It seems to me that if you give a writer the choice of living in heaven or hell, he chooses hell... there’s much more literary material there.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
BACK WHEN TERMS SUCH AS ‘Third World’ and ‘Non-Aligned’ were current, European and American writers and artists found Calcutta the most fascinating metropolis in India. Louis Malle, Dominique Lapierre, Gunter Grass and Roland Joffé each took his turn at interpreting that city, a byword for poverty and misery assuaged by the ministrations of Mother Theresa and her Missionaries of Charity. After 1991, Calcutta’s particular kind of suffering, having ceased to adequately reflect the new order and new chaos of the post-Soviet world, grew increasingly irrelevant to the concerns of intellectuals. Bombay, as it was then officially named, made a far better hell in the time of globalisation: gaudy, violent, innovative and atavistic, it offered a higher contrast ratio than most minds could register. Films and books set in Mumbai generally have fared better in critical estimation than Calcutta-focused efforts. Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire won awards by the bushelful, including an Academy Award for Best Picture. Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity promises to continue that trend. It is the best non-fiction narrative about contemporary India I have read, a definitive account of slum life published at a time when Mumbai looks set to hand over to Delhi the title of India’s most compelling city.
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