Here’s the thing: in the last couple of years we’ve had a few genuinely good non-fictional books (I’m thinking particularly of Aman Sethi’s A Free Man and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers) in which a person of relative privilege has written about a person or people of relatively less privilege without the results becoming cringeworthy. A big part of this is due to how the narrators of these books place themselves within the text; the ways in which they’re conscious of their position when they say what they say. BtBF is not about Boo, and A Free Man is not about Sethi, but we always know who they are, and what the text’s relationship with them is.
And then there’s Nobody Can Love You More: Life in Delhi’s Red Light District, for which I’ve just done a short review for The Hindustan Times. As I mention in the review I found it a bit baffling trying to work out what Soofi was doing with his own character here. Have we reached a point, culturally, when something that sounds naive and/or patronising can simply be assumed to be a purposeful, self-conscious decision on the part of the narrator? The “Soofi” of the book teeters constantly between empathetic observer and hopeless outsider. He shudders at the excess oil in the food he’s offered and turns down buttered toast because it has excessive butter (really?); twice he looks at the women to whom he’s talking and wonders why any man would pay to sleep with them; he insists on following them about taking notes while they’re soliciting customers (I’m sure that’s not making the business awkward at all); he presses women to talk about things about which they’re uncomfortable then interrupts them to lecture them on how to cook dal. In between we have sections in which he ponders upon the difference between his life in “posh Hauz Khas village” and that of his friends on GB Road. If this is unintentional it’s terrible; if intentional it’s badly structured.
Also, there’s the issue of audience, and the necessity of constantly translating Hindi to English. I’m not comfortable with the automatic assumption that any author who does this is automatically pitching his book toward a foreign audience (plenty of Indians don’t speak Hindi and that’s fine) but I’m also not sure why we need, for example, snatches of song lyrics that Soofi hears. Translating them does them, and the book, no favours; “Munni badnaam hui” really does not work in English.
The myth of the completely objective observer is one that has been busted several times over and even the driest of non-fictional subjects can reveal to the reader much about the author. With a subject as socially fraught as prostitution this is even more the case. Mayank Austen Soofi’s Nobody Can Love You More is an account in words and photographs of life in Delhi’s red light district. Based on an acquaintance spanning a few years with the inhabitants of kotha number 300 on GB Road, Soofi’s book attempts to explore the lives of sex workers as well as their families and other acquaintances.
Since the book is not arranged chronologically it’s not clear how far the book’s tracing of Soofi’s own journey is intentional – or even whether there’s an element of self-consciousness in his portrayal of himself here. The “Soofi” here is sometimes prejudiced and often naïve; he is disgusted by the food he is offered, he ponders why people would pay to have sex with an elderly woman. He’s a little too willing to provide us with accounts of his social life. At times we’re offered trite insights, such as the information that women who come to work here are more likely to arrive for the first time from the railway station than the metro station, or that there’s nothing at the nearest station to indicate that the red light district is nearby.
Despite all this the voices of some of these characters shine through—particularly those of Sushma, a sex worker who lives in number 300, and Omar and Osman, two children conflicted about their parents’ professions and their own religious beliefs.
“Her husband left her. I think he was not a good man. But he did not tell me much. And I didn’t ask her. Maybe he was a good man … who knows?” Thus Sushma discusses the circumstances of a former colleague. Sushma understands that people’s lives don’t always fit into easy narratives. In the book’s final chapter Soofi finally raises questions of narrative, of storytelling, of truth, but when he suggests that perhaps “it is fulfilling enough for a writer to get a sense of GB Road without stripping bare the lives of its people” it feels less like a disclaimer than a throwing up of hands in despair. Nobody Can Love You More may want to gesture toward the complexity and chaos of the human lives it documents, but it feels merely muddled and unsatisfactory.