March 20, 2012

India, Pakistan and two great books

I love spending time in other countries.

Not that I've done it often, at least not in a physical sense.

But I do spend a lot of time reading about other countries, and I love books that allow me to feel like I've actually been there.

This month, I've spent quite a bit of time in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  It's all been thanks to two very interesting, very different non-fiction books: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, and Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan, by Amhed Rashid.

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a beautifully disturbing book.  Beautiful in that the writing is lush, lyrical.  You are in India while you read it; you can smell the spices, hear the music and the nightly calls to prayer.

But you can also feel claustrophobic while reading Boo's descriptions of the slums of Mumbai.  The tight and tighter living quarters. The filth. The stench of the public toilets, which are really just glorified drainage ditches.  You can smell the smog and the car exhaust, and you can hear the airplanes taking off and landing mere feet from the slum.

Boo's writing is that good.

Her story about a family, wrongfully accused in the death of a one-legged slum-dweller, is heartbreaking. A society rife with corruption allows a sham of a trial to continue long after it's been proven (over and over and over again) that the accused are all innocent.

The sub-stories of desperate suicides, and wrongful deaths left not investigated, may make you cry.

Boo's writing is that good.

Throughout the story, you bear brief witness to the opulence, the wealth of the new India, in which the upper class grows richer and more powerful. When you glimpse it, though, it is through a fence or over a wall or while hanging from the side of a fast-moving bus, and you know the people about whom you've read, about whom you now care, will never taste that life.

They'll only taste the slum.

You will be sad. Because Boo's writing is that good, and the stories she tells are that real.

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Where Beautiful Forevers is lyrical, Pakistan on the Brink is thick, heavy, laden with information. To read a chapter is to learn more than you ever thought you could grasp about the recent history of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and also the multiple (and continued, in the opinion of the author) follies of past and current United States administrations.

Each chapter is a standalone essay about a different piece of history. The first one, about the slaying of Osama Bin Laden within the Pakistan borders, offers a chilling account of the moments leading up to his death, in the small, sleepy city in which he had long hidden.

Later chapters detail the Taliban regime, extremist organizations within both countries, and offer further insights into the Pakistani disenchantment with the West.

It's a dangerous world about which Rashid writes, and a disturbing one. While reading, I felt my Americanness descend upon me like a scarlet letter.  It made me feel less safe.

What I found truly interesting, though, and why I chose to write about these two books in tandem, was this: Rashid frequently points to the economic growth and successes of India, Pakistan's nemesis and neighbor.  He holds India up as the example to which Pakistan should aspire.

While reading that, I thought of the slums, the corruption, the pollution. I thought of the anger and resentment of a people living under complete economic repression.

I was struck by the similarities of the two countries, and their differences. The thing is, both countries teeter on the edge of an ever-sharpening knife. Let's hope neither country ever falters.

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