Posts Tagged ‘corruption’

Running title: Behind The Beautiful Forevers – Life, Death And Hope In A Mumbai Undercity

This book was published in 2012 (yes, eight years old) and by some strange standards, it may be considered “old”. Whatever. For some strange reason I’ve always wanted to read this book (aside from the fact someone gave it to me eons ago and it was sitting on my bookshelf) and eventually it took a quarantine to force me to read it. Needless to say, I regret not having read this MUCH EARLIER. But enough with the bollocks and such and let’s get on with the bloody review.

Beautiful centers on the lives of inhabitants of a makeshift settlement, not too far from a group of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, called Annawadi. It is basically a settlement built by squatters who merely exists in the shadows of India’s society. The book, however, centers around some interesting characters.
There is Abdul, along with his mother Zehrunisa, a garbage sorter that has his trade down to a “science”. Barely a teen, along with his younger brother, this is what he does to provide for his family after his father suffered an injury to his back (which doesn’t seem to stop him from impregnating Zehrunisa). Then there is the mother/daughter team of Asha and Manju. Asha aims to be a top slumlord … someday … with great political affiliations, but in the meanwhile serves as the village councilor, that prostitutes herself and engages in little bouts of fraud and extortion. Yes, she’s quite the ambitious one. Manju, her daughter on the other hand has a decent education and earns money tutoring internet basics and classes that paid district teachers neglect to do. Did I mention that Manju is a prepubescent teen? Then there is Fatima or One-Leg, a one legged amputee (hence the nickname) that is a bit of a trouble maker but gets around in more ways than one and proving, simultaneously, that amputation does not dampen the libido or promiscuity. The Hussains (Abdul, Zehrunisa et al) have done quite well for themselves mostly due to Abdul’s discerning eye for scavenging “quality” garbage that can be sold to recyclers. Unfortunately, when you live on the margins of society, you are a sitting duck for every motivated hyena and coyote that comes by. In this case, the “coyotes” are usually police officers that shake down scavengers for the little that they earn. In some cases, successful scavengers such as Abdul, simply because they’ve been granted “privileged access” to some of the prime “dumping grounds” by the police. If this sounds infuriating already, the bad news is that I’ve just gotten started. Asha, as the village councilor, is the person that people carry their grievances to and she, in turn, uses her affiliations to “help” them. Now when Asha “helps” someone it is actually a favour and tribute (money) is expected and this is not usually a one-time payout. To go against that protocol is to find yourself accosted by police officers under some trumped-up charge and eventually in the “rescuing” arms of Asha who just happened to be in the neighbourhood. Right. And that “rescue” will come at steep cost. The moral: don’t mess around with Asha’s tribute.

The story takes a dramatic turn when a vicious conflict occurs between Fatima (One-Leg) and the Hussains. As the Hussains were trying to “renovate” their shack, Fatima (out of pure envy) claimed that the renovation efforts were affecting her wall. Harsh words were exchanged, and threats were made, and no thought anymore of it. Except for Fatima, that took it to a new diabolical level: she poured kerosene on herself and set herself aflame with the hope that the Hussains would be blamed for her injuries or murder (should she actually die). Complete bollocks, one would say. Sadly, this incident was the catalyst that started the domino effect in revealing how permeated corruption and abuse is many nooks and crannies of India. Abdul and his father are arrested based on really, crappy, accounts that would stun most active and practicing nitwits. The harsh reality of this is that it was not even about justice, but a haphazard conspiracy to extort the Hussains. All coordinated by the police and … Asha. And just when things couldn’t get any lower, we’re introduced to special executive officer Poornima Paikrao. Her main task is to collect victim statements but instead choose to participate in this conspiracy by coaching the crime scene and the victim. She also attempted to extort the Hussains several times during the arrest, during the incarceration and then outside the courthouse DURING the trial. When often pleaded upon for her help, her favourite saying (with upturned palms) was: “But what can I do?” There were times I heard my inner voice scream (at this farcical behaviour): “Your bloody job!!!”.
Unfortunately, fate was not kinder to Fatima as experienced by her treatment in the hospital (that has probably never heard of the Hippocratic oath). Cringeworthy examples include her IV bag with a “used” needle sticking out of it, since the nurses thought it a waste to use a new needle. Don’t worry I’ll save you some the “juicy” stuff. Along the way there are some sad side stories such as Abdul’s friend, Kalu (the movie-teller) that was murdered but was written off as “due to sickness” by corrupt police investigators and it is so blatantly fraudulent that you’d be aghast reading about it. The other was the suicide of Meena, Manju’s friend, that was subjected to way too much beatings by her parents and even brothers. I shudder to think that she was subjected to more than just beatings … by her brothers. And sadly, suicide was her escape.

A slight detour. In case you’re wondering what a “movie-teller” is, it is basically someone that tells an entire movie from beginning to end. Yes, I know that is frowned upon in America, but imagine growing up in a society where you couldn’t afford to go the movies as often as you’d like (and, in my case, lived in country that did not broadcast tv waves until 1985). As teenagers, back in Guyana, it was always common sight (back then) to see your mates gathered around an animated character as he basically told you the entire movie (sound effects and action included, Micheal Winslow would have been proud). Some kids were so really good at it, so much that it was the next best thing to being at the movies. And yes, you’ve been privy to another strange bit of my life.

For a country that has given the world yoga, Gandhi, herbal medicine, delicious spices (it is hard to fathom life without a decent curry) … and call centers that staff a lot of “Americans”, Beautiful paints a slightly less flattering image. Unlike America, where even the poor can afford to have lofty dreams and even achieve it, Beautiful shows a world where the poor can’t even see past their surroundings (e.g. Asha’s slumlord ambition). The poor preys on the poor and even worse, those that are supposed to protect the poor and the innocent are the biggest predators of all. In short, life is cheaper than cheap in Annawadi.If you’re looking for sunny, upbeat stories, that feels like Bollywood song and dance sequence, then I am afraid that this is not the book. The writing and story, is however, very riveting and grabs you but be forewarned that your emotions will cycle faster than the changing colours of a steroid-infused Aurora Borealis.

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For some strange reason I am drawn to some of the dark aspects of this life in this world, both written and screened. If Netflix and my cable subscriber is reporting on my viewing habits, there is probably (at most) some interesting files sitting somewhere in some interesting buildings or (at least), some warnings issued to potential mates. So when someone donated the Don Winslow book to my branch, there was something that screamed “you’ve got to put this in the stacks … and you have to check it out”. It probably had to do with the fact there was a bulletproof vest featured on the cover with the word “Cartel” on it. Aye, I’m an easy sucker for a catchy visuals and titles. Well so much for the pleasantries and other such bollocks, so let’s get on with the bloody review. Yeah?
First off … Cartel is over 700 pages long. What, you ask, could they write about in 700-plus pages in a book simply entitled, The Cartel? Apparently, a lot, and there is nae a dull moment in none of those pages, and the best part is even when you finish the book you still feel that there should have been … MORE. Aye, it is that (terrifyingly) good.

Art Keller is a Vietnam veteran turned DEA agent and one of his biggest accomplishments is toppling the Sinaloan cartel, El Federacion, and capturing it top leader, Adan Barrera. Cartel finds Art residing in a Mexican monastery as its primary and premium beekeeper, producing good honey whilst enjoying a bit of solace away from the crazy world … though his Sig Sauer isn’t far from reach. Unknown to Keller, Adan has negotiated an extradition to a Mexican prison to serve the rest of his jail sentence. What the Americans don’t realize is that Adan’s extradition to a Mexican prison is about as harsh as me being transferred to a library branch … in Hawaii … with free housing … in a big mansion … for 5 to 10 years. From the scariest prison in Mexico, Adan lives it up with all the comforts of a premium five star resort as he runs his drug empire and is protected from his enemies from confines of his “jail” … as he plots the demise of Art Keller. Of course, When Art is informed of this change of events, more than vows are broken as Art willingly joins up for this narco-war. And so begins the rapid descent into the world of terrifying, viscous darkness and re-definitions of barbarism as an unorthodox game of cat and mouse is played. Though the Cartel is supposedly orbiting around Art and Adan, there are some interesting “scenic routes” in terms of characters that show up and add to this immense, yet terrifying and twisted mosaic: a group of reporters, foot soldiers, beauty pageant winners (yes, this is not an editing error). Compared to what is shown in the (sanitized) news, the fictional Cartel sheds some terrifying light on the real world of cartels. Where beauty pageants don’t offer scholarships to Ivy League colleges but are actually grooming grounds for wives and mistresses of narco-kingpins. Where cartels have better surveillance and intelligence gathering capabilities that rival those of the CIA and FBI, and along with corrupt members of law enforcement can reach out and squash those that are deemed a “threat”. Where being a journalist means literally putting your life on the line to write and publish the truth. Where loyalty doesn’t always promise longevity and the possibility of being a convenient sacrificial lamb and the promise that your family will be well taken care off (as Joe Isuzu would say … sure !!!). Where rising up the ranks in the cartels means to engage in strange game of chess, where a pawn can suddenly become a king and vice versa; or you can be cannibalized (sometimes literally) by your own chess pieces (I’m guessing not much time to sleep is a staple of being in the higher rungs in this “business”… hmm … where do I sign up?). Where rising to the top as female makes you the scariest person in the room, since the narco-world is very misogynistic and takes a whole lot of machismo (and some extreme levels of depraved viciousness) to impress these chaps. At this point of time, it is needless to state that this is not going to have any fairytale endings and folks emerging out at the end are not quite unscathed, mentally or physically (or both).

Cartel though fictional is (sadly) not in the least, some exaggeration of what’s actually out there. And that, folks, is some scary shit to say. Several years ago I reviewed a book called Zero Zero Zero by Roberto Saviano which is a NONFICTION documentation of the cocaine trade around the world, and it reads like Winslow’s Cartel … except that it is well … REAL. Cartel is one of the few fictional books that actually points an accusing finger at us with the question, “How much is your high, really worth?”. The answer, as both books would indicate, apparently a very high price and what some of us are paying for that indulgence, stateside, is the “discount” price. And though some of the viciousness that have been associated with cartel violence has been termed “barbaric” and “barbarians”, I’ve looked up several known historical barbarians and I hate to say it, but even those barbarians had a code that they lived by. What Winslow’s Cartel describes in many pages is something beyond barbarism.

One final note, it turns out that Winslow’s Cartel is actually a second book of The Power Of The Dog trilogy. Aye, I must admit that I have not read the first. The good news is that Cartel holds it own and is a dog’s bollocks standalone. All that is required is a good stomach. Happy readings, mates. And good show, Mr. Winslow.

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