Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Beautiful and the Damned: a very short review

At some point this fall I zipped through The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India by Siddhartha Deb.

It's an extremely quick read, short and fascinating, vivid and well-written, but oh my is it grim and depressing. The book is structured as five stories, about five representative individuals that the author meets and gets to know in some detail: a businessman, an engineer, a farmer, a factory worker, and a waitress. Each story is compelling and intriguing.

But the book is really about India as a whole, as the subtitle suggests, and unfortunately India as a whole is described as a terrifyingly awful place:

The data collected by the Indian government, which has been subject to some controversy for its tendency to downplay the number of poor people and the extent of their destitution, is nevertheless stark. In 2004-5, the last year for which data was available, the total number of people in India consuming less than 20 rupees (or 50 cents) a day was 836 million -- or 77 per cent of the population.


They live in slums, are expected to be available to work around the clock, and are denied access to the ration cards that would allow them to buy subsidized food from what remains of the country's public distribution system. And although they are everywhere -- huddled in tents erected on pavements and under flyovers in Delhi; at marketplaces in Calcutta, where they sit with cloth bags of tools ready for a contractor to hire them for the day; gathered around fires made from rags and newspapers in the town of Imphal, near Burma; and at train stations everywhere as they struggle to make their way into the 'unreserved' compartments offering human beings as much room as cattle trucks taking their passengers to the slaughterhouse -- they are invisible in the sense that they seem to count for nothing at all.

If you are interested in India, this is a great book, but prepare to do some serious soul-searching about the future of the human race as you read it.

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