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February 04, 2012

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India – 4 Feb 2012 –

Katherine Boo has made a career out of being invisible. In articles about welfare, teenage pregnancy and unemployment in urban America, she achieves such an extraordinary rapport with her characters that one has the impression of seeing their lives without the intrusive presence of a reporter.

How Ms. Boo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writer for the New Yorker, exported this style, which depends to a great degree on familiarity and friendship, to a slum in Mumbai, India, is one of the marvels of her first book. Nominally about a teenage garbage sorter wrongly accused of a crime, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” is a searing investigation of the ways in which the striving of slum dwellers is stymied by infighting, corruption and economic fluctuations. It is also a brilliant novelistic narration of three years in the life of a slum named Annawadi, which has grown to accommodate 3,000 people across the street from Mumbai’s international airport.

Like many slums, Annawadi is a purgatory for those who have come to Mumbai from impoverished parts of India seeking to move up the economic ladder. The lucky find their way into menial jobs—serving snacks at a hotel or selling tea at a train station—and eventually into better slums. The less fortunate end up in the garbage trade. This toxic line of work brings together scavengers, who harvest recyclables like paper, scrap metal and plastic from the trash; traders like 16-year-old Abdul, who sort the junk on rusty scales into 60 distinct categories; and recyclers, who buy it and pass it back into the outside economy, which every year consumes more and more.

Ms. Boo chronicles the slum-dwellers’ daily work in gripping detail. With a tinge of horror, she surveys a sodden trash banquet of plastic bottles, polyurethane bags, furry rats and sewage. Abdul has to support his family because his father’s lungs were scarred by garbage work and tuberculosis. (“You didn’t have the mind for school, anyway,” his father consoles him.) On the “most profitable day of his life,” Sunil, a 12-year-old scavenger, raids an airport compound and brings in only 126 rupees (or $2.50)—eight times his usual take.

But it is the inner life of Ms. Boo’s characters that consumes her. Abdul is seen not as a mere victim of globalization but as a watchful boy who quietly turns over theories about how the world works. “It seemed to him that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they avoided.” Elsewhere, Sunil worries incessantly that hunger is slowing his growth. An 18-year-old girl drowses over “Mrs. Dalloway” and wishes to lead a virtuous life—an act of rebellion against her mother, Asha, who has mortgaged her own morality to become the premier power broker in the slum.

Annawadi is shown as a place where people’s ambitions are seriously out of step with their means. The child scavengers often fantasize about landing hotel jobs, where waiters “spent all day putting toothpicks into pieces of cheese,” but their prospects are much more grim: maggots, drug addiction, disease, early death. (Some of the boys have a running bet about which scavenger will die next.) The slum’s eligible women are often married off to relatives in distant villages. Even introverts like Abdul are drawn into the drama of the slum against their will when neighbors erupt into dangerous squabbles.

“Poor people didn’t unite” during her time in Annawadi, Ms. Boo writes in a rare polemical moment; “they competed ferociously with one another for spoils as slender as they were provisional. And this undercity blood sport created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of society at large. The gates of the rich were not stormed. The powerful did not worry. The poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.”

Ms. Boo’s almost telepathic insight into her characters’ desires multiplies, rather than diminishes, the ethical ambiguities of striving in a slum. Writing about Asha, who shamelessly milks an antipoverty scheme, a school and a women’s group for funds while promising to deliver blocs of neighbors to her political patrons, Ms. Boo explains: “For the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.” We get a glimpse of how far Asha has come when she visits her village, where indebted farmers are committing suicide and dying of AIDS and her great-grandmother, hunched from overwork, walks on all fours like an animal. “Looking at the ancient woman,” Ms. Boo writes with quiet empathy, “Asha stood mast-straight.”

And yet corruption, which is Asha’s means out of poverty, is what keeps Abdul and his family stuck in it. When an altercation between his mother and their neighbor Fatima gets out of hand—ending with Fatima burned to death—Abdul is accused of a crime he did not commit. He immediately comes into the crosshairs of policemen and officials looking for an easy shakedown. Unable to pay, he and his father, Karam, are brutally beaten. Karam is locked up in a jail cell where there are “so many bodies that no one could lie flat.” A doctor tasked with officially classifying Abdul as an adult or juvenile for trial asks him for a bribe. “Yes, it’s rubbish, asking poor boys like you, but the government doesn’t pay us enough money to raise our children,” he explains. The trial stretches on for months—in English, which the defendants don’t understand.

Ms. Boo has acknowledged that her presence may have prompted the later decision by officials at the juvenile detention facility to release Abdul on probation, since “officials didn’t want me poking around there.” It is also possible that her presence affected her subjects’ decisions. Yet there is something heroic, and deeply moving, about how Abdul and Karam go about trying to be upright in a society that has little use for this quality.

There is also something heroic about the way in which Ms. Boo worked, in her receding way, to re-create the Dickensian web of connections that underlie the day-to-day transactions of the slum. She immersed herself in Annawadi’s squalor (and once, by accident, in the lake of effluents that abuts it). Unable to speak fluent Hindi or Marathi, she employed a team of translators, read thousands of government documents and undertook an obsessive visual documentation—lending her video camera to slum children when she couldn’t be present. For one scene, she interviewed 168 people. Instead of approaching experts for quotes or peppering her account with statistics, she draws her conclusions from the ground up.

The result is a vivid account of a self-contained but fragile universe tossed about by the storms of the outside world—the larger economy affecting the residents’ earnings and the government keeping residents on tenterhooks about its plans to raze the slum, which is located illegally on airport land. Where will they live in two months, in five years, in 10? This is the central insecurity that all of Annawadi’s residents share, one for which there are no answers in Ms. Boo’s landmark book. Read the original article