Feb/Mar 2012

Notes from the Undercity

Katherine Boo's intimate portrait of a Mumbai slum

Jonathan Shainin

On December 9, 2011, the ABC News program 20/20 aired a dramatic report from India, presented by the show’s Emmy Award–winning anchor Elizabeth Vargas. In an uncharacteristically long piece devoted to social issues in a foreign country not recently liberated from tyranny by an American invasion, the fifteen-minute segment set out to reveal what its title dubbed “India’s Deadly Secret.” The deadly secret in question—so secret that the Times of India has only mentioned it about six hundred times in the past two years, according to LexisNexis—is the propensity of Indian families to abort female fetuses: a disturbing and disturbingly widespread practice, which has produced badly skewed child sex ratios (as high as 129 boys for every 100 girls in certain districts) that indicate the “disappearance” of tens of millions of women over the past several decades.

This is a subject of unquestionable significance, but 20/20’s report on India’s “growing gender gap” turned out to be a kind of master class in how deeply a group of well-meaning journalists can drown their good intentions in a warm bath of patronizing condescension and pity. Backed by the requisite sitar-and-tabla sound track, Vargas strode bravely down dusty, crowded roads with nary a female in sight. “Walk down any street, as I did throughout India,” she said in a voice-over, “and you notice something startling: In every direction you see men, and very few women.” Cut to a slow-motion shot of four uniformed schoolgirls walking past the camera: “Now look closely at the faces of these girls. They are the lucky ones—they’re alive.” (Figures from the 2011 census suggest that they have the company of 572 million other living Indian women.)

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If you were playing Sentimental Orientalist bingo while watching at home, your card would have filled up pretty fast. Obligatory reference—“in a land where men revere female goddesses”—to “spiritual” India? Check. Needless (and erroneous) recourse to “ancient tradition” as an explanation for contemporary behavior? Check. Failure to acknowledge that the scourge of sex-selective abortion afflicts countries from Albania and Armenia to South Korea and Vietnam? Check. Concluding with ponderous and vaguely uplifting quote on-screen from Mahatma Gandhi? Check. Spelling his name incorrectly? Bingo.

If I had to tell you one thing about Katherine Boo’s astonishingly fine new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I might start by noting that what a team of journalists from ABC News failed to accurately convey with fifteen minutes of video and who knows how many thousands of dollars, Boo manages in a single sentence. After describing how Fatima, one of the Mumbai slum dwellers whose lives this book chronicles with remarkable precision and a bracing refusal of pity, had drowned her own two-year-old daughter in a bucket, Boo encapsulates the whole terrible phenomenon of female feticide in India in thirty-two unadorned words: “Young girls in the slums died all the time under dubious circumstances, since most slum families couldn’t afford the sonograms that allowed wealthier families to dispose of their female liabilities before birth.”

To say that modesty is among the greatest virtues of a given work of nonfiction may seem like the faintest of praise, particularly in an era when prizes and plaudits accrue mostly to massive tomes whose blurbs proclaim them “magisterial” or “compendious.” But the sentence quoted above, like the rest of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is a testimony to the transcendent power of reportorial humility: The tragedy in these words—both individual and national, in this case—calls no attention to itself; it just sits there, without false melodrama or coerced tears, in a style well suited to the flint-hard manner of the book’s subjects, who scorn pity and charity alike. What is perhaps even more remarkable, and equally characteristic of Boo’s accomplishment here, is the effortlessly concise depiction of the broader issue at hand. At each juncture where the narrative requires context from beyond the boundaries of the slum at its center—and especially when the machinations of what Boo calls “the overcity” wreak havoc on its denizens—one finds no traces of those original sins of foreign correspondence, abstraction and generalization. This is not a book about “India”—in the sense that it makes no pretense to describe an entire nation of 1.2 billion people—but it tells us more about India than most books which pursue that ludicrous ambition.

A New Yorker staff writer whose enviable résumé includes a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “Genius” grant, Boo has confined her first book almost entirely to a single slum in Mumbai’s western suburbs, an illegal settlement called Annawadi that is not among the city’s more renowned concentrations of poverty. Home to about three thousand people—“packed into, or on top of, 335 huts,” as Boo puts it—it is far smaller than Dharavi, the world-famous setting of Slumdog Millionaire and innumerable Bollywood films, a city unto itself that boasts somewhere between five hundred thousand and one million residents and must, by custom, be referred to as “the biggest slum in Asia” in any newspaper article about its inhabitants. (According to recent data, alas, the city now has at least four slums that are larger.)

The first dwellings in Annawadi were built in 1991 by Tamil migrant laborers who came to Mumbai to repair an airport runway and decided, as Boo writes, that “a sodden, snake-filled bit of brushland across the street from the international terminal seemed the least-bad place to live.” A few hundred yards from the airport access road—a stretch of pavement, Boo wryly notes, “where new India collided with old India and made new India late”—the slum squats on land owned by the airport authority. Contractors renovating the newly privatized airport use “a vast pool of sewage that marks the slum’s eastern border” as a garbage dump; their bulldozers loom like an existential threat, nibbling for now at the slum’s edges but almost guaranteed, at some unknown future date, to raze the makeshift tin-and-plywood shacks of its residents.

Apart from the looming danger of eviction, the location is in some ways an enviable one: Surrounded by the airport and a cluster of luxury hotels, Annawadi is nestled among high-class outposts of “the overcity, from which wads of possibility had tumbled down to the slums.” As Boo notes, though only six of its three thousand residents have permanent jobs, “almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks”—and most of their meager earnings come by way of the porous border between the slum and the city beyond, which can be trespassed daily but never transcended.

For the Husains, a Muslim family whose fragile but somewhat prosperous business involves buying trash from scavengers and selling it to recyclers, Annawadi “was also magnificently positioned for a trafficker in rich people’s garbage.” For Sunil, a malnourished twelve-year-old scavenger whose mother died of tuberculosis and whose alcoholic father “smelled like a stove” and only “did road work in order to smell like a stove again,” a narrow ledge on the other side of a wall adjacent to an airport taxi stand—perched seventy feet above a concrete riverbed—turns out to contain unguarded detritus whose collection earns him about thirty-three cents a day. The husband of Fatima—a one-legged woman whose “abiding interest was in extramarital sex, though not for pocket change alone”—makes about two dollars for each fourteen-hour day sorting garbage in a nearby slum. For Asha, a thirty-nine-year-old woman with three children and a permanently inebriated husband, the torrent of corruption that lubricates every transaction in the city beyond represents an opportunity for power, and she ruthlessly pursues her ambition to unseat the present slumlord—and take up his real but unofficial role as “the person chosen by local politicians and police officers to run the settlement according to the authorities’ interests.” “For the overcity people who wished to exploit Annawadi,” Boo writes, “and the undercity people who wished to survive it, she wanted to be the woman- to-see.”

It is difficult to determine precisely how much time Boo spent in Annawadi, watching, listening, questioning, and absorbing the thousands of tiny details from which she has woven an (almost unfathomably) dense picture of the lives, thoughts, hopes, and fears of its inhabitants. She writes that her reporting stretched over more than three years—from November 2007 to March 2011—and that she consulted more than three thousand public records, many of which were obtained through the use of India’s Right to Information Act—in what can be a byzantine and often frustrating exercise whose obstructions have been known to thwart the efforts of experienced local journalists. To reconstruct the book’s climactic scene—the self-immolation of the Husains’ neighbor Fatima, whose death shreds the family’s tenuous stability like a vengeful tornado—Boo conducted 168 interviews.

But even a reader unaware of Boo’s extraordinary methods—which are only described after the book’s conclusion—can perceive from the very first pages that thousands of hours must have been required to achieve the extraordinary intimacy between reporter and subjects on display in every page of Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Across almost three hundred pages in which there is scarcely a single false note, Boo has managed a task I would have thought impossible for a foreign journalist in a Mumbai slum: to merge her eyes almost completely with those of her characters—an illusion, to be sure, but one whose precision, subtlety, and control present the impression that we are not merely viewing the lives of the Annawadians at close range but indeed seeing the entire world through their eyes. The conventional way of describing such emotionally rich nonfiction accounts of the lives of the poor is to credit their “empathy”—but we might pause for a moment to contemplate the patronizing privilege that word implies. Boo does not merely render an empathetic portrait of Annawadi; she allows the reader to inhabit the place itself, and in the process grants its residents an agency and intelligence rarely visible among the pitiable characters who populate lesser accounts of India’s underclasses.

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In the author’s note that concludes the book, after registering her distaste for both “poignant snapshots of Indian squalor” and “accounts of people who were avidly remaking themselves and triumphing in software India,” Boo correctly identifies what she perceives as “a shortage in Indian nonfiction: of deeply reported accounts about how ordinary low-income people—particularly women and children—were negotiating the age of global markets.” In the years since she began her reporting in Annawadi, this shortage has been addressed by a small but significant group of younger Indian journalists; their books do not necessarily prove that only native writers can accurately and thoroughly depict the complexities of a country, but they have irreversibly raised the standard by which each month’s haul of works purporting to explain the “New India” must now be judged. Like Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the best of these works take a narrow focus that may at first appear constricting: They resist the apparently eternal temptation to capture the totality of the world’s second largest country between two covers, an act of reportorial hubris that cannot but recall the ambitions of an earlier generation of far less benign Western visitors, whose attempts at national portraiture served even baser instrumental ends.

These days you don’t have to be Niall Ferguson to sneer at loaded words like Orientalism and colonialism, which have lately acquired the musty odor of smoke-filled faculty lounges and become shibboleths whose use marks their speakers as intransigent dead-enders unwilling to abandon the futile struggles of an earlier generation, still shaking with impotent rage against the peaceful global triumph of liberal capitalism.

But it remains impossible to fully comprehend the problems that plague our writing about benighted foreign lands—whether India or Iraq or Afghanistan or the country sometimes called Africa—without acknowledging that even the “rise of the rest” (or the “flat world,” depending on which cliché-prone oracle of globalization you prefer) has not fully vanquished what a cranky old tenured radical might still call the specter of Orientalism. Lest this become a tedious lecture of precisely that sort, it should suffice to note that those who see no problem with the earnest effort to decode, summarize, and explain entire countries and cultures in single-volume works of popular nonfiction have little to no tolerance for similarly reductionist accounts of their own nations. Recall that the last person to try this in the United States was Bernard-Henri Lévy—that walking personification of bare-chested modesty—who was rightfully laughed out of the country for doing so.

The contention that such books should not even be attempted—that we have crossed an epistemological frontier beyond which the complexities of foreign places can no longer in good conscience be rendered simple—may seem harsh or even arbitrary. But the achievement of Behind the Beautiful Forevers suggests that what follows from renouncing the panoramic for the particular is less a constraint than a liberation.

Jonathan Shainin is a senior editor at The Caravan. He lives in Delhi.