Narrating the Real World

(An excerpt from my discussion of non-fiction as narrative genre, and Katherine Boo's recent book. Read the rest of it here. )

Annawadi is as much a microcosm of power as the grand stage of the neo-liberal state is. As much as legitimate quarters of power keep alive this community of want as a source of political patronage, swinging between the threat of dispossession in a ‘demolition’ drive and gasping afloat over surprise gifts of brick and mortar, Annawadi throws up its own protectors and providers. Boo’s story, in a seventies Amitabh Bachchan movie, would have turned Abdul into a Vijay who romances the Hyatt-owner’s daughter, Parveen Babi, swings his ‘chor’-tattooed wrist, and collects his pound of flesh from a corrupt police officer. Boo’s story, in Aamir Khan’s Rangeela, might have turned Manju into an Urmila Matondkar who ‘by-hearts’ English poems and swoons atop sea rocks in sarongs. Boo’s portrayal of the deadening yet hopeful struggle for survival – ‘in relative peace’ of the ‘great, unequal city’ – resonate somewhat with the rustic Bollywood tales of desperation fortified by the foolish hope and flights of fantasy that only the Sunils and the Mirchis might encourage in their hearts. Bollywood shelters us from the gory suicides and treacherous in-fighting in undercities. When it does tell us of lockup-beatings, it packs with it the crucial condiment of justice at the end.

Boo takes on many structures of narrating want and desperation that are embedded in the Indian intellectual and reflexive worlds. She sees the under-subject not through the lenses of self-conscious empathy, overstated heroism, angered protest against the agents of capital, or despairing collusion with forces that be, but in a humanistic rhythm that distils a classic human motif out of the particulars of the Indian, postcolonial juggernaut. She narrates violence without enveloping it in the narrative tool of tragedy. She narrates want without resorting to the easy tool of aesthetisation. She steers clear of mirroring the standard-format-liberal-self on the under-subject which makes them seem closer home, seeing components of the liberal quest for freedom, privacy, and dignity in the piecemeal undercitizen.

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