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India, China, and the Importance of Storytelling

• March 14, 2012 • 4:00 AM

Katherine Boo’s debut book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is a powerful story set in a Mumbai slum, and a reminder of how important stories about ordinary people can be.

Every time they fly in and out of Mumbai, tourists, businesspeople, and politicians can see blue-tarp and cardboard rooftops squeezed between condominiums and luxury hotels. The irony of Mumbai’s slums is that the urban poor are ubiquitous, simultaneously visible and invisible.

But seeing slums from the perspective of those who inhabit them — and not just an aerial view — is crucial to gaining real insight into a place. As UCLA historian Vinay Lal asks, “How else is one to understand a civilization and a particular junction in time?”

Katherine Boo’s debut book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, offers readers the chance to see this India from the ground up. Hers is a deeply reported story about Annawadi, a community of 3,000 people living at the edge of Mumbai’s international airport. Boo gained remarkable access to the people of the neighborhood. At first, her presence in the slum was a curiosity, she told attendees at a book talk in Los Angeles. But over time, as she returned again and again for more than three years, Annawadians lost interest in their strange, American observer and went about their business. For her part, this access allowed Boo to present nuanced characters — neither victims nor heroes of poverty, but three-dimensional people who are good and bad and complicated.

Mumbai is ripe with interesting, everyday stories. Great wealth and desperate poverty are next-door neighbors, creating a convenient space to witness the inequities of a civilization up close. Behind the Beautiful Forevers adds to a growing body of work in English that looks closely at Mumbai’s changing topography. Sukethu Metha’s Maximum City takes on Mumbai’s seedy side, Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables offers historical narratives, and famously, one Mumbai slumdog became a millionaire in Danny Boyle’s 2008 film.

The “new India,” as Lal describes it, has become a popular theme in literature in the last two decades, not least because India has the second-fastest-growing economy in the world.

China has the fastest-growing economy in the world, but its diversity and inequities are not as well embedded in the popular imaginations of Westerners. Nuanced portraits like Boo’s are harder to come by. American media and political rhetoric on China too often paints the picture of a monolith, says Adam Hersh, who researches China’s economy at the Center for American Progress. This takes agency away from individuals in China and makes it too easy to describe the country in broad, harsh terms.

Since India is not seen as a threat to the United States’ global power, this allows storytelling about Indians’ complex lives to proceed without the obstacles that arise in telling similar Chinese stories. Reportage on China is hampered by access, language barriers, and censorship. Rural communities are often off-limits to outsiders and Chinese people’s opportunities to participate in civil discourse are more limited.

“The stories that will evoke the most compassion in China are the ones that are hardest to tell,” says Hersh.

But those hard-won narratives are often the most important to Westerners’ understanding of Asia’s development. Hersh cites Chen Village, an ethnographic study of a small village in China during the Great Leap Forward, as one of the most influential books in his work. It showed him that most of China’s industrial policy happens at the local level, contrary to prevailing ideas of centralized control. He favors stories over arguments in his reading, so his bookshelf holds Leslie T. Chang’s intimate portrait of migrant laborers in Factory Girls and Michael Meyer’s account of Beijing’s vanishing historical neighborhoods (which some call slums) in The Last Days of Old Beijing.

These kinds of individual narratives are essential to deeper understanding. Boo writes that India is home to one-third of the planet’s poor — an easy statistic to believe — but it is her meticulously collected descriptions of that poverty, turned into a gripping true story, that are powerful. Poverty is a boy who pulls a kite from a tree, not to fly, but to sell. It is the annoyance of foot fungus that grows around toe rings during a flood, the creativity of people who scavenge for recyclable goods. Poverty is trying to overcome the feeling that life is cheap.

For Lal, the proliferation of engaging narrative nonfiction about India’s poor does not mean that the lives of slum dwellers will improve. Reporting that gets close to ordinary people is an important part of his courses on modern Indian, but there is a difference, he says, between pedagogy and the bureaucracy of public policy.

But Philip Seib, director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, takes a more optimistic view. “That kind of journalism is important, or should be important to policymakers, because it makes things real,” he says. “It gives us faces and people to care about.”

Seib is the author of Real-Time Diplomacy, a study of politics and social media that will be published in April. He says that stories about ordinary people have a real impact on foreign policy, pointing to the importance of Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times reports on Darfur to changing the George W. Bush administration’s position on genocide and the television images of the 1992 famine in Somalia that helped push George H.W. Bush to action.

“Policymakers presumably have hearts,” Seib says. And even if they are not moved to action, books like Boo’s can galvanize the public, which in turn gives them a push to change course.

In her author’s note, Boo explains this reasoning succinctly: “When I settle into a place, listening and watching, I don’t try to fool myself that the stories of individuals are themselves arguments. I just believe that better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about ordinary lives.”

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Angilee Shah
Angilee Shah is the co-editor of Chinese Characters, (http://chinesecharacters.tumblr.com/) a book of essays about everyday lives in a rapidly changing country. It will be published this summer by UC Press. She is a Los Angeles-based journalist who writes about globalization, politics and conflict. Her work has appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review and Asia Pacific Arts, and on the Global Voices and The China Beat blogs. (angileeshah.com)

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