On a freezing January morning in 2012, as a handful of publishers, journalists, writers and bibliophiles headed for the annual Jaipur Literature Festival on the early morning Shatabdi Express from Delhi, the buzz around the compartment was about one book alone: the American journalist Katherine Boo’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, And Hope In A Mumbai Undercity, which was hot off the press and had created a major stir, especially in India.
There were rave reviews, but rumblings, too, in some quarters. That, however, was only to be expected. After all, its subject had been a long-time favourite of Westerners—from 19th century Orientalists to foreign correspondents, who periodically parachuted into South Asia to mine its inexhaustible reserves of grotesquerie. Poverty, at its basest, full of the grinding abjection and indignity of life, is at the core of Behind The Beautiful Forevers. For the Pulitzer Prize-winning staff writer with The New Yorker, though, it wasn’t a passing interest. Having chronicled the lives of America’s poor for years, Boo brought to her reporting incredible powers of observation, attention and empathy, all of which are part of the toolkit of the world’s finest storytellers.
Boo, who is married to the historian Sunil Khilnani, spent nearly four years in a slum called Annawadi, near Mumbai’s international airport, to track the lives of three families living there, all of them connected by a gruesome tragedy. It’s an evergreen Indian plot, no doubt, simmering with communal tension, caste violence, jingoism, jugaad, you name it. Rereading it a decade on, I was besieged with an uncanny sense of déjà vu. As I write this column, in the so-called glory days of Swachh Bharat, a big landfill in Delhi is on fire, throwing the lives and livelihoods of millions of waste workers, who are a key focus of Boo’s story, into jeopardy. Part of a mosque was razed recently in the Capital, defying a court order. Women wearing the hijab have been barred from educational institutions in another part of the country. Indignity and violence remain par for the course for minority communities in India.
At the centre of Boo’s story is a disabled Muslim woman, nicknamed One Leg by the residents of Annawadi, whose attempt at self-immolation turns the lives of her Muslim neighbours upside down. Born Sita and rechristened Fatima after her marriage to a much older man, One Leg sizzles with an unbridled energy. She sleeps around with almost any man who will have her in order to boost her fledgling self-worth. Her lifelong struggle as a disabled person has left her with scant regard for public opinion, a foul temper, and a heart of steel. One Leg hurls the choicest abuses at one and all, including her neighbour Zehrunisa, whose family is among the few Muslim inhabitants of Annawadi. Even when her two-year-old daughter drowns in a pail, Fatima barely takes notice.
As Behind The Beautiful Forevers opens, Fatima is in hospital with severe burn injuries, which she blames on Zehrunisa’s family and her ongoing feud with them. The local police are in hot pursuit of Abdul, Zehrunisa’s son, who is the principal breadwinner for his brood of 11. Abdul’s father Karam, a scrap dealer who is a settler from a village in Uttar Pradesh, has TB and is unable to look after his large family. While the poorest of Annawadi forage for rats and frogs for subsistence, Abdul, through dogged hard work, has improved his family’s condition. Apart from the shack they live in, they own a storeroom to keep the garbage they buy from waste-pickers. The family was in the process of upgrading its home further when the unholy fiasco with One Leg erupted into a raging conflagration—quite literally.
The relative “success” of Abdul’s family, coupled with their religious identity, is a point of inflection for their Hindu neighbours, especially the aspiring slumlord Asha, a card-carrying member of the Shiv Sena. It’s the same neighbourly envy that has, historically, lit the spark that turns a brawl into a communal implosion. And so, with One Leg’s injury, which eventually leads to her death, a chain of events is set off. What unfolds is a bleak indictment of police atrocity, the prison system and judicial delays, shot through with bathos.
While squarely focused on Abdul’s predicament, Boo doesn’t miss the black comedy that pervades slum life: Asha’s daughter Manju, who aspires to be the first graduate from Annawadi, has to “in-heart” (memorise) the plot summary of an 18th century play, “The Way Of The World”, to pass her college exams, while Robert, the former slumlord, has to rent out “fake zebras” (horses painted over with Garnier’s Nutrisse hair dye) “to birthday parties of middle-class children” to make a living.
Indeed, it’s Boo’s peculiar gift of looking at this crazy situation through multiple lenses, as though she is squinting in several directions at once, which gives her narrative its unique urgency. It’s also the technique that makes her overstep the conventions of both academic ethnography and conventional reportage.
True to its lyrical title, inspired by a tag line on a billboard advertising Italianate tiles, Behind The Beautiful Forevers gives a unique twist to reportage. Most of its story is told with novelistic flair, with Boo presuming access into her characters’ inner lives, thoughts and motives, many of which hover in a morally ambiguous zone, where the line between humane action and criminal intent is blurred. This is a daring strategy for a writer whose knowledge of Indian languages was nil.
In her author’s note at the end of the book, Boo acknowledges the translators who collaborated with her, explaining further that her subjects were all well aware of her intentions. She clarifies that the men and women of Annawadi all knew that she wouldn’t necessarily write of their lives and actions flatteringly. The local “police officers sometimes threatened to arrest slum dwellers who spoke to me”, Boo adds, as she lists the many impediments thrown her way by the bureaucratic machinery. In the circumstances, telling this story in the voice of an omniscient narrator was a big wager, as was Boo’s choice to keep herself out of her narrative.
In the era of confessional journalism, where every report is infected by the “me, myself and I” syndrome, Boo’s decision to absent herself from her story appears almost archaic. But it does pay rich dividends, which is not to say that her style is, by default, superior to another one. The Indian journalist Aman Sethi, who also wrote a remarkable book on urban poverty (A Free Man) in 2012, took a very different route to document the life of an itinerant labourer in Delhi. As Sethi went on to capture the life and death of Mohammed Ashraf, he inserted himself, along with all his biases and beliefs, compassion and frustrations, into his reportage. The result is less taut than Boo’s narrative, as the cracks in Sethi’s personality become more and more palpable with the progression of his story. In contrast, the only time we hear one of the Annawadi residents address Boo is in her author’s note, when she recounts Abdul lashing out at her for asking him about his traumatic past over and over in an attempt to verify facts.
Yet, for all the questions it raises and in spite of her conspicuous self-erasure, Boo manages to leave the reader with an overwhelming sense of her all-seeing eye and capacious sensibility—in the way Joan Didion did in the heyday of New Journalism in the US. If the duty of a journalist is to capture the essence of the truth and breathe life into it, Boo set a standard that’s hard to rival for most contemporary journalists.
Somak Ghoshal is a Delhi-based writer.
Rereadings is a monthly column on backlisted books that have much to offer in contemporary times.