[Did a version of this review-cum-interview for The Sunday Guardian]
One is almost conditioned these days, while reading a book (or watching a film) about the Indian poor, to expect clichés, generalisations, facile commentaries and quick-fix solutions. And so, around 20 pages into Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers – a non-fiction chronicle set in Mumbai’s Annawadi slum – I felt a very particular sort of trepidation. It’s what happens when you’re starting to be seriously invigorated by a book but also thinking, “This is too good to last.”
Surely, at some point, these carefully observed vignettes would devolve into a pat story about a kid pulling himself into a better world through pluck and initiative? Or perhaps there would be some gratuitous sentimentalising – a banality about how happy these children were, how their smiles were warmer than the smiles of more fortunate people elsewhere?
It doesn’t happen (and to be honest, it wasn’t until the last page that I sighed with relief). This intimate, novelistic work manages not to strike that fatal wrong note, and it achieves this while telling the interlinked stories of many different people, all of whom “know” that there are three main ways out of poverty: entrepreneurial initiative; politics and corruption (the two things being inseparable); and education. The first is the path chosen by a teenaged garbage trader named Abdul, the eldest son of the large (and, by Annawadi standards, well-off) Hussain family. On a different route is the 39-year-old Asha, who is in a power struggle to become the unofficial slum boss (“chosen by local politicians and police officers to run the settlement according to the authorities’ interests”). Her college-going daughter Manju “by-hearts” her way through mystifying texts by Virginia Woolf and Congreve, but conscientiously teaches other children in her hut during her spare time. Meanwhile a resourceful 12-year-old named Sunil reckons that he must become a better scavenger if he wants to “jump-start the system”.
|Photo: MANOJ PATIL|
I didn’t much care for this book’s precious-sounding title when I first heard it, but it’s easier to appreciate when you know the context: a wall advertisement for stylish floor tiles that hides the slum from the view of cars heading to the nearby international airport. There are only a couple of fleeting references to this artificial boundary – Boo doesn’t turn it into a heavy-handed symbol. More importantly, she doesn’t just take us “behind” the Beautiful Forever sign (in which case we might still have had only a brief aerial view of Annawadi, a snapshot of poverty porn) – she takes us to ground level. It’s the perspective a movie buff might remember from the chase sequences in Black Friday and Slumdog Millionaire) – but this isn’t a short-lived pursuit, this is life unfolding at its own unhurried pace. And the triumph of this book is to catch the many complexities of the Annawadians in such a way that the most complacent reader can no longer hide behind comforting “us” vs “them” distinctions.
To achieve this, Boo – who is married to the writer-academic Sunil Khilnani – knew that she needed to make a very long-term commitment of time and energy. When I meet her, the first thing I learn is that she had all sorts of misgivings. “I feared being a laughing stock,” she says, “I was embarrassed to talk about it with other people because it felt like such a cliché: white woman in an Indian slum, hanging around sewage lakes.” And this coming from someone who has impeccable credentials in writing about underprivileged people: she won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for a Washington Post series about group homes for mentally disadvantaged people, and a National Magazine Award in 2003 for a New Yorker feature about “marriage classes” in a poor Oklahoma community. “As a journalist, you know there are some things you can do well,” she says, “I knew I wouldn’t be any good interviewing politicians, but here’s something I could put my heart into.”
|Photo credit: JORDAN TIERNEY|
One reason why the prettifying of poverty occurs in so much literature and reportage, she points out, is that many reporters are content to slip in and out of a place – “and naturally, in that situation, there is much excitement, people laugh and point and tell you about themselves, and if you leave immediately you only come away with that happy picture.” She didn’t want to be the tourist-reporter collecting sound-bytes as souvenirs. (“The ‘real story’ doesn’t emerge from my sticking a tape recorder into a poor kid’s face and asking him about the philosophy that keeps him going.”) The way to do it was to spend so much time with the Annawadians that she could go from being the weird white woman – a conspicuous, warning presence – to becoming part of the furniture, someone in whose presence people could be themselves. And so, aided by translators (three of them, at different points in her research), Boo made the slum her second home for nearly four years, filling notebooks and tapes with conversations and observations.
|Photo: MANOJ PATIL|
That the story is told in the third person (Boo keeps herself firmly out of it) comes as a surprise given the level of her involvement. There have been excellent reportage-driven works in recent times – Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing and Aman Sethi’s A Free Man come to mind – where the writer is very much part of the narrative, and this can be very effective if it’s well-executed: for instance, A Free Man gains from the reader’s sense that Sethi the narrator is growing as a person as he tries to understand the life of his protagonist, the “small man” Mohammed Ashraf; that he is subtly changed by the things he is writing about.
But while Boo is an admirer of both books, she says this approach wouldn’t have worked for her. “I would have been conscious that every word or sentence I used up on myself was something I was taking away from the Annawadians.”
This does raise questions for a reader, though. In many passages – records of conversations and encounters – it’s clear that Boo was present, and the writing is a descriptive account of what she saw and heard (thus, Abdul says something sharply to his mother and “A rich silence followed”). But there were other times where she had to reconstruct what had happened through the not-completely-reliable accounts of witnesses. “We investigated the hell out of Fatima’s death,” she says, “Even though I was already close to the Hussains, we didn’t just presume they were innocent. We interviewed dozens of people, made sure the stories matched, fact-checked compulsively.”
“And the other thing I’ve always tried to do in my work is that if I cannot establish something, I put that in the narrative too. You have to be upfront with the reader, you can’t bluff your way through it.”
Being completely upfront also means that all names in the book – including those of corrupt or incompetent policemen and corporators – are real, and naturally this was risky. “I did feel threatened,” she said, “and there was one night with the police that was not a good night. In retrospect I realised the danger. But in general, my curiosity is greater than my fear. I don’t feel afraid till much later, because I get so involved in trying to figure things out – that’s part of the losing control that comes with reportage.”
There has been much talk recently about the increase in narrative non-fiction in India, but some of the best books in this category don’t create “narratives” in the most specific sense of that word. These are not stories with a definite beginning, a definite middle and a neat summing up: Sethi’s and Faleiro’s books, for instance, both end with their subjects (a labourer and a bar-dancer respectively) moving out of the reader’s line of vision, to a place where even the sympathetic reporter-writer can no longer reach them, their eventual fate uncertain. Much of the books’ power lies in their refusal to peremptorily tell the “India story”: even when small details point to larger truths (about the state of a society, a nation, the world, or the human spirit), it’s done quietly, in the manner of what the critic Manny Farber called Termite Art (“immersion in a small area ... concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorising it”), and without any pretence that this is all there is to be said.
|Photo: MANOJ PATIL|
It’s important to Boo that her readers recognise this, instead of buying into the comforting notion that the difference between rich and poor people is purely a measure of innate intelligence, talent or the “will to make it”. “We construct such reassuring stories for ourselves,” she sighs, “Even people who were born into lives of privilege, sitting on the wealth of generations, are convinced that they have motored their own successes. And one way of doing this is to think of the poor as a separate species.”
Even literally. “Where’s your Dalmatian?” a friend asked her after reading part of the manuscript, meaning: if you don’t give the reader a sweet, fluffy person to pet, why will they care? “But if you can only relate to these people as stereotypes, I’m not going to make it easy for you,” Boo says. “They are every bit as complex as you or me, and they are smarter than you realise. This isn’t an alien world where you lift the curtain and see wondrous new things. I see so much of myself in the people I write about.”
Indeed, by the time you reach the last page, the under-city and the over-city have melted away – what’s left is a long continuum leading from one way of life to another, and it’s possible to see the people of this book, Boo and her readers included, as occupying various positions along that line. Behind the Beautiful Forevers may begin as a very specific story about a scared young man hiding in a little hut to evade the police, but it ends as a powerful reflecting mirror.