A brilliant work of journalism now universally celebrated. Could it have been done without Katherine Boo’s desire to hang out in the shadows, asks Shougat Dasgupta
AN IRONY of the ubiquitous (and merited) critical hosannas sung over Katherine Boo’s first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, set in a slum near Mumbai’s international airport, is their celebration of the author herself — her endurance, her bravery, her brilliance — when her signal quality, evident throughout the book and without which such a book could never have been written, is her humility, her refusal to self-aggrandise at the expense of those whose story she tells. Vanishingly few journalists, in this golden age of media blowhards, are self-effacing. But then vanishingly few journalists have built, like Boo, a career out of patiently, accurately and, above all, empathetically reporting the lives of the poor, the disabled, the ignored and forgotten.
I (not a word, incidentally, much used by Boo) notice early on in our conversation how quick she is to temper any praise that is mildly excessive. When I ask her, for instance, if doing important work is the solace for weeks, months spent in grim conditions, reporting even grimmer stories, she says: “Work that is important to me, you mean, which is different from ‘important work’.” Or when I contrast the depth achieved by her immersive technique to what I see as the shallows of the columnist Thomas Friedman, say, or Slumdog Millionaire, or the reporting of poverty in Indian newspapers, she deflects the comparison. “I’m not going to criticise the work of local reporters,” she says, with the sympathy of a journalist aware of the demands of tight deadlines and editorial agendas, “because I have the leisure of time. My work is really slow to do.”
Even with Slumdog Millionaire, lazily cited in some reviews as if Behind the Beautiful Forevers were some sort of companion piece, and even though Boo herself has written of the film’s false comforts in The New Yorker, she would rather praise director Danny Boyle’s energy and invention than be quoted acceding to unflattering comparisons with her work. She is concerned enough to email me after we talk to ensure that I understand she doesn’t wish to “diss other writers or filmmakers”, that she also wants to avoid making “broad generalisations about middle-or upper-class Indians” because it “takes attention away from what matters to me”.
So what does matter to Katherine Boo? If, from our conversation and my reading of her book and some of her journalism, I can ascribe to her a catalysing motivation, it is this: to describe the distance, to fill in the gap between what happened as described on the official record and what happened on the ground. “When I started going to Annawadi [the slum where her book is set],” she tells me, “I had so few preconceptions. There was so much I just didn’t know and felt I didn’t know. I didn’t know that only six out of 3,000 people living in the slum had steady work. I didn’t know that the government’s schools stopped at the seventh and eighth grade. And I felt not knowing was an advantage. It forced me to ask questions.”
Boo was not exactly a newcomer to Mumbai. She had been coming to the city for extended stays since 2001. She had moved, “embarrassingly for an unreconstructed feminist” she has said in interviews, for love: her husband is Sunil Khilnani, the prominent Delhi-born scholar and author of The Idea of India. It was Khilnani who encouraged her to use her reportorial chops, honed at The Washington Post where she won a Pulitzer for a series, to quote the citation, “that disclosed wretched neglect and abuse in the city’s group homes for the mentally retarded, which forced the officials to acknowledge the conditions and begin reforms”. Would that Behind the Beautiful Forevers might have a similar effect on Indian powers that be. It’s unlikely that the denizens of Annawadi are holding their breath. They’re too busy trying to survive. As Abdul, a key figure in Boo’s book, a dealer in recyclable garbage, points out: “A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.”
This is, of course, not to say that the lives described in Behind the Beautiful Forevers are without hope, without the prospect of material improvement, without joy, only that none of it has anything to do with government policy, charity or civil society and everything to do with individual resilience. Boo’s achievement is to make the reader feel the force of that resilience. Her book is told almost entirely in the third person, her presence subsumed in the imaginations of her cast of slum-dwellers: of reticent Abdul; of Sunil scavenging for scrap metal; of Asha whose compromises and ambitions have provided her daughter with a college education and the luxury of softer feelings; of one-legged Fatima who seeks refuge in lipstick and promiscuity.
There is, Boo insists, “no magic” in her entering the minds of the people of Annawadi. The slum is named after the Tamil labourers who settled the swampland near the airport runway they were repairing in 1991, not coincidentally for the purposes of the book, on the cusp of economic liberalisation. “I just showed up,” she says, “day after day. At the beginning, I had an entourage. Everyone followed me everywhere and there were very few days that were worthwhile reporting days. By about the third month of me showing up at all different hours, they got used to me. After that, when Rahul [Asha’s son] got a job at a five-star hotel, people were more interested in him than me.”
Dickensian is a word reviewers reach for, for reassurance like a nervous toddler reaching for his pacifier
Boo had translators she credits lavishly in the acknowledgments but just as she was drawn to subjects like Abdul and Sunil less for what they said than what they did, it was her actions rather than her words that won the Annawadians’ acceptance and, ultimately, trust. “They sensed that I wasn’t afraid of them, that I wasn’t afraid to get dirty.” To my question about her going to Annawadi late at night, of potential danger, she claims she was “more curious than fearful… they don’t have guns like in [American] inner city housing projects.” Boo also made wide use of video and audio tape. Some of the footage she and the children in the slum shot is available on a special e-book version. The tapes, she says, “were for notes, for me to watch and re-watch to understand what I had seen. And what I had missed. It was also a defensive measure, so people couldn’t say I made things up.”
Documentation is important to Boo. The interviews with Annawadians, the events witnessed and insights gained just by following her subjects over the course of their days and nights, were supplemented with thousands of official documents procured from state archives, court transcripts, morgues and hospitals. It is essential to her method, not only to protect herself but to track how lies take shape in official accounts, how murders become suicides and suicides become murders. The documents, the interviews, the hours spent “just showing up” accrue until Boo can write confidently about her subjects’ inner lives. Until, and here’s another irony, her non-fiction (even the names are real) gains the verisimilitude of the best fiction.
IN THIS 200th anniversary year of Charles Dickens’ birth, Dickensian is a word reviewers reach for axiomatically, for reassurance like a nervous toddler for his pacifier. Its use is apt though for Behind the Beautiful Forevers, not just for Boo’s vivid characters, her indictment of lavish State corruption, or the fetid setting of a city slum but for her empathy, for her novelist’s prized gift to inhabit another’s imagination. Boo’s book also follows in the grand tradition of American journalism, a tradition born of affluent magazines and indulgent editors. As much as Dickens, I think, when I read Boo, of James Agee whose Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, about the lives of the American dispossessed, of poverty-stricken sharecroppers, began as a magazine assignment. Physically, although stylistically they are nothing alike, Boo reminds me of Joan Didion, her slightness masking steely persistence.
I do not say that Boo is as great a writer as Dickens, Agee or Didion but that her devotion to the prosaic, to fact, has given Behind the Beautiful Forevers some of the quality of poetry. That title, for instance, taken from an advertisement for Italian floor tiles papering the slum wall, has the same symbolic effect, the same ironic quality as Dr TJ Eckleburg’s eyes staring out from the billboard over the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby. In Boo’s book, it is her Annawadi subjects, those in the ‘undercity’, who are complex, who articulate their dreams, their world views, their contradictions, while those in the ‘overcity’ — the Catholic nun, the police, the judge, the rich — are barely glimpsed except as venal obstacles to be dodged.
Boo’s gift is in making the reader feel the force of the resilience in the lives in Annawadi
Society in Mumbai, in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is purely transactional. All human life is viewed through the prism of profit. In a city in which the only question that appears to matter is “What’s in it for me?” Annawadians like Abdul and Sunil, unlike those above them in the social hierarchy, can see beyond monetary gain. Sunil sees beauty in six purple lotuses, in parrots, where others might see only commercial opportunity. Abdul, in juvenile prison for a crime he did not commit, is able to empathise with a policeman, with a corrupt doctor. Only in Annawadi, where people have the least and are most at risk of being crushed by the city’s pressures, are people striving to be good.
Boo is not an ideological writer, even if her sympathies lie with the poor and the powerless. She does not, she says, want to be seen as “an American telling Indians how to run India”, that she knows “people roll their eyes when a rich white woman writes about Indian poverty”. She needn’t worry. The work of four years in “obsessive” pursuit of the facts is not so easily dismissed. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is that rarest literary or journalistic achievement, the introduction to the conversation of a new, hitherto unheard voice. We in the overcity owe the Annawadians the courtesy of listening.