Saturday, 6 October 2012

Boo: behind the beautiful forevers

Boo: behind the beautiful forevers

Katherine Boo (2012) behind the beautiful forevers: life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity Random House, New York; 288 pp.; eISBN 978-0-679-64395-1

Katherine Boo is an American journalist who won the Pulitzer prize in 2000 for her coverage of the ill treatment of mentally challenged people in group housing in Washington DC. In her work for the Washington Post, and more recently The New Yorker, she has been interested in the lives of the poor and marginalised. This, her first book, focuses on the urban poor living in a slum near the airport in Mumbai, India. Boo’s interest in India arose from her marriage to Sunil Khilnani, a professor of politics at King’s College, London, and she spent over three years following the lives of people in the slum known as Annawadi.

Boo’s story opens with the Husains, a Muslim family in a largely Hindu slum. Almost all residents in Annawadi make their living from day labouring and informal (sometimes illegal) jobs. Many, like the Husains, scavenge rubbish near the slum and the airport to sell items for recycling. A somewhat eccentric neighbour, Fatima, gets into an argument with the Husain family over renovations to their attached property. In a fit of anger, Fatima sets herself on fire and is badly burnt. Later from her hospital bed she accuses the Husain family of having set her alight on purpose. So begins a protracted legal battle that provides one of the main strands in the tale.

The other key family is that of Asha and her daughter Manju. Asha is linked to the Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena and is highly ambitious. She has worked hard to get her daughter into college and is adept at creaming off funds from government economic programmes and profiteering from disputes in Annawadi in order to enrich her family. Manju does not share her mother’s interest in power and material goods, hoping instead to become a teacher and to live the life of a ‘modern’ Indian woman.

We are also introduced to several boys who work as scavengers and who occasionally indulge in theft. The terrible burden of their daily lives is only temporarily relieved by sniffing typing correction fluid and listening to stories of things most of them will never experience. Some girls and young women in the slum have more muted roles in the story, appearing mainly through their connections with Manju. The lives and opportunities of all the residents are severely limited, often punctuated by disease and violence. Yet this is how a large proportion of the world lives.

A major theme in the book is the persistent desire of poor people to better their lives and to live a good and virtuous life. It is a common tactic for politicians, in India and elsewhere, to blame the poor for their circumstances and to use this as an excuse for removing or reducing welfare programmes and social safety nets. It is a cruel, cynical and utterly dishonest strategy, but many people in rich countries regularly vote for it. The industriousness of the poor, their constant innovation and adaptation in very trying conditions, and their pursuit of their dreams despite the daily horrors visited upon them, come out strongly in Boo’s writing.

In an afterword Boo emphasises that this book is only about one slum and cannot represent all communities. But it does highlight some of the broader problems in modern India. India is often championed as the world’s largest democracy and people like to focus on its emerging middle class, its glittering film industry and its own ‘silicon valley’ centred on Bangalore. But the country remains highly dysfunctional. Elections are marred by vote buying and nepotism, the police are essentially corrupt and violent thugs, and the judicial system and government bureaucracy are a morass of bribery and incompetence. There is a high level of physical violence and vendettas, usually played out along caste lines or across religious divides, to the degree that inter-personal trust is very low. At one point Boo laments that the poor are not united, but there is little in modern Indian life that supports a sense of community.

This is an important book and Boo’s easy journalistic style gets the story across effectively. There is much tragedy here, but also hope. However, there are some problems that mirror challenges faced by all ethnographers and travel writers. Boo spent extended periods gathering information in Annawadi, taking photos and video as well as notes (unfortunately, there are no illustrations in this book). Over the course of her work she mentions that she used three different interpreters (others are only named on her website). All are women. Yet Boo and her interpreters are completely absent from her tale. The whole thing is written in the third person as if the author is not there at all. It is a conceit to think that someone studying a community has no impact on events there, and that the status and capacity of interpreters has no influence on the picture you get of what is happening. Boo needed to be more explicit about these things. It would have produced a more resonant work.

Boo says that she witnessed most of the events and recorded others soon after they happened, though does not define ‘soon’. Events are spread over time and place, and there are clearly some things that she could not have witnessed. But it is not possible in the book to know whether you are reading about something observed, heard from someone else, or learned indirectly through other people. Everything is presented as if the author is panoptic and omniscient. She also says that she verified the details of people’s stories by using  government documents, but at the same time in the book she has shown that such documents are often and easily faked, forged or incomplete.

The other problem is that all the characters, despite their names and the fact that they live in an Indian slum, talk and think like Americans. You get no sense that they might be understanding their world through the prism of a different culture and how that influences their views and decision making. Though we meet many characters in this book, in the end Boo is the master ventriloquist. People do not speak for themselves.

Addressing such problems is not easy. Ethnographers and travel writers have used different ways to try and overcome them, with mixed success. Boo seems a long way behind the pack. But I would not use these criticisms as an excuse for not reading this book. Its great strengths are the unflinching and empathetic narration of events, her descriptions of those who seek to exploit the slum dwellers, and the glimpses we get of determination and hope, as well as the inevitable moments of despair. If you want a view of how more than the other half lives, this is one window you must look through.

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