What It Feels Like to Be Poor

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. By Katherine Boo, Random House, 256 pages, $27.00

In 2004, shortly after winning a MacArthur genius grant for her reporting on poverty as a New Yorker staff writer, an audibly nervous Katherine Boo told an NPR interviewer, “If I have any gifts at all, one of them is invisibility.” She was talking about a quality of her work: the way she strives to witness her subjects’ lives so intimately it can seem as if the subjects don’t know she’s observing them. Boo’s byline itself hasn’t appeared in the magazine since 2009. From November 2007 until last March, she was in Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai airport. Her tightly woven first book about a core of that neighborhood’s struggling residents, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, offers a rebuke to official reports and dry statistics on the global poor.

 “Annawadi sat two hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road,” Boo writes, “a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late.” First erected by Tamil migrants who filled in wet brushland in 1991, Annawadi soon swelled with rural Hindus and Muslims arriving for the promise of work. Indian officials can point to sketchy numbers showing that the residents have been raising themselves out of poverty ever since, rupee by rupee, along with much of the country in India’s recent march to a modern economy. But the residents, from different castes and sects, are still some of the poorest in the world.

Boo describes crooked shacks made of fabric and bamboo, 335 of them housing 3,000 people on little more than half an acre; walls, when available, are costly and shared. Busy roads cross overhead, and the book’s allegorically freighted title comes from a billboard ad for tile floors that blocks the slum from view. Much of the neighborhood action takes place in a central clearing known as the maidan, the slum’s one space of airy respite—beachfront to the sewage lake, which is so polluted that the animals that wade into the sludge emerge with their bellies stained blue.

When the book starts, in the winter of 2008—peak tourist season at the nearby international terminal and luxury hotels—the Indian government has authorized the newly privatized airport management to demolish Annawadi, an unofficial settlement. The residents’ uncertain futures are like static buzzing ominously in the background. Part of Boo’s suspense-filled narrative turns on the fate of Abdul, a skilled young retailer of recyclables scavenged by area boys from the daily airport waste. Abdul’s neighbor Fatima, a handicapped mother of two whom everyone calls One Leg, is the target of local scorn; she harbors a generalized anger and especially resents Abdul’s family for a disruptive home-improvement project.

Boo charts the seven tense months leading up to a public fight—an eruption of tamped-down frustrations on all sides—and then to a self-destructive act by Fatima, which sends her, Abdul’s family, and other Annawadians out into “overcity” Mumbai. By this point, we think we know what a good and a bad day look like for Boo’s subjects. We have still more to learn. Besides Abdul there is Asha, who aspires to a political life; Asha’s daughter, Manju, a beauty working to become Annawadi’s first woman to graduate from college; and Sunil, a scavenger trying not to turn into a thief. As they bump against the overcity’s jails, hospitals, courts, and pervasive corruption, all are stopped in their tracks, and some will lose the fire and the hope to try to make their lives better.

This is the first sustained look abroad for Boo, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for her reporting on wretched institutional housing for the mentally disabled in Washington, D.C. In the tradition of American writers striving to capture the people behind the data on the nation’s poor, she has often followed government anti-poverty programs as they’re executed on the ground—writing about, say, women enrolled in a marriage class or teen mothers taught by nurses to care for their babies. But Boo spends little time analyzing the broad results of these programs. She doesn’t quote officials often or guide readers through research. Instead, driving us alongside her subjects’ day-to-day lives, she shows us how off the mark these programs can be—teaching marriage as if that will fix a woman’s life when the woman in question has no transportation to get to work, for instance. Nor does Boo intervene when she sees her subjects struggling. “You want to watch what people do with what they have,” she said when the NPR interviewer asked why she didn’t help one African American subject passed over by a bus driver who refused to stop. “It’s a morally tricky thing.”

 

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An author’s note explains that Boo came to Mumbai because she married an Indian man. She decided to write about the city’s poor after finding little to read on the topic that didn’t seem like an appeal to help a Mother Teresa orphanage. “I quickly grew impatient,” Boo explains, “with poignant snapshots of Indian squalor: the ribby children with flies in their eyes and other emblems of abjectness that one can’t help but see within five minutes of walking into a slum.” Whether that’s a fair assessment of the literature on poverty in India, using bleak images to elicit pity is something Boo works against in her book. Alongside disturbing moments, like a man slowly dying of a leg injury, she offers beauty: a secret spot where boys watch parrots nest in a fruit tree, a eunuch’s dance in an empty temple. But the first onslaught of monsoon shows how overwhelming the place can be: “Hut walls grew green and black with mold, the contents of ten public toilets spewed out onto the maidan, and fungi protruded from feet like tiny sculptures—a special torment to those whose native customs involved toe rings.”

Boo spent more than three years reporting in Annawadi and at first had to get over standing out as the only white Westerner. While she still strives not to appear as a noticeable presence in the narrative—she witnessed many events and reconstructed others with help from three translators—her voice is unfailingly strong. “Let it keep,” she writes, “the moment when Officer Fish Lips met Abdul in the police station. Rewind, see Abdul running backward, away from the station and the airport, shirt buttons opening as he flies back toward his home.” This is how she opens the first chapter, cinematically, leaving the tense moment hanging. Boo conveys what happened and didn’t happen in her reporting with such authority that scant room seems left for any other interpretation of the facts. But her authority is earned. We come to know whole people, and even when they deserve a dose of blame for their plight, we feel we understand why they’ve done what they’ve done.

One of the book’s insistent themes is that Annawadians are not just the exploited, cut off from the rest of society. They’re creative problem solvers. By finding a niche to be useful in, like the recycling of plentiful airport garbage, they even exploit society back. Annawadians also make sure to vote in elections—across India, the poor are much more likely to vote than the wealthy—though this active political engagement doesn’t seem to translate into help for the slums. Boo renders this always back-and-forth relationship between the poor and the powerful in a prose style of subtle reversals. “For the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity,” she writes, “corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.”

But beyond providing an opening here and there, corruption robs the Annawadians of help when they urgently need it and allows their miseries, their accidents and losses and even their deaths, to go unrecorded as if their lives haven’t counted. A murder becomes tuberculosis when the coroner signs the certificate saying so. We see Abdul and his well-read father in jail—but technically, they were never arrested. Boo describes such widespread government fact-fudging that, despite the atmosphere of violence she chronicles, official numbers show Annawadi to be one of Mumbai’s safest districts.

For Abdul and the others, meanwhile, every tiny achievement is precarious—while tiny mistakes, which might serve as a minor life lesson for people on stable ground, can threaten disaster. Abdul, we learn at one point, “felt his mother hadn’t prepared him for what it felt like, falling alone.” That is just what Boo helps us start to see—what it feels like. Besides witnessing the official mistreatment of Annawadians, we come away from her book convinced that efforts to help the poor demand a better picture of the obstacle course they navigate daily and the impossible choices they sometimes face. Boo is one of few chroniclers providing this picture. She’s a moral force  and, for all her delicacy, an artist of reverberating power.

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