Mayank Austen Soofi, Nobody Can Love You More

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.

**********************************************


6 Responses to “Mayank Austen Soofi, Nobody Can Love You More

  1. hm, i actually thought Sethi’s free man was pretty problematic. The overwhelming vibe of that book was that he was slumming it and somehow deserved commendation for that alone? he could have talked about his Indian male privilege that he was even allowed into their lives as an interlocutor/observer. I forget specific details, but it reminded me of how when I was an undergrad, my friends and I would go to a bar we had christened “dirty bar” (not least because the one roomed establishment had an open drain running right across the middle of the floor) frequented by working class industrial painters and pretend that we were all proles united against some version of the Man. Except we weren’t anything of the sort. It’s hard to shake off the feeling that Sethi’s whole book was a humble brag about being able to vaguely discern his class privilege, from which he reaped not insubstantial material benefit.

    Ditto Boo. I still haven’t gotten around to reading the book, but from the eleventy billion reviews I’ve read it seems like she got a pass on a lot of things, merely because, it has to be said, she was white. I forget where i read the review that mentioned how she didn’t speak Hindi but adduced what her subjects were thinking, and were motivated by, when her translators were in absentia, which has to be at least on some level, entirely fictional. And she got a National Book Award for non-fiction!

    • I think there’s a point beyond which the self-awareness of a narrator can cross over into a sort of self-absorbedness, so that it’s less about the ostensible subject than it is about the person writing about it. I don’t think Sethi strays over to the other side; clearly you disagree!

      Re. Boo, I think when I read it I was actually harder on her for being white than the reverse.

  2. well, I was thinking more along the lines of an autoethnography, which I believe is about the only way anyone with privilege should approach a project such as the one Sethi attempted.

    I don’t know, pretty much everyone I can think of who are lauded as men (almost always men) of the people are privileged – Orwell, Guthrie, Joe Strummer – by race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, language, position or a combination thereof. Surely, this is worth talking about a little bit?

    I also pricked my ears when in a dismissing Hindu article Sethi defended Boo’s book against critics (Anand Vaidya, Mitu Sengupta) who claimed that her book had elided working class solidarity, e.g. unions, labor movements, women’s self help groups, etc. as social agents of change. Who but, someone steeped in caste-class privilege would make such a claim?

    sorry in advance, if I’m being too aggressive on here.

    • Re. autoethnography, I’m not sure I agree with you. I think a project such as this needs to involve a clearly-defined subject position (and obviously we can disagree on how well Sethi or Boo achieves that) but there’s also a point at which the whole thing can teeter into being about the subject and the issue itself gets erased in the process. I don’t think there is a perfect way for a person with privilege to approach a subject like this, and ideally we’d see people from the groups in question being able to write about them and get publishing contracts and publicity and invitations to the right parties, but we know that’s not going to happen.

      (I don’t think it’s possible to be too aggressive on this subject, so feel free)

  3. you’re right – we can disagree about the definition of the subject position, but I’d submit that the contours of the subject are certainly not central to sethi/boo’s success. I’m more interested in their privileged gaze, about which little has been written beyond merely acknowledging race, class and profession.

    Vis a vis Boo, her entry into this project, evidently at the behest of her husband Sunil Khilnani (why?) despite her initial reluctance for noble sounding reasons (unfamiliarity with the language, region, etc) but eventual capitulation (again, why?) all seem slightly off, for lack of a better word.

    I had this exact discussion on a multi comment facebook thread a few months ago, and I said something along the lines of “a dozen area scholars from about a dozen south asian departments in the putatively average american university” are better qualified on paper than Boo is, who knows no Hindi/Marathi/Tamil nor has familiarity with her chosen region of inquiry.

    It’s not just the fact that she’s white, but whither her cred for undertaking this documentary research? I’d have no issues, right off the bat, were someone like Daisy Rockwell or even white people I know, who do research in India, and have put in their dues to do so (this is a slippery argument, and I’m sounding more and more like an irate Ram Guha, yikes!).

    But, I’m yet to read the book even at this late date, so I honestly can’t say anything beyond my little kvetchy harangue.

    I will say this though: if an Indian woman documenting rural Appalachian poverty wrote a book about the experience, it would probably sink without a trace. And honestly, as it should. I feel the whole thing is very cultural touristy (there I said it) and it’s just more Louis Malle doing God’s Country (an ironic analogy, on which I could I write a book length monograph). There is something distinctly odd about the sheer amount of praise Boo’s book has received, which almost no one has said anything about.

    As for Sethi, I will quote one of my favorite bits of writing on privilege:

    [...I am just cynical enough to point out that this book of elite-bashing contains a pages-long acknowledgments section where Hayes pays due deference to a murderer’s row of wealthy, connected elitists. With each person he thanks, I can see the invisible lattice of patronage and nepotism, so archly dissected in the main text, spiral out and off the page.]

    de boer on Chris Hayes’ awful liberal apologia Twilight of the Elites – http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-tryhards/

    sorry, if this all seems too disjointed and hard to read.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>