India in Two Book Reviews

While here in India, I write my blog and read books in my free time. There is not good enough internet to watch any shows and the TV would wake up Landon. So, I have been reading a lot. I am trying to read books that take place in the country that I am living in. I have read two books so far, and both were very good non-fiction books that did not seem like non-fiction. I borrow them from my library in Elk Grove and read them on my computer.
I recently read the book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. This caught me right away because I saw the slums in Mumbai. This is non-fiction, but reads just like a novel as it follows many characters that lived in Annawadi, a slum by the Mumbai airport. Many workers flooded the city looking for work when they started working on the new Mumbai International terminal (the one I was impressed with when we first got here). They didn’t have anywhere to live, so they started squatting on the airport land. It follows them from 2007-2011, as they live their lives. In the book they talk about living in the shadow of the Hyatt hotel. That is where we stayed for the night before our flight to Jamnagar. It was eye-opening to realize the reality that these people are facing. One family was successful because their son was really good at sorting trash into all the different types of plastics and metals that could be recycled. He would buy trash that others collected, sort it, and take it to the recycling center to get money. Another lady wanted to be the slumlord so she started hanging out with a politician. She had relationships with many policemen, and started a fake non-profit that was supposed to help with schooling the kids in the slum. She received government money for this, and wrote checks out to all the people who helped her pull it off. One of the families got in trouble with the law. They were asked for bribes for everything from stopping the beatings they were giving a teenage boy to how the testimonies from witnesses were going to go in court.
They detailed the conditions of the hospitals for the poor. No food or water is provided- it must be brought in by family. They give prescriptions to the families as well, and most families cannot pay for the medicine. Their family members in the hospital die because of the lack of sanitary conditions and subpar care. Quite a few people in the book committed suicide for a variety of reasons, from trying to get back at a neighbor to escaping a home full of abuse. It was a bummer of a book, but helped me grasp what life would be like for these people that I saw by the side of the road.
One of the things that struck me the most were the effects of the caste system, and the disrespect in general for human life. She discussed it briefly at the end of the book- that some say that because they believe in reincarnation, it isn’t as big of a deal when somebody dies. Still, in one part an old man who was hit by a car cried for help all day before finally succumbing to his injuries, while people walked passed him multiple times, all busy with their own lives and problems. Kids who had health problems, or just problems in general “accidentally” died in a variety of ways. The author argues that it is not a belief in reincarnation, but a degradation of basic  morals that has caused this pervasive disregard for human life. One of the boys in the book was obviously beaten to death by a mob of men, and was said to have died of TB in the official report to decrease Mumbai’s murder rate. Unbelievable. In sum, it is hard to believe that this book is non-fiction, but at the same time, you can’t make this stuff up!

The other book I read was Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. This intrigued me because there is a pull between tradition and modern life here, much different from that in the U.S. It covers everything from religion to wardrobe. For example, I was talking to my Indian friend Swati. I told her I noticed that many of the old women wore saris only, never kurtas. She said that this is true, that the older generation only wear saris. Her generation (my parents’ generation) as well as the younger generation wear saris only for weddings and other very special events. This middle generation wear kurtas and pants much like the outfits that I purchased. Then there is the younger generation, the ones that have grown up in a global world and have access to all sorts of outside fashion trends through the Internet. They wear pretty much normal clothes- shorts and t-shirts and leggings and such. I think it is very much a personal decision and depending on the family, the kids and older kids are all wearing either traditional clothing or more western style clothing. Swati also said her son likes to eat lots of meat. She raised him as a vegetarian, and her daughter is still a vegetarian. He is in computer technology and she says he may come to the US. Just another example of the young people abandoning their upbringing. At least he is trying to make a great life for himself.
Back to the book. It follows nine different people who are practicing different religions or religious sects in India. They range from an ascetic Jain nun who was ritually fasting to death to a lady who was HIV positive after being given to the local temple of a Hindu goddess to be a sacred prostitute. She, in turn, had to give her daughters to the temple as well because she could not afford dowries. Others were wandering bards and minstrels, some who kept alive an oral tradition of reciting ridiculously long epic poems over 4-5 nights, singing from dusk until dawn. It was a great book to get a little ense of the beliefs of several different religions that make up the fabric of India. It was in no way a boring bok, because he decided to tell the individuals’ stories instead of trying to write a treatise on religion. There was a Buddhist monk who gave up his vows to try to protect Tibet from Chinese invasion, and a lady who lived in a cremation yard and worshipped a formidable Hindu goddess who demanded blood sacrifice of goats. It reminds me that India is a very diverse country in landscapes, people, and religion. Probably the most informative part for me was an explanation of how different groups of Muslims formed (including the scary ones) from a rift in beliefs.

If anyone has any other books on India that they want to recommend, go ahead! I am open to fiction as well, but just stumbled on these non-fiction ones first. 
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