The Great Indian Phone Book: how the cheap cell phone changes business, politics, and daily life is a non-fiction book (but would be a great title for a novel, right?) that soberly explores the transformations brought about by massive access to telecommunications, in a country where getting a landline used to require years of waiting. The strength of the book is its measured approach. The authors never claim that cheap cell phones changed society, but they show how they allow boatmen to build a clientele, bring picture evidence to a reluctant police force, and are even changing the way wives, traditionally oppressed, can communicate with others, starting with their families of origin. I also found the description of the business model for cell phones in a poor country very interesting, from the rule of the prepaid card to the small entrepreneurs who service the phones outside the official repair centers. Well worth reading!
Tag Archives: India
tells a sobering story of life in India, with a heavy focus on what’s not working, especially environmental pollution and the widening gap between rich and poor. I welcomed the idea that the author lives in India, although he was not born there, and I also liked his sharing of many anecdotes with friends and associates, but I thought the doom-and-gloom was rather overdone, and the author had trouble rising above the individual stories. In the same vein, I much preferred Behind the Beautiful Forevers and even Beautiful Thing – both quite dark, despite their cheery titles, but with more hope than this book.
Just last month, I reviewed another documentary on everyday life in India, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which I found breathtaking and novel-like. I did not enjoy this one nearly as much. Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars (beautiful, again?) tells the story of exotic dancers in Mumbai and their sad lives of abuse, starting when they were children and often condoned by their parents, and continued by their clients, their bosses, and their pimps. It’s just very sad, but it’s also quite boring, as the central characters don’t seem to be able or willing to get interested in more than superficial items, nor to plan a way out of their sad lives — which they could do, in theory at least, since they make a very good living during their few years of youth…
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is the raw and tender story of two families, living in a slum right beside the glittering Mumbai airport, a slum where only six of the 3,000 residents hold a permanent job. But that doesn’t mean that the others are idle, on the contrary. The main family portrayed in the book is engaged in what is at fist a thriving garbage recycling business, headed by the older son who sacrificed his schooling to help his ailing father and his business-minded mother raise the other five siblings. But ethnic conflicts and mere bad luck cause the son, his father, and a sister to be arrested on suspicion of burning their neighbor to death, amidst lavish bribing of the police by all parties. This is non-fiction so we get the workings of the garbage-recycling business, neatly structured by tiers, the intricacies of bribes and the people whom I could call bribe consultants, who tell others how much is needed for each circumstances, and how badly both governmental and NGO help fails to address the real problems. This journalist writes like a novelist.
I had liked Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger, an edgy story about a driver turned entrepreneur in a Bangalore with rich and poor, and seemingly no one in the middle, and I liked Last Man in Tower, a tale of real estate development in booming Mumbai. As in The White Tiger, the author makes it personal, focusing on the corrupt, but entirely likable real estate developer with a messy family life, pitted against the owners of condos in a crumbling building that he wants to raze to build a vertiginous tower. What made the story for me was the accumulation of little substories: the mangoes from the street vendors after a harrowing train commute, the rat on the roof of the restaurant, the shop owners who was born in Kenya while Indians were welcome there, the letter writing of sisters who try to outdo each other’s vocabulary. The intrigues of the condo owners enticed me in their pettiness and diversity, but after 200 pages the obstinate refusal of the retired schoolteacher to sell got a little tedious. Still, an enjoyable story of greed and the clash of modernity and tradition.
Enticingly exotic, beautifully written, and masterfully constructed, The Cat’s Table just did not grab me the way I thought it might. The cat’s table of the title is the least desirable table of an ocean liner that transports the hero, an eleven-year old boy, from his childhood in Sri Lanka to a new life in London to meet his estranged mother. The boy behaves much like one would expect an eleven-year old travelling alone, especially when joined by two others. They make good use of the lifeboats and they enjoy sliding competitions on the deck. They explore the entire ship and get mixed up with some strange business — all with perfect-pitch descriptions.
But even as the three weeks on the boat stretch in wondrous ways as each passenger’s story allows, indeed requires, after a few hundred pages I got a little restless and even the mysterious spies failed to capture my attention, or felt overdone. How many mysteries can one ship hold, after all?
I’m giving a generous two-star ratings to Miss New India because of the first half of the book, which tells of the heroine, an ambitious young Indian woman from a small town and without many prospects, to glittering Bangalore, hoping for a job in a call center. The strictures of her family, the limitations of her small town, her own prejudices coupled with her ambitions are well rendered along with the bewildering contrast between her old life and the fast-paced, modern outlook of the Bangalore crowd.
But once she gets to Bangalore the story falters. She very improbably finds herself housed, trained, and fully supported courtesy of the connections of her American teacher back home and what are the odds that someone, having chosen to live in an isolated small town, would have such strong ties to influential people? What are the odds that she would find herself in a middle of a terrorist ring? That she would be practically adopted by a wealthy family? Should have stuck to the country girl in the big city script.
India Calling reminded me of River Town and Factory Girls, two books about China but with a very similar feel of being able to penetrate into the daily lives of locals. Now this book is about India rather than China, but many stories are eerily similar: stories of great differences between cities and villages, stories of dislocated families when young people move to the cities and into a very different lifestyle, and stories of wrenching changes happening within one generation and leaving everyone uncertain as to what the new rules of behavior might be.
And this book, too, is written by an outsider since the author, although ethnically Indian, was born and raised in the United States and moved to India (only temporarily, as it turns out) as an adult. As he describes the subtle cultural shifts he had to make as a child when visiting his grandparents and cousins, it’s clear that he defines himself as an American and that no Indian acquaintance is fooled by his name or his appearance.
The book ends abruptly without much of a conclusion but I found it fascinating and kind rather than critical, even when the author clearly disapproves of some of the local customs.
Having loved The White Tiger, I picked up Between the Assassinations with high expectations — and I was disappointed. Not that the stories of the sleepy Indian town of Kittur fail to show the caste conflicts and how they are exploited by politicians; the bribes that everyone, from delivery workers to factory owners, is expected to pay to get the privilege to deliver items from the furniture store or to keep the lights on in the factory; the riches of the families with a worker in the Gulf; or the essential despair of eking out an existence. But each time I managed to get attached to one character or another, which was often, down came the story to an end. I will hope for a novel next time.
Atlas of Unknowns tells the story of two Indian sisters, one who has a chance, not wholly deserved, to study in the US, while the other stays home and takes care of her father and grandmother. The tortuous visa application process, the arranged marriage matches gently but firmly controlled by the would-be brides, the do-gooders at the American private school are all described with a funny and perfect pitch. Very enjoyable, almost all the way to the end — the ending is flat but the rest of the story is perfect.