Half slum, half paradise: Two tales of the Indian city

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Capital: the Eruption of Delhi by Rana Dasgupta

Katherine Boo Capital

“He let his mind drift as he stared at the city, half slum, half paradise. How could a place be so ugly and violent, yet beautiful at the same time?”

Chris Abani

Quoted in “The Planet of Slums” by Mike Davies

India’s recent spurt in urbanization pales in comparison with that of China, where the urban population has increased from 26% in 1990 to 50% in 2010. During a similar 20 year period India’s urban population went up from 25% to 31%. However, it is a significant shift when seen in the context of the pace of the preceding 90 years — it took 90 years for it to increase from 11% in 1901 to 25% in 1991.

According to a recent report, an astonishing 49% of India’s wealth is now owned by 1% of the super rich.

Behind these statistics are the lives of the people and individuals who are living through these transformative years. Two recent books, focused on the two largest cities in the country–Delhi and Mumbai, explore these lives in the times of this transition.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is by an American journalist, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Katherine Boo married to an Indian and the other Capital: The Eruption of Delhi is by the British-born writer of Indian descent, Rana Dasgupta, who is married to an Indian as well and now lives in New Delhi. The contrast between the two books is remarkable- Boo explores the lives of the poor in one of Mumbai’s slums while Dasgupta converses with the rich and super rich of the country’s capital city.

Katherine Boo’s tells us the humane stories that we just don’t hear any longer in the mainstream media or even popular cinema. The characters in Boo’s book live in Annawadi. This Mumbai slum of 335 huts and 3,000 residents is next to the international terminal and surrounded by four 5-star hotels, is home to people segregated by boundaries of caste and community. There is a Tamil dalit community in one part, a Maharashtrian in another and a Muslim section, all cramped into the one acre area.Read More »

The Dream of the Celt

The Dream of the Celt, Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel published in Spanish in 2010, and whose English translation appeared earlier this year, recounts the life of Sir Roger Casement in the earlier part of the 20th century. Born of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father, Casement served the British Empire well enough to be honoured with the title of ‘Sir’. His life, however, ended tragically when he was executed by the same British state in 1916 for his role in the Easter Uprising in Ireland.

As a 20-year-old, Roger Casement joined the International Congo Society’s (AIC) operations in the Congo in Africa. A fervent believer in the idea that the West was spreading civilization across the world, his ideas underwent a transformation when he was exposed to the brutalities the AIC–owned by the Belgian King Leopold II–was committing to further his interests in the extraction of rubber in that part of the world.

Roger Casement prepared a report strongly indicting the rubber company and hence the Belgian monarch. This report led to Roger Casement’s recognition as a great liberator of the Congolese people. He was subsequently sent to South America to investigate the treatment of natives. His report had a devastating impact, and the Peruvian Amazon Company that was responsible for the atrocities was forced to close down.

His fame had, by then, spread to all echelons of British society, and Sir Roger Casement was offered a diplomatic post as the British ambassador to Brazil. It was then that he made a surprising decision. He turned down the offer and instead decided to return to Ireland and dedicate his life to the freedom from the very colonial power that he had served until recently.Read More »

Populism as Legitimate Class Politics

“As philosophy finds in the proletariat its material weapons, so the proletariat finds in philosophy its intellectual weapons, and as soon as the lightning of thought has struck deep into the virgin soil of the people, the emancipation of the Germans into men will be completed […] The head of its emancipation is philosophy; its heart is the Proletariat. Philosophy cannot realize itself without transcending the Proletariat, the Proletariat cannot transcend itself without realizing philosophy”. [Karl Marx, ‘Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction’]

In his latest post David Harvey explains the current financial crisis and touches upon a number of points. Given its sweep, it is not possible for me to summarize it here, and it is best if you can read the whole post in its entirety.

The only point that I want to make is that the question that he raises about class politics and the leading role ascribed to the industrial working class aka the proletariat. This is because Harvey addresses a question that has befuddled me for over a decade and a half. A classical Marxist position has been the leading role of the proletariat in socializing the means of production and therefore the social surplus (profits) that accrue. The proletariat, whether in the industrialized world or its nascent cousin elsewhere has not taken a leading or even a participant role in anti- capitalist struggles. Lenin explained the absence of a revolutionary proletariat in the West due to the emergence of a ‘labour aristocracy’.

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“I have found a flaw in free markets”. Wow

It is almost like live blogging as history is being made right in front of our eyes- today we have Allen Greenspan admitting that that he has finally found a flaw in the free- market system that he has believed to be working exceptionally well for the last 40 years.

It is one thing when the heathen criticize the neo- liberal assault, another when the gods themselves begin to doubt the divine.

Allen Greenspan: “I have found a flaw

“I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms,” Mr. Greenspan said.

Referring to his free-market ideology, Mr. Greenspan added: “I have found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact.”
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From One Wall to Another: Marx’s Spectre Looms Large

First a look at some headlines past few days:

Twenty million jobs will disappear by the end of next year as a result of the impact of the financial crisis on the global economy, a United Nations agency said on Monday. (source)

With capitalism in crisis, Karl Marx has become fashionable again in the West. Das Kapital, his seminal work, is set to become a best-seller in Europe.
(source)

An even more curious bit of evidence: a recent poll of East Germans by a major magazine found that 52 percent had lost all confidence in the free market economy while 43 percent would support a return to a socialist economy. (source)

Capitalism as we used to know it is on its deathbed. And those who predicted that the old brand, the unfettered, American-promoted system, was a danger to the world, are being vindicated.They include Karl Marx, whose thinking on banks seems oddly contemporary these days. (source)

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It was in the aftermath of the fall of ‘existing socialism’ symbolized by the fall of the Berlin wall, that the French philosopher Derrida wrote his book Specters of Marx. This was his manner of acknowledging the great power of the German who was written off as his statues and pictures were dismantled all over Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union.

Such positions were rare, however, and there has been a great diminishing of those who have continued to acknowledge the influence of Karl Marx and his theories. One of the early forebodings was the dramatic lack of interest in the thoughts of Marx and in Left politics in general among students. In some countries like China and India, a new generation that had witnessed only the fall of socialism and were enamored of the immense possibilities that a new wave of capitalism had opened up for them, swerved to the right. Those left out of the limited progress turned towards identity politics, which, carried to its logical extreme, is self- defeating.
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Who is to Blame?

Is it that the Indian champions of the ‘free- market’ and liberalization-as-magic-wand have disappeared or is it just that I am not reading enough?

One of them, Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar, whose column ‘Swaminomics’ has been a byword for the neo- liberal assault in the Indian media for many years, does write on the debacle on the Wall Street, but  blames it on the ‘perils of giving loans to the poor’!

The crisis arose from the bursting of a housing bubble. That bubble was created, fundamentally, by government policies and institutions seeking home ownership for all Americans, including low-income ones. Politicians rooted for such inclusive finance. But this ‘inclusion’ extended finance to ever more borrowers with fragile and low incomes,  causing disaster. This holds lessons for India.

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