In­dia’s poor, up close

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion -

they can cre­ate a plau­si­ble charge against Fa­tima’s neigh­bors, they can so­licit bribes from the neigh­bors to make the charge go away.

In­dia has strict laws against en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to com­mit sui­cide — these laws can be traced back to Bri­tish rule and its at­tempt to stamp out “sati,” a cul­tural prac­tice of forc­ing wid­ows to kill them­selves by walk­ing into their hus­bands’ fu­neral pyres. So, Fa­tima sim­ply claims that her neigh­bors taunted, threat­ened and beat her, lead­ing to her sui­cide.

The ar­rest of Fa­tima’s neigh­bors, the Hu­sains, gives us a glimpse in­side In­dia’s jus­tice sys­tem. Con­fes­sions are ex­torted through beat­ings, fa­vor­able treat­ment in jail is bought and sold and tri­als are rushed, thanks to a se­vere back­log of cases.

De­spite the fact that Ms. Boo clearly took a very hands-on, per­sonal ap­proach in her re­port­ing, the book reads like a work of fic­tion with an om­ni­scient nar­ra­tor — the au­thor is com­pletely ab­sent from the story, and noth­ing seems hid­den from her view. At times, thoughts about the re­port­ing process will in­ter­rupt the reader: Why should we trust Ms. Boo’s as­ser­tions about what peo­ple were think­ing? How did she get so much de­tail about what hap­pened while the po­lice were beat­ing a sus­pect?

The au­thor ex­plains her process in a brief es­say at the end of the book. She wit­nessed most of what she wrote about, and the rest is painstak­ingly con­structed from in­ter­views and public doc­u­ments. Some readers might still be un­com­fort­able with this ap­proach, but one ma­jor ad­van­tage is that it avoids mak­ing the Western re­porter the cen­ter of the story.

Eco­nomic in­equal­ity is an ob­vi­ous fo­cus of “Be­hind the Beau­ti­ful Fore­vers,” and judg­ing by the ex­cited blurb pro­vided by lefty ac­tivist Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich, the book will stir some lib­er­als to ac­tion. But it’s rather hard to nail down Ms. Boo’s own pol­i­tics. Like a con­ser­va­tive, she seems acutely aware that eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment has lifted far more peo­ple out of poverty than gov­ern­ment pro­grams ever could, but, like a lib­eral, she seems dis­ap­pointed that the poor are po­lit­i­cally dis­or­ga­nized and un­able to de­mand much of the so­ci­eties they live in.

Rather than flesh­ing out an ar­gu­ment as to how to solve the prob­lems of An­nawadi, she is con­tent to ex­plain the facts — em­pa­thet­i­cally, but with no at­tempt to gloss over the per­sonal fail­ings of her sub­jects. Just as we meet hard-work­ing scav­engers who never seem to get ahead, we en­counter drunk­en­ness, envy, cor­rup­tion and Eraz-ex, a white­out cor­rec­tion fluid that young men huff to get high.

As much of In­dia emerges from poverty, some will un­doubt­edly be left be­hind, as they are in any so­ci­ety. Even­tu­ally, most poverty will be a symp­tom not of the coun­try’s gen­eral lack of pros­per­ity, but of some blend of coun­ter­pro­duc­tive be­hav­ior and op­pres­sion. “Be­hind the Beau­ti­ful Fore­vers” is a case study in how that process will un­fold in a na­tion of more than 1 bil­lion peo­ple.

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