Fighting for Scraps

Pankaj Mishra in The New York Times:

MishIn “The Drowned and the Saved,” Primo Levi describes an experience that fatally undermined many of his fellow condemned at Auschwitz. Entering the death camp, he had hoped, he wrote, “at least for the solidarity of one’s companions in misfortune.” Instead, there were “a thousand sealed-off monads, and between them a desperate covert and continuous struggle.” This was what Levi called the “Gray Zone,” where the “network of human relationships” “could not be reduced to the two blocs of victims and persecutors,” and where “the enemy was all around but also inside.”

It may seem grotesquely inappropriate to recall Levi’s struggles for survival in a Nazi camp while thinking of the apparently self-reliant individualists of a slum called Annawadi near Mumbai’s airport — the setting of Katherine Boo’s extraordinary first book, which describes a few months in the life of a young garbage trader, Abdul, and his friends and family. After all, these plucky “slumdogs” may be — in at least one recent fantasy — India’s next millionaires, part of the lucky 1 percent able to savor the five-star hotels that loom over Annawadi. Certainly, as noted by Boo — a staff writer at The New Yorker who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2000, when she was a journalist at The Washington Post — they are not considered poor by “official” Indian benchmarks; they are “among roughly 100 million Indians freed from poverty since 1991,” when the central government “embraced economic liberalization,” “part of one of the most stirring success narratives in the modern history of global market capitalism,” in which a self-propelling economic system is geared to reward motivated and resourceful individuals with personal wealth.

More here.