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Three books on India put local problems in perspective

August 29, 2005
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Here in Davis, California, we think we have problems. But really, we don’t have any problems. If we live here we can afford to. We have clean streets in good repair, our garbage is picked up regularly, our utilities are dependable and we have access to good health care. We don’t have problems; we just fine-tune solutions.

And if you don’t believe me, try reading “Maximum City” (2004) by Suketu Mehta, a journalist based in New York who took his wife and children back to Bombay after being gone for 21 years. His wife must have cried herself to sleep for weeks.

Bombay -- renamed Mumbai – is the world's third-largest city (behind Tokyo and Mexico City) with the fifth-highest density at 17,550 per square mile. Some parts of city have squeezed 1 million people into a square mile.

Mehta lived in Bombay as a teen-ager so he brings the perspective of both newcomer and insider as he explores various aspects of Bombay life. The city is completely unable to solve its public policy problems from health, sanitation, traffic, crime, corruption and housing.

Mehta’s explanation of the Bombay’s complicated and historic housing crisis is enough to make the most optimistic city planner give up.

The slum population in the city doubles every decade. Yet there are 400,000 empty residences because the owners are afraid of losing them to tenants – squatters -- if they rent them out Assuming each apartment can house five people that’s 2 million people or one-fourth of the homeless who cold immediately find shelter if the housing laws were amended. But the housing laws including rent control initiated more than 50 years ago will never be amended.

Mehta’s explanation of how each apartment handles its own plumbing is as frightening as it is funny. When he turns on the faucet in his flat, he’s never sure if he’s going to get relatively clean water or his neighbor’s drain water.

“We also have to learn again how to stand in line,” he says, describing his return to the city he loved as a teen-ager. “In Bombay, people are always waiting in line: to vote, to get a flat, to get a job, to get out of the country, to make a railway reservation, make a phone call, go to the toilet.”

India has the third-largest pool of technical labor in the world, but a third of its one billion people can’t read or write.

Mehta also writes about the city’s domestic film industry; Bombay’s particular style of politics; the 1993 riots and bombings between extremist Hindus and Muslims. He described the people he meets and the stories they tell about themselves. It’s intoxicating -- almost too much information. And it definitely has an effect. When I go to India this winter, I’m going to avoid Bombay. I may be ready for this megacity on my second trip to India.

However, I recently read two novels about India that were far kinder than Mehta’s book but still dramatically convey images of that country and its cultures.

“Sister India” (2001) by Peggy Payne -- recommended to me by my good friend Renate Brenneke -- tells the story of three tourists who come to the holy city of Varanasi, an ancient city and pilgrimage site on the Ganges.

“With the Ganges shoreline of old maharajah's palaces, swarming monkeys, continuously burning funeral pyres, and maze of shadowy lanes, it is the most exotic place I've been in all my travel writing," said Payne.

In her book, guests of the Saraswati Guest House in Varanasi are shocked to encounter a surly obese white woman in a sari as their host. And when a series of Hindu-Muslim murders lead to a citywide curfew, the guests risk their lives when they leave the strange little inn.

Another novel about India, “The Sari Shop” (2004) is Rupa Bajwa's debut. This book was recommended to me by Mike Allen of Davis because, he said, it brilliantly describes India’s caste system.

Set in the Indian city of Amritsar, the wealthy elite are presented in relief to the shop workers, particularly a young man named Ramchand. At the Sevak Sari House, Ramchand and his fellow shop assistants wait upon upper-caste women who buy saris like pretty pieces of candy without thought to the cost.

Ramchand is relatively content with a life that revolves around the sari shop; he has few expectations. He is in love at a distance with his landlord’s wife – that’s romance enough for him. But his life changes when he makes a house call for the shop.

In the home of beautiful Indian bride-to-be, Ramchand's eyes are opened to wealth and privilege and his begins an intense program of self-improvement that includes studying English.

Ramchand is than asked to make another house call – this time to check on the welfare of another shop assistant whose life behind closed doors is anything but what it seems in the mask he wears to work.

These three books offer a glimpse of India that will be more fully revealed when I go there this winter. Perhaps I’ll have more reading recommendations after that trip.

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at gizmo@dcn.org and watch for more local writers to be featured biweekly at this web site. If you want to know how some Davis residents are getting involved with India today, go to www.sahaya.org

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books at discounted prices [ Click Here ]

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