Although much has been written about India, two new titles of narrative nonfiction offer fresh perspectives.
Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India by Suchitra Vijayan, Melville House Publishing, $29.99, 315 Pages
Indian-born Suchitra Vijayan, journalist and photographer, who was trained as a barrister, worked for the United Nations. She was the co-founder of Resettlement Legal Aid Project in Cairo. Through all these endeavors, she nurtured a dream. To understand her own country better and travel the borders that India shared with her neighboring countries, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. No one had attempted such an arduous journey, which is three-thousand-miles long.
It’d take Vijayan seven years, save for the time she took off for the birth of her daughter. In this book, rather than offer a chronological account, she shares powerful stories of people she encountered on the road. They’d often been displaced from their own land due to these divisions and lost not only their possessions but their identities. “My role, then, and this book’s role,” she says, “is to find in their articulations, a critique of the nation-state, its violence, and the arbitrariness of territorial sovereignty.”
Her travel would not be complete, as her visa to Pakistan was denied. “But we have the duty to break these borders,” she says undaunted, “to reclaim what was denied to us, so as not to pass this loss to our children.”
Castaway Mountains: Love and Loss among the Wastepickers of Mumbai by Soumya Roy, Astra House, $28.00, 259 Pages
Question: What happens to our garbage after it’s been collected? An illuminating answer can be found in a new title, Castaway Mountain. The place is Mumbai, specifically the township of Deonar, the dumping ground for the mega-city’s trash. Author Roy portrays a group of people who know just what to do with this waste mountain. They eke out a living by scouring the garbage and discovering goods that can be reused, recycled, or resold. “I came to see these mountains as an outpouring of our modern lives—of the endless chase for our desires to fill us,” Roy says.
Roy tells her story through the eyes of a young picker named Farzana, who has grown up in the vicinity of this mountain and whose parents can’t keep her away from it. This, despite the fact that she and others face unhealthful conditions. They could suffer from fever, eye infection, or tuberculosis. They could be mauled by dogs or could slip and fall off the mountain. Territorial disputes can turn ugly. Yet, life for these pickers is not dismal. Closeness in the family and the community count for a lot, and there exists a spirit of caring about each other.
This book is not a light read. It makes us ponder the wastefulness of our consumer society, thereby perhaps serving its ultimate purpose.
Bharti Kirchner is the author of eight novels and four nonfiction works. Her most recent novel is Murder at Andaman: A Maya Mallick Mystery.