Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Published in THE BOOK REVIEW, June,2012


On the cover of this elegantly written reportage-cum-travelogue is a shabbily dressed teenage girl holding a toddler. In the background we see the thatched houses and many tell-tale signs of extreme poverty. From the cover photograph itself you have a fair idea what this book is all about. At the top of the cover it reads Beautiful Country: Stories from Another India. The title is apt because the stories here are, of course, from another India; an India which is different from the India portrayed by the worshippers of mindless consumerism and votaries of crony capitalism. This India doesn’t shine and remains unaffected by the impact of double digit growth. This is, in fact, the dark underbelly of one of the world’s fastest growing economies where majority of Indian citizens live. They are ‘resilient and courageous women and men of India whose ordinary lives and extraordinary spirit inspired the author duo, Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda to write this book.
 Beautiful Country chronicles the journey undertaken by Syeda Hameed, the social activist and member of Planning Commission, and Gunjan Veda, journalist, to that another India, the India of villages and small town. And what they observed during their visits was quite disconcerting. From a river island of Assam to the tribal areas of Andaman Nicobar, from the freezing valleys of Ladakh to the backwaters of Alleppy in Kerala, they criss-crossed the entire country taking notes of the daily lives of the people living away from the glitz and glamour of the big cities. During their voyage they encountered the people and visited the places which rarely appear in the mainstream media.
Somewhere in this book the authors take us to Daniyalpur, Varanasi, and we are introduced to Maimun Nisa and her son. And it goes like this: Thin face, sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, a frayed light pink dupatta covered her head. Her son, Imran, was tiny and had the face of an old man—shrivelled and shrunk. His feet were so thin that we wondered if he would ever be able to walk. His head seemed too big for his small frail body. These lines speak volumes about the so-called growth that our country has witnessed during the last two decades. Clearly, much applauded Manmohanomics has failed to bring noteworthy change in the lives of the people on the margins. Across the country there are many Daniyalpurs, there are many Maimun Nisas and many Imrans. If we move further, we see a school being run under open sky in Kashmir, thousands of people going untreated on the river islands in Assam, the men and women working on handlooms from dawn to dusk for meagre salaries in Malegaon, the women and the children dying in the tribal areas of Maharashtra and elsewhere in the want of basic medical facilities. Go further and more stories of misery and deprivation will pour in.
 Are we, as responsible citizens of this country, doing our bits for our less privileged fellow Indians? Or at least are we giving voice to their concerns? Perhaps, not. But, there are many individuals whose selfless services are changing the lives of the millions. In Assam we have Sanjoy Hazarika, a former New York Times correspondent who is managing trustee of the Centre for North-east studies and Policy research (C-NES). C-NES is agency behind the idea of boat clinics which reach out to thousands of people living on the different islands of Brahmaputra River.  Then, there are a group of doctors who have left their lucrative jobs and comfortable lives in the metros for serving the poor tribals of Chhattisgarh. Syeda and Gunjan tell us about many such courageous men and women who, in their own small ways, are making a difference.
What strikes me most in this book is the tone of the prose which is laced with empathy and honesty. The authors don’t hesitate to accept that as a nation we have failed to take care of our people on the margins. This fact is generally not acknowledged by our politicians and bureaucrats. For example, in the foreword of this book, Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission, lauds Syeda and Gunjan for their remarkable work but at the same time he is reluctant to accept that the bureaucracy has failed when it comes to taking governance to the downtrodden and poor people. At the very end of the foreword, he attempts discreetly to dilute the seriousness of the book. This has been the biggest problem with our bureaucratic set up that they never accept the reality and try to hide the truth under the carpet of the statistical data. So, instead of doing the real work most of them --but not all— are busy stacking data.
 About this book, Khushwant Singh says, ‘The truth about India’s development, as told by those who know it, makes for a compelling read.’ I can’t agree more but would like to add that it also makes for a disturbing read. At the end of this review I would like to quote four lines from Allama Iqbal’s Bal-e-Jibrail (Gabriel’s Wing) which the authors have quoted at the beginning of the book.
 Khol ankh zamin dekh falak dekh fiza dekh
Mashriq se ubhartey huey suraj ko zara dekh
Iss jalwa-e-beparda ko pardon mein chhupa dekh
Ayyam-e-judai ke sitam dekh jafa dekh

Open your eyes, look at the earth and the sky
Look at the sun rising gloriously in the east
Look at its unveiled glory hidden behind veils
Suffer the pain and torture of days of deprivation
 This offering, undoubtedly, is going to be an eye opener for those who have not seen the real India, yet.
Reviewed by: Abdullah Khan ( 

CLICK HERE FOR THE Scanned copy of the review