Research and Reality

  • Posted: Fri, Apr 13 2012. 7:51 PM IST

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

In her magnificently reported and lyrically written book, Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars, Sonia Faleiro describes a poignant scene when the heroine, Leela, goes to visit a fellow bar dancer and sex worker, Ameena, in her chawl.

Seeking closure: Photographer Steve McCurry’s iconic picture of the Afghan girl Sharbat Gula in Paris. Clemens Bilan/AFP

Seeking closure: Photographer Steve McCurry’s iconic picture of the Afghan girl Sharbat Gula in Paris. Clemens Bilan/AFP

The whole scene is heartbreakingly set up. Leela goes to visit Ameena because she wants to be the “wife” of bar owner Purushottam Shetty, and is doing the duty of the boss’ wife in reprimanding an absentee bar dancer. Ameena hasn’t been coming to work because she has AIDS. Yet, when the two girls meet, their conversation is so bright and funny and full of Mumbai slang and energy. And you think to yourself, “How could these girls, who have been serial-raped since the ages of 12 or 13, laugh and joke with each other?” How could they possibly get out of bed every morning? The answer, of course, is: What choice do they have? Or as one of the characters in the book says tartly, “Otherwise?”I have never met Faleiro but the question I have for her is this: How did she spend five years researching this brutal world and manage to maintain writerly distance? It is a question that could be asked of any author who dips into the whirlpool of lives that are entirely alien to her affluent readership—people who live in gated communities with tinted windows, as Katherine Boo said in an interview with American talk show host Stephen Colbert. Boo is the acclaimed author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which reports on “life, death and hope in a Mumbai undercity”.

Detachment is an interesting idea. Eastern religions—Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism—all speak of it. Some Judeo-Christian faiths allude to it: St Ignatius of Loyola talks about “holy indifference” or Indiferencia. Tamil poetry urges us to live in the world like dew on a lotus leaf. The Bhagavad Gita tells us not to be attached to the fruits of our actions. I used to divide the world into observers and doers. Journalists fell into one camp; entrepreneurs in the other. One group needed distance and detachment as part of the toolkit; the other, not so much. The question is: How do you stop yourself from forming bonds of attachment with the people you report on for years? Can you? How do you forget the lives in which you have immersed yourself for years? Are you able to put it behind you? War photographer Kevin Carter, who was part of the Bang Bang Club (a label associated with four combat photographers—João Silva, Carter, Greg Marinovich and Ken Oosterbroek—capturing the final days of apartheid in South Africa), is one famous example of a journalist who couldn’t put these lives and situations behind him. His famous haunting image of a starving Sudanese girl with a vulture behind her won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. But it also brought an onslaught of questions from the readership of The New York Times, which published the photo. Readers wanted to know what happened to the girl. They questioned the role of the journalist: Should he have clicked his photos or saved the child? Carter later committed suicide—for a variety of personal reasons, including debt, but also because he was “haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain…”, as he said in his suicide note.

War photography is riveting. You only need to go through the website of the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for examples. Photographers risk life and limb to capture images that encapsulate the essence of a scene, situation or incident for a viewing public that lives in another world and another continent. Look at Carolyn Cole, whose images of the civil war in Liberia won her all the three top prizes in the US for photojournalism in 2004, including the Pulitzer Prize. Cole’s photos are stunning. They also raise the question: Does she cultivate detachment? How so? How does she walk away?

Not all photographers walk away. Steve McCurry went back to Afghanistan to find Sharbat Gula, the Pashtun girl with haunting green eyes who made the cover of National Geographic. It gave him—and his readership—a measure of closure.

Different professions fall in different positions in the spectrum between activism and detachment. Or so I thought. You needed to be engaged—an activist—in order to found a company or an NGO; you needed distance and detachment in order to report, to be a war photographer. Does an activist need passion or detachment? Can you have both?

Do you need detachment to be a war journalist or an author who reports on a society’s underbelly? Do you need detachment to do what Girish Kulkarni does at Snehalaya in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra (where he rescues and rehabilitates prostitutes), or what the sisters in the Missionaries of Charity, Kolkata, do? In the spectrum with action at one end and renunciation at the other, how attached or how detached do you need to be in order to function effectively in a frail world—full of contradictions and foibles?

In India, we do this intuitively. In India, we are surrounded by grinding poverty and stark contrasts. Visitors to our country, particularly those from the West, frequently ask what us natives consider a naïve question: Don’t the beggars bother you? Doesn’t the poverty all around affect you? How can you live like this? But we do, don’t we, by developing some defence mechanism that helps us not to “see” the filth that is all around; by looking away when a beggar approaches our vehicle; by being Good Samaritans and rabble-rousing activists at some points and practising the nivritti-marga at others?

Are you detached or engaged? Where do you fall in this spectrum? And which is the right path? Please, don’t tell me about the Buddhist Middle Path. That’s a cop-out answer. Which part of the middle, is my question?

Like others, Shoba Narayan wonders what happened to that Sudanese girl. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com