Life, death and hope in Mumbai’s underbelly

Reading Time: 6 minutes

CHITRA SUDARSHAN on Katherine Boo’s poignant book on the varied lives of dwellers in the Annawadi slum

What is it about Mumbai that invites such ground-breaking and brilliant works of non-fiction? From Suketu Mehta’s ambitious work Maximum City; to Sonia Faleiro’s study of Mumbai’s red light district in her book Beautiful Thing; and now we have a Pulitzer prize-winning author Katherine Boo’s  just published book on a Mumbai slum, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.  It is a landmark work of ‘narrative non-fiction’ that tells the dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking stories of families striving towards a better life in Mumbai.   In this brilliantly written, fast-paced book based on almost four years of research and uncompromising reporting, author Katherine Boo brings to life some of the residents of Annawadi, a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Sahar airport.  This book is written in such a way that while it is actually reportage, it reads like a riveting novel as Boo makes the characters come alive with her delightful prose and superb sense of drama.

One of the book’s endearing characters is Abdul Husain, a refuse-sorting worker whose family are migrants from Uttar Pradesh.  He is a reflective and enterprising teenager who sees ‘a fortune beyond counting’ in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away; his mother Zahurunissa is an indomitable character who finds strength from God-knows-where to hold her family together under the most crushing of circumstances.  Then there is Asha, the teacher from Vidarbha who is determined to lift herself and her family out of poverty by any means she can  – she is not above using her charms and her body to forge contacts with the local Shiv Sena pollies or the Sahar police – to become the ‘slum lord’ of Annawadi, and failing even that, to use the money given for the education of the most marginalised children to feather her own nest.  With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter Manju, Annawadi’s ‘most-everything girl’ will soon become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest Annawadians like Kalu, a 15-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe they are inching closer to the good lives and good times they call ‘the full enjoy’.

Abdul’s precocious refuse-sorting skills rake in a not-too-inconsiderable income for the large family, and they even manage to save enough for a deposit on a parcel of land in a new housing estate.  Both Abdul’s skills and the family’s rising fortunes are the envy of Annawadi when everything comes crashing down after the family is accused of being responsible for the death of a neighbour.

Through the lives of some of the Annawadi residents, Boo shows us how globalisation and the rising prosperity of the Indian economy reverberates even in the backwaters of a slum; how government money set aside for poverty alleviation or education of the poor is pilfered by unscrupulous politicians and middle men and women; alternative housing schemes meant to help the slum dwellers when their land is repossessed, are rorted by corrupt men and women ……the list goes on!

Boo makes it clear in the ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of the book, that ultimately poverty corrupts everyone in Mumbai.  The police stations are a bazaar – a marketplace where guilt or innocence is bought and sold; charges traded for money; documents and affidavits manufactured for a price – and everyone is on the take.

It is not easy for an outsider to fully understand the complexities and nuances of caste, language, religion and ethnicity in India.  It is to Boo’s credit that she gets them just right – perhaps her husband Sunil Khilnani, the well-known academic formerly of John Hopkins University, and her interpreters and research assistants helped her; however, the consistently high level of understanding is remarkable and praiseworthy. This is a brilliant book, beautifully written – and puts the residents of the slum at the centre of the narrative and gives us a glimpse into what it is to be human.

I was reminded of Orwell’s poignant lines from his powerful work on the bleak lives of coal miners, The Road to Wigan Pier.  One can easily substitute the garbage sorters of Annawadi for the coal miners of Wigan Pier in this quote from the book: “It brought home to you ….that it is only because they sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior:  you and I and the Editor of the Times Literary Supplement; poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X…all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to their eyes, with their throats full of coal dust…”

Katherine Boo, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has spent the last twenty years reporting from within poor communities, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.  She learned reporting at the Washington City paper, was an editor of The Washington Monthly and, for nearly a decade, a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. This is her first book.

A personal perspective

Katherine Boo was a guest at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne recently, and was interviewed by Jo Case, resident writer and editor.  Here are a few snippets from the interview:

On what struck her most about Annawadi

What impressed Boo most was the fact that the people in Annawadi kept trying to improve their lives despite the multitude of obstacles and setbacks they faced every day.  The thought that was foremost on their minds was, ‘How do I get to the middle class.’

Even in such a deprived slum as Annawadi, Boo was amazed that people still tried to be good despite the fact that everything was stacked against them, and they encountered corruption at every stage.  Boo recounted her own bitter experiences with the Mumbai police, and how corruption was all-pervasive.

On the effect of globalisation and rising prosperity of the Indian economy

Boo examined how globalisation affects the lives of even slum dwellers.  Even in Annawadi, there was palpable optimism – most people felt the rising prosperity around them would mean that their lives would get better.  Talking about Asha, the woman who wanted to be the ‘slum lord’, Boo pointed out she was from a poor family in Vidarbha, one of the poorest regions of Maharashtra.  She was driven by a burning desire to better herself and improve the lot of her children. Others felt they were in the right place (Mumbai) at the right time, and had a chance to ‘make it’; that they were on the cusp of changing their lives for the better. Most of them also felt they could escape the opprobrium of their caste in the city.

Women too, felt that gender roles had opened up and there were more opportunities for them in the city.

Boo also saw a lot of economic envy even in Annawadi; it was perhaps an indication of the rising mobility, a sign of hope that opportunities were opening up for upward mobility.  What disheartened her was how pervasive low-level corruption squanders the life-chances of millions of poor people in India.  So many young people’s talents are wasted as a result.

Some of the things that touched her

Boo did four years of research for this book and tried to portray different narrative threads to show the diversity of people and characters even in a slum.  Her aim was to keep the readers engaged.  There were some key moments that got to her.  She was struck by the choices that people made – and amazed that they were often non-economic, despite their being poor.  Sunil, one of the boys of Annawadi, loved nature and delighted at the sighting of lotuses growing in a sludge pond behind the slum.  He could have plucked and sold them – but he didn’t; instead, he would retire there alone and admire the flowers in bloom quietly – for fear that if others discovered them, they would be gone.  Similarly, he was overjoyed at the sighting of parrots in Annawadi. Again, he didn’t kill them, even though they would have kept him fed for a few days had he done that and sold them.

Justice also mattered to the people of Annawadi – and they wanted to know how Kalu was murdered.  When they realized that Boo was trying to get to the bottom of it, they extended her their cooperation.  She often moved about Annawadi on her own with her expensive equipment, even late into the night– yet never felt unsafe.  The people wanted her to tell the truth to the world; they wanted the truth to come out.  It was quite important to them.

On the effects of economic policies and microfinance

Boo has also explored not only the impact of economic policies and politics on a place like Annawadi, but also the work of NGOs.

Talking about the effects of microfinance, Boo pointed out that people like Asha felt it was too incremental a route to becoming rich.  At the same time, the full benefits of microfinance did not accrue to those at the very bottom and the most in need.

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