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new internationalist
issue 190 - December 1988


Star rating system. Film reviews

Salaam Bombay!
directed by Mira Nair

Doomed to prostitution - a street princess in Salaam Bombay! Mira Nair's extraordinary first feature film is notable not so much for the storyline (street kids surviving in the big city) as for the fine acting of the real Bombay street children whose lives form the core of the movie. In that respect it is similar to Brazil's excellent Pixote but this is brighter and also technically better.

It was shot entirely on location and the city itself has never looked more gorgeous. The lurid primary colours of Indian street life fill the screen and even Bombay's fading Victorian splendour seems less shabby.

Along with scriptwriter Sooni Taraporevala, Nair combed Bombay's streets, railway platforms, brothels and borstals to bring together 130 street-smart survivors in a two-month theatre workshop. The group was eventually winnowed down to 19 children, including Shafiq Syed, who stars as Chaipau, a 10-year-old runaway who delivers tea to local shopkeepers. As with the rest of the children, the part fits Shafiq like a glove. And no wonder. In the film Chaipau and his friends sleep behind the Grant Road Station. In reality Shafiq left his South Indian home, travelled ticketless by train to Bombay and worked as a ragpicker near the Grant Road Bridge.

According to Nair, the most difficult thing for the kids was to unlearn the histrionic acting style of Indian pulp movies - escapist romps with singing, dancing, chase scenes, romance and a cast of thousands. The children were videotaped as they improvized scenes and the tapes replayed so they could see what seemed natural and what seemed false on the screen. The results speak for themselves.

Salaam Bombay! is a celebration of the courage, resourcefulness and dignity of the legions of children who survive on India's streets. It is an intensely moving film which never descends into gooey sentimentality. These are tough, funny, likeable street-kids. But they are also experienced in the ways of the world. They smoke ganja, drink if they can afford it and work long hours for a few paisa.

Chaipau's consuming passion is to save 500 rupees to return to his home village with Solasaal, a young Nepalese girl sold to a Bombay brothel as a virgin prostitute. That he never makes it is no surprise. For Chaipau and his friends, childhood innocence will always be a distant dream.

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Book reviews

The Greenpeace Book of Antarctica
by John May
(Dorling Kindersley

This large-format production is two books in one. It is first an attractive, informative overview of the seventh continent and second a full account of Greenpeace's strategy for its conservation.

Exploitation of the region first depleted it of fur seals and whales; now the same fate threatens fish and krill. Antarctica now has plastic rubbish washed ashore, toxic pesticides affecting bird life - not to mention the enormous hole appearing in its ozone layer. The local exploitation of raw materials poses another significant threat to the fragile ecology.

The world's remote 'almost pristine' wilderness is thus, like the whole planet, under assault. But there is cause for real hope, as this book explains. Outstanding colour photography, charts and maps provide valuable background material for those wishing to join the campaign.

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The Gaia Peace Atlas
edited by Frank Barnaby

The historic struggle for human rights, as seen by The Gaia Peace Atlas. A pleasure to pick up and dip into, this 'atlas' has a mix of themes revolving around the environment, Third World exploitation and, of course, militarism. The 'Gaia' of the title refers to the Greek earth goddess and is shorthand for the concept of living in balance with nature and the rest of humanity. And it is our wars, our pollution, our injustice and our alienation from the natural world which this book addresses.

To call this a 'book' seems wrong. While the NI magazine with its special theme each month is a bit like an easy-to-read book, The Gaia Peace Atlas has moved towards a magazine-style presentation. Nearly every double page presents facts or concepts in a very visual way. This makes the NI look to its laurels. Sometimes the illustrations here are scrappy or confusing. But most of the time they work, and much sweat has gone into presenting complex issues in an attractive and comprehensible fashion.

The politics? With an editorial team of seven and star contributors from Desmond Tutu to Julius Nyerere, Petra Kelly to Perez de Cuellar, it is perhaps too much to expect a sharp analytical argument. The general case that national and international inequality is a root cause of many of the world's crises is clearly established.

Cynically, sales of the Atlas are going to be hit because perestroika has reduced public fears about nuclear war. And that's a pity. Certainly any teacher of geography, religion or the humanities will find this a treasure trove of ideas. And for the rest of us it would make a very welcome Christmas gift, too.

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Music reviews

by Big Pig


No less than five of the seven members of this new Australian band contribute percussion, which should give you some idea of the general musical drift. Guitar is notable for its complete absence and even keyboards are minimally used. What remains is an infectious rhythm and a driving bass beat.

Yes, this is post-industrial noise in the genre of the completely unlistenable Test Department. The lyrics unleash a gigantic primal scream at the urban alienation and despair of our industrial world. We are urged to re-evaluate the work ethic and its paraphernalia, asked to be 'punching holes in the walls of reality'.

So far so daunting. But the whole has a surprisingly pleasant effect. Post new wave inflections swap seats with blues harmonica at one moment and then strange mechanical percussion the next. And Money God, the standout among a number of excellent tracks, is a brilliant parody of the 'prosperity doctrine'. Energetic listening guaranteed.

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Reviews editor: Chris Brazier

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[image, unknown] Beloved
by Toni Morrison.

The NI does not review many novels but this is a quite exceptional work. Set in the Kentucky of the mid-1800s, it follows Sethe and her children through their escape from slavery. But freedom from slavery costs them dear - and leads them to an even greater despair. Passionate and audaciously imaginative writing from one of the US's greatest contemporary writers.


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[image, unknown] Sarraounia
directed by Med Hondo.

No apologies for honouring a film that it will be very difficult for people to see. It may only be exhibited on the art-house circuit but this, the first ever locally financed epic from Africa, is a rare and spectacular achievement. Sarraounia is the Queen of the Aznas, coping with French 'adventurers' in West Africa at the turn of the century. See it howsoever you can - it's extraordinary.


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[image, unknown] Tracy Chapman

The sudden elevation of Tracy Chapman from the folk-club wilderness to international megastardom via the Nelson Mandela Birthday Concert was one of the most pleasant surprises of this or any musical year. Both Chapman's singing manner and her song-stories are startlingly direct and honest - and she is refreshingly unafraid to be radical in these conservative times. What's more, her best is yet to come.

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The People of the Abyss
.being the book that publicized the squalor at the heart of the British Empire

When Jack London arrived in the English capital in August 1902, he intended to stay only for two days to write an account of the coronation of Edward VII from the standpoint of the slum inhabitants whom he called, in a letter home, 'the London Beasts'. The obvious disrespect in that phrase is characteristic of this particular American's maverick brand of socialism - sometimes exhibitionist, frequently chauvinist, always ambiguous. The book which came out of his English sojourn was to help catapult him to international literary stardom and fired the imaginations of his radical contemporaries and successors, although it was not free of its author's own blind spots and excesses.

London was actually en route to South Africa to act as a correspondent for the American Press Association on conditions in the country now that the Boar War had ended. However, the trip was abruptly cancelled before he left England, allowing him to stay there for seven weeks and develop his idea for the coronation article into a firsthand book-length account of slum dwelling and poverty in London's East End. This basic idea was not new. The 'social explorer' who descends into the heart of the empire's capital - and finds there miseries every bit as acute as those encountered among the oppressed inhabitants of the farthest colonies - was a familiar figure in Victorian journalism. In the hands of a liberal humanitarian such as B S Rowntree, this form of investigation was quickly developing into the intellectual discipline we now know as sociology.

However Jack London rises to the less frequently accepted challenge of 'going native' - or, at least, of impersonating the appearance and immersing himself in the world of the slum dwellers as far as his own needs for cleanliness, edible food and respectability will allow. Although he dons the frayed and dirty clothing of a street-corner waif, he always makes sure that there is a gold sovereign sewn into the lining, and he uses it more than once. His expeditions are seldom prolonged beyond the point of real physical hardship - he can always escape to the relative comfort of the better-than-average room he has rented to be able to record his impressions in private. When he does push himself beyond the limits, as on a night spent in the Whitechapel workhouse (the infamous 'spike'), it is an occasion for comic lamentation: 'I must beg forgiveness of my body for the vileness through which I have dragged it, and forgiveness of my stomach for the vileness which I have thrust into it.'

It could be said, then, that The People of the Abyss is a somewhat unreliable document. London continually confounds the experiment by introducing his own predispositions, acting according to his quite cultivated standards, and refusing to endure the more excruciating circumstances which the slum-dwellers and down-and-outs take for granted. But it is precisely this tension - between the educated, civilized, sophisticated observer and the subterranean environment of squalid poverty and crime into which he has temporarily leapt - which gives the book its unique flavour.

Walking up the Mile End Road in the company of a carter and a carpenter, both fallen on hard times and famished, he suddenly realizes that they are grubbing for scraps of discarded fruit, bread and rind 'from the slimy, spittle-drenched sidewalk.. - and these things these two men took into their mouths and chewed them, and swallowed them; and this, between six and seven o'clock in the evening of August 20, year of our Lord 1902, in the heart of the greatest, wealthiest and most powerful empire the world has ever seen'.

This style, at once descriptive and emphatic, was London's attempt to negotiate the blunt fact that the political solutions he would have advocated were virtually unspeakable in the US at the turn of the century. He would have received little sympathy had he engaged in an unfettered polemic, and even as it was he had to make several changes to the manuscript to satisfy his publisher.

The People of the Abyss is therefore important as much for what it does not say as for what it does, for the limitations placed on such social reportage are still with us today. Much of our information about events and conditions in developing countries is similarly filtered at source, for the journalist knows the low survival chances of a thoroughgoing analysis on the editorial agenda at home. The result is often a disturbingly truncated account of catastrophic human symptoms whose harsh political causes remain unexamined. One way to dispose of the dilemma is to ignore it and argue that simply by extending knowledge about human misery we can motivate change. The People of the Abyss was one stage on Jack London's journey towards understanding the inadequacy of such good intentions, and thus deserves the paradoxical tribute of being strongly recommended for its salient weaknesses.

Macdonald Daly

The People of the Abyss by Jack London.

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New Internationalist issue 190 magazine cover This article is from the December 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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