Notes from the Undercity

Article00Jonathan Shainin in Bookforum:

On December 9, 2011, the ABC News program 20/20 aired a dramatic report from India, presented by the show’s Emmy Award–winning anchor Elizabeth Vargas. In an uncharacteristically long piece devoted to social issues in a foreign country not recently liberated from tyranny by an American invasion, the fifteen-minute segment set out to reveal what its title dubbed “India’s Deadly Secret.” The deadly secret in question—so secret that the Times of India has only mentioned it about six hundred times in the past two years, according to LexisNexis—is the propensity of Indian families to abort female fetuses: a disturbing and disturbingly widespread practice, which has produced badly skewed child sex ratios (as high as 129 boys for every 100 girls in certain districts) that indicate the “disappearance” of tens of millions of women over the past several decades.

This is a subject of unquestionable significance, but 20/20’s report on India’s “growing gender gap” turned out to be a kind of master class in how deeply a group of well-meaning journalists can drown their good intentions in a warm bath of patronizing condescension and pity. Backed by the requisite sitar-and-tabla sound track, Vargas strode bravely down dusty, crowded roads with nary a female in sight. “Walk down any street, as I did throughout India,” she said in a voice-over, “and you notice something startling: In every direction you see men, and very few women.” Cut to a slow-motion shot of four uniformed schoolgirls walking past the camera: “Now look closely at the faces of these girls. They are the lucky ones—they’re alive.” (Figures from the 2011 census suggest that they have the company of 572 million other living Indian women.)

If you were playing Sentimental Orientalist bingo while watching at home, your card would have filled up pretty fast. Obligatory reference—“in a land where men revere female goddesses”—to “spiritual” India? Check. Needless (and erroneous) recourse to “ancient tradition” as an explanation for contemporary behavior? Check. Failure to acknowledge that the scourge of sex-selective abortion afflicts countries from Albania and Armenia to South Korea and Vietnam? Check. Concluding with ponderous and vaguely uplifting quote on-screen from Mahatma Gandhi? Check. Spelling his name incorrectly? Bingo.

If I had to tell you one thing about Katherine Boo’s astonishingly fine new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I might start by noting that what a team of journalists from ABC News failed to accurately convey with fifteen minutes of video and who knows how many thousands of dollars, Boo manages in a single sentence. After describing how Fatima, one of the Mumbai slum dwellers whose lives this book chronicles with remarkable precision and a bracing refusal of pity, had drowned her own two-year-old daughter in a bucket, Boo encapsulates the whole terrible phenomenon of female feticide in India in thirty-two unadorned words: “Young girls in the slums died all the time under dubious circumstances, since most slum families couldn’t afford the sonograms that allowed wealthier families to dispose of their female liabilities before birth.”