Sunday, April 15, 2007

Maximum Bombay

Before I came to the US in 1989, I had been to Bombay only once, for four days. It rained the whole time. Buckets of water poured down in sheets. I was marooned on the IIT campus where I was staying. The only sights I saw were the campus buildings and those visible from the local train that took me to and from Dadar railway station. The much-celebrated city of dreams was a stranger to me when I was living in India.

I have visited Bombay several times since then, staying for a week or ten days in New Bombay, where residents repeatedly tell you that it's much cleaner than Bombay. I took the local train to VT from the Vashi railway station on the harbour line several times. In the 1990s, the Vashi railway station, quite amazingly for an Indian railway station, used to be spotlessly clean. From there, the cleanliness went downhill on the one hour ride to VT. You couldn't avoid the horrors of Bombay even if you wanted to. About half way to VT, the slums begin to appear. For kilometers on end, shanties line the tracks. The rudimentary dwellings of mud, brick, tin and tarpaulin are barely a few yards away from the rushing trains. Mounds of garbage and open drains abound. The extent of the slums, the number of people who live there and the dire living conditions are overwhelming. There is no alternative but to block it out of your mind.

I have been wary of the common stereotypes of slums, poverty and ugliness tagged on to the cities of India (and the rest of the country by extension). I used to live in the middle of the country, away from the cities, in a government-built township for employees of a public sector firm. While living in India, I had rarely encountered the dire poverty and sheer ugliness of the cities that travel writers described. Unfortunately, my visits to Bombay in the 1990s convinced me that there wasn't much exaggeration in these accounts.

And then there is the other Bombay. A city of wealth. A city of glamour. A city of gangsters. People in the rest of India read about the outrageous lifestyles of the rich and the beautiful. With awe and fascination, they hear about the exploits of the dons of the underworld. Back in the 1980s, the now defunct Illustrated Weekly of India featured regular reports on the dons - I recall in particular a picture of Varadarajan Mudaliar, a somewhat unlikely Tamil don, gazing out to sea.

Suketu Mehta's Maximum City is an attempt to record and capture many of these aspects of the city. His book is unlike any other book featuring Bombay. It is not a work of fiction, but many parts of it are far more fascinating than fiction. It has been described as a travel narrative, but Mehta does not travel much. In as much as a city can be said to possess a character, Mehta exposes it. And what he exposes is not pretty.

The book is peopled by a diverse cast of characters - along with the vicious murderers and political goons are gangsters and brutal cops, bar-room dancers, movie stars and directors. You have to keep telling yourself that all of this is real. Mehta spends a considerable amount of time with each of these people and soon we get to know them as well as it is possible to know any literary character. Many of these people are despicable. Others, like the bar-room dancer, are not wholly admirable either. Even someone Mehta paints with some sympathy, like the police commissioner Ajay Lal, comes across as a tyrant who lets his underlings do the dirty work for him. There is hope, however, in the form of the naive teenage runaway from Bihar, an aspiring poet with a delicate sensibility.

What is remarkable in all of this is Mehta's ability to report things without pronouncing judgement. His powers of observation are acute, but he lets his characters do all the talking. But because he chooses what to write about and what to tell us, his voice is unmistakably present throughout. Mehta's stupendous achievement is thus ultimately journalistic. He shows us aspects of life and human behavior that we suspected all along did exist, but had no means of knowing anything about.

Most of the book is set in the late 1990s. It seems to have been in production for many years, finally being published in 2004. I remember having read an early excerpt in Granta back in 1997, in which he described a Shiv Sena goon's account of burning another human being alive. This is perhaps the most ghastly thing you will encounter in the book, but other depravities come close.

Maximum City is a truly Dickensian book. It is unlikely to be surpassed as a picture of late 20th-century Bombay.

Friday, April 06, 2007

La Bataille d'Alger

The Pentagon, demonstrating unusual prescience, screened this movie for its educational value in August 2003 for Americans about to descend into a morass of insurgency, counterinsurgency and civil war in Iraq. The historical parallel between Iraq today and Algeria in the 1950s is far from perfect, but a Western occupying power in a third world country facing violent uprisings was not all that uncommon in the 20th century. It is an enduring tragedy that Western powers continue to delude themselves about occupations.

The Battle of Algiers is a captivating film due to its historical authenticity. It is based on a book by a member of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), who also acted in the film. [The FLN, in its pre-independence role, was a revolutionary organization fighting the French during the Algerian war of independence from 1954-1962.]

The movie is fair in the sense that it depicts violence both by the insurgents as well as the French, though it seemed clear to me that the sympathies of the script are with the Algerians. The characters are well-etched, despite the shortness of the film. On the Algerian side, there is the organizer of the insurgency Jafar, the common criminal turned revolutionary Ali La Pointe, and the ideologue Ben M'Hidi explaining the goals of terrorism. The French response to the insurgency is articulated through the character of Colonel Mathieu. The scenes of his press conferences for the Parisian press are striking - especially when he tells them that the success of the counterinsurgency depends on the support of the press and the public back in France.

The film is black and white, in conforming to the film-making canon that this somehow makes the narrative more authentic. I first encountered this belief when Schindler's List was released, but I have found it difficult to agree with it. My argument is simply that reality happens in color, so a film aiming to be realistic ought to use color.

In terms of technique, the quality of the film-making is quite good. The performances are controlled, the violence is no more gory than necessary, and the melodrama is kept to a minimum. The film has a very sure-footed script and screenplay and the viewer's interest does not flag.

There are a couple of scenes of torture. The extent of the torture was probably underreported at the time and is consequently underplayed in the film. Despite this, in keeping with the great traditions of Western culture and support for free speech, this movie was banned in France for five years and had its torture scenes deleted before being released in Britain and in the US.

The French have only recently begun to acknowledge some of what went on during the Algerian war of independence. Unfortunately, the Algerians have not covered themselves in glory, either during the war of independence, or in the massacres of collaborators after it, or during the ensuing power struggles, or during the civil war of the 1990s. Adam Shatz covers the historical ground very well in a November 2002 essay in the New York Review of Books, reproduced here.

The French connection with Algeria was extraordinarily brutal, going back to the 1840s, after their involvement in Algeria began with the initial capture of Algiers in 1830. From this article in Le Monde Diplomatique, we learn that Alexis de Tocqueville, he of Democracy in America fame, felt that the French were entitled to "ravage the country" in order to suppress the rebellion in the 1840s. The ravaging is estimated to have killed around 500,000 people out of a population of about 3 million.