most scholars are convinced that Columbus was a Catalan. The monument marks the spot where Columbus stepped ashore in 1493 after returning from his voyage to the Caribbean bringing with him six Caribbean Indians.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Barcelona Diary (Sep 2011) Bullfighting

Yesterday ( Sep 25, 2011) more than 600 years of history came to an end in Barcelona as the city hosted its last ever bullfight.  It delights me to know that after this, no Spanish fighting bull or "toro bravo" as the breed is known, will be killed in the name of sport, art or tradition again, at least in Barcelona.

The Catalonians are understandably proud to be the first region in Spain to ban bullfighting.   Supporters of the sport claim that they (Catalonia) did it just to have one more thing to differentiate them from the rest of Spain, but activists insisted that it was voted out because it was a barbaric sport and had no place in an enlightened society.

Above:  Barcelona's only remaining Bullfight arena, the Plaza de Toros Monumental. A very striking building made of bricks in the Mujedar (Moor) and Byzantine style.  The ban will only affect "bullfighting" and not other sports in which the bull is involved, like "correbou" where the public chase bulls through narrow streets, or "bouembolat" where festivities involve attaching mini fire torches to the bull's horns.

Correbou (not my own picture)

Bouembolat :  is a tradition that was first started in the Valencia region of Catalonia.  In days of old it was not uncommon for people to be fatally charged by bulls as they walked along poorly-lit streets.   To prevent accidents like that from happening, it was decided that bulls would be fitted with fire torches and that way, not only would they light up the streets but it would also warn people to their presence.  Nowadays the lights aren't necessary but the tradition continues. Photo courtesy: Josep Llouis Sellart

Arenas de Barcelona, with its beautiful neo-mujedar architecture, used to be a bullfighting arena but has now been converted into a shopping plaza which houses an excellent Desigual store.  For the uninitiated, Desigual is a Spanish clothing store, known for their colourful, ultra-urban fashion with  their headquarters and flagship store in Barcelona.  More on Desigual when I post about shopping in Barcelona.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Barcelona (Sep 2011) Gaudi's Casa Batllo

What's the first thought that comes to your mind when I mention Barcelona?  If you thought "Gaudi" you would be with the majority for Gaudi is synonymous with Barcelona.  Everywhere you go in the city, you're never too far away from a Gaudi casa or sculpture. Infact, the road we lived on in Barcelona, Las Ramblas, has several little Gaudi sculptures, photos of which I will include later.

Gaudi's work, which has been described as "Catalan Modernisme" is supremely original.  Apparently he was inspired by a nationalistic search for a romantic medieval past and there are elements of medieval and surreal styles in a lot of his work.

Below are pictures of Casa Batllo.  I fell in love with this Casa the minute I laid eyes on it because it looked like a house out of a fairytale. Later when I was reading up on the house I discovered that this apartment block was designed to symbolise the legend of St. George killing the dragon, whose scaly back arches above the main facade.

Facade: It is said that when Salvador Dali saw the curving walls and windows of Casa Batllo he observed them as "representing waves on a stormy day".  Because the spindly columns were sometimes compared to tibias, Casa Batllo was also called "House of Bones"

Dining Room: The bulbous forms in the ceiling of the Batllo family's dining room are thought to represent the splash caused by a drop of water.

The Main Drawing Room:  "One side of this room is formed by stained-glass windows looking out over the Passeig de Gracia. The ceiling plaster is moulded into a spiral and the doors and window framed undulate playfully."
The interior skylight at Casa can't tell from this photo but the blue gets more intense as you travel upwards.  This is so that the intensity of light is equal no matter which floor you go to. Gaudi was a genius!

Attics:  Don't the arches give one the sensation of being inside the skeleton of a large animal? 

Some people say Gaudi created Casa Batllo after reading Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea" and wanted the house to appear as though it were under water.  In this case, the mosaic pattern could easily pass for a colony  of brightly-coloured molluscs.

One of the most talked-about features of the house is the Dragon's Back and Cross.  The Cross was made in Mallorca but was damaged in transit . Gaudi apparently liked the cracked facade and refused to send it back for repairs. 
Another view of the cross but this time with the chimneys.  Chimneys were usually an unseen, hidden part of the house but Gaudi liked to show them off.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Barcelona Diary (Sep 2011) The Catalans, Barcelona Harbour and Montjuic Cemetery

Today I'm going to take a break from the Paris Diaries and visit Barcelona (by special request.)

Everyone's heard of the friendly, fun-loving, fiesta-mad Spaniard so it is with great excitement that we boarded our plane for Barcelona, but as we found out in Paris, stereotyping can be dangerous and misleading. The Parisian, we found out to our relief, is not rude as everyone, including travel writers, would have us believe, but it was time to put the Spanish people to the test!

I guess our first mistake was to think that all Spanish people are alike.  Spain is made up of many distinct regions and Barcelona is the capital of the Catalonia region of Spain and thus home to the Catalans who do not like being called "Spanish".   They have a distinct culture and language and following the death of Franco, the region was granted political autonomy by the new democratic government.  Going by the Spanish stereotypes it would be safe to say that Barcelona is probably the least Spanish city in the country.

Sadly, the Catalans do not get very good press in the rest of Spain. The Spanish people see them as being fiercely nationalistic, mean and unfriendly.  When we asked a Catalan friend to explain why this may be so, he said that Catalans were a reserved people who took time to make friends and that reservedness is often mistaken for being unfriendly.  He seemed to think the Spanish habit of embracing anyone and everyone as a new best friend was tacky and superficial! :)

We weren't there long enough to make an accurate observation on the Catalan character but I will say they seemed very reserved - they would speak only when spoken to and at times seemed rather abrupt, but their dedication to style, looks, aesthetics and so on is admirable!    Barcelona is, without a doubt, a confident, progressive city - one that preserves its past proudly but which is also tirelessly self-inventive.  If you read its history and observe its architecture it's plain to see this is a region of proud, confident people who are not afraid to think outside the box.  I'm going to post pics of some of the buildings we saw around Barcelona and you can judge for yourselves.

The drive from the airport into the city was quite interesting with the thriving port on the right and the beautiful  Montjuic cemetery in the hills on the left.   The cemetery seemed to run for acres and acres (I read later that it was 57 acres of  cypress forest) and is a resting place for some of Barcelona's most elite citizens and also a fabulous place wherein to observe architecture of many different styles and periods.  However, what's challenging is the lack of information on this cemetery in most of the guide books.  Turns out the Catalans don't like to take tourists to this place because they consider cemeteries morbid and the idea that a cemetery can be a tourist attraction is rather distasteful to them.  Still, if one has the time, I think it might be a great place to visit for the art (the mausoleums are truly wonderful) and also for the beautiful sea views. Unfortunately I only saw fascinating glimpses of it from the taxi.

For more photos of the Montjuic Cemetery go here

Today Barcelona has a truly awesome waterfront, which wasn't always the case. Until a few years ago, the city had turned their backs on the water (literally) with all the development taking place away from the sea.  As a result, the beaches were grimy and areas of bad repute and the harbours were home to cargo and container trade only.

Over the past two decades dramatic changes have taken place along the waterfront.  Cargo ships have been moved to the south of the city and old dockyards have been given facelifts and now serve as promenades or parks.  Beaches have been cleaned up and landscaped.   

Beach in Barceloneta.

Barceloneta was once a scrappy fisherman's village but it is now furnished with landscaped beaches, boardwalks, terraced outdoor cafes specializing in seafood, fountains and so on. I took this picture just to get a glimpse of the original Barceloneta.

Standing on a hill in Montjuic with the harbour behind me.  Cruise ships are a common sight at the harbour here.

Another view of the harbour
One of the nicest things to do in Barcelona is to grab a funicular from Montjuic and take an aerial tour of the city. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Paris Diary (Aug-Sep) Page 3 Grand Mosque of Paris

It's possible that one of Paris' best kept secrets is its Grand Mosque.  Open up any guide to Paris and you will be floored and impressed with write-up's on the Louvre, the Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower and so on, and so should you be because they are marvellous sights, but after our trip to Paris my family and I have unanimously decided the Grand Mosque is a "must-see".

Built in the Hispano-Moorish style this mosque is a splendid showcase of North African architecture which stands out even more because it is planted among rows of French-style buildings.  The minaret is about a 100ft high.

You have to pay to enter the Mosque but it's all so worth it. I could star at this intricate mosaic work for hours.

This is the entrance to the Courtyard, Hammam and Tea shop.

The Courtyard, with its fig trees, fountains, hookahs and mint tea, is the perfect place to relax.

It all began with the tea shop selling North African delicacies like Turkish delight, almond cakes, baklava and so on.  The tea place got so popular that a full-fledged restaurant serving Couscous, Tagine and so on, followed suit very quickly.


Some fried chicken, Tagine and Couscous with a glass of very sweet, very nice green mint tea. Bon Appetit.

The only off-putting thing about the visit was the number of beggar women outside the Mosque. I guess it's the same of any place of worship, but these women, many of them in sunglasses to protect their identity (?) were a little intimidating!!! 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Parisian Chic: A Style Guide by Ines de la Fressange

 As a woman preparing for a trip to Paris one of my most invaluable reads was Ines de la Fressange's "Parisian Chic: A Style Guide".  Parisian chic is legendary and so is their intolerance for sartorial sins.  I didn't want my vacation getting off on the wrong foot so I invested in Fressange's book and what a good decision that turned out to be.  Fressange,  Karl Lagerfield's muse and supermodel in the 80's, lays out in a very easy-to-read manner all the DOs and DON'Ts of Parisian style. Among her many invaluable tips are these ones:

1)  Never look rich. Bling, glitter and logos are absolute no-no's when it comes to the Parisian woman.  She is uninterested in sporting labels just for the sake of it. Her definition of luxury?  "A brand that guarantees good taste, rather than an all-too-obvious price tag.   

2) Like the Parisian, be a fashion icon in your own right, worship no idols.  "The secret of good style is to feel good in what you wear."

3) NO Fishnet T-shirts, flip-flops, running shoes and Hello Kitty nightgowns. 

4) And don't you ever wear bras with a transparent bra straps or you will make a Parisian woman's toes curl with disgust. A stylish, visible bra is far matter how big or small your bust, not wearing a bra is always a mistake.

5) Forget Botox and don't dress like a teenager - trying to look young is the quickest way to look old!  

6)  The Little Black Dress"The little black dress is not simply an item of clothing, it's a concept. It's abstract, it's universal — which means there's one that's perfect for everyone ... Today the Parisian has several little black dresses, just as she has several pairs of jeans: each is a variation on a theme."

7) Here are Inez's 7 key pieces for a magnificent wardrobe (print and paste to your closet door like I did)

a. Men's Blazer (fitted, fitted, fittted)
b. Trench Coat
c.Navy V-neck sweater (pref. cashmere)
d. Tank Top
e. Little Black Dress
f. Jeans (straight-leg are the safest)
g.Leather Jacket 

Ines de le Fressange

9) And finally, the GOLDEN RULE:  Never follow convention; never be bland; never neglect yourself.

Here are my impressions of the Parisienne:

She is not good-looking in the way we have come to define good-looking  - symmetrical features, big eyes, full lips, defined nose, high cheekbones and perfect teeth.   But when you see her you just know this is a woman who is confident in the way she looks and doesn't need to resort to trends to be considered attractive.  She possesses a certain something - call it an innate style if you will - that always sets her apart from everyone else.

In my observations I found the Parisienne to be  conservative by nature.  No ultra mini skirts or low necklines for her and the make-up is very subtle too. She is not fond of artificial talons, infact, gel nails which are so popular here are considered vulgar in Paris.  She wears her nails short and usually varnished in a pale pink colour. Natural is in and perhaps that is why you don't find Parisians rushing off to get lasered and botoxed. Infact, in the time that I was there I didn't come across a single clinic for cosmetic surgery, I'm not saying they don't exist, just saying they aren't that popular or lucrative perhaps.

The women (and men) do like to be slim though...if I were to wager a guess I'd say the average dress size would between a 4 or a 6. Apparently  they don't like to work out (they call it an 'American pastime', but they love to walk and cycle.  They are also very heavy smokers and appear to start young.

Oh and how they love their scarves!!!   There were three items of clothing I saw almost every Parisian don - a scarf, a blazer and a pair of ballerines.  They seem to favour vintage scarves and each woman has her own favourite way of tying it.  Olivier Magny who wrote "Stuff Parisians Like" said this about Parisians and their scarves, 

" The choice of scarf is a determining social qualifyer of both style and 'class sociale'.  So is the way someone chooses to tie his scarf. Parisians know their scarf will characterize them, identify them, position them, rank them, classify them, distinguish them. There can therefore be no messing around  when it comes to choosing a scarf" pg 217.

Ofcourse, my observations here are just generalizations, meant simply to provide a general snapshot of the beautiful women of my new favourite city.  Sure, there are exceptions, but not too many so if you're a Parisian who doesn't enjoy wearing a scarf, or ballet flats for shoes, I'd love to hear from you! :)