Sunday, April 1, 2012

A drama of social injustice in the Mumbai slums (Books - Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo)

Award-winning journalist Katherine Boo has spent two decades, according to her bio, writing about how societies distribute opportunity and, consequently, who is defined as poor. The last three years of that time she spent reporting on India, and in particular, an illegal squatters' slum near the Mumbai airport and luxury hotels known as Annawadi. Although Boo writes non-fiction, her prose in Behind the Beautiful Forevers transforms poverty from a socio-political abstraction into something one can taste and smell and whose consequences upon real people we experience deeply.

'The economy,' as we make use of the term in everyday politics and journalism in the United States, remains a psychological construct, not a fact. It doesn't define how much money the country has. Even having had our stock market in a three-year slump relative to the preceding few years,a frozen housing market, and collapsing investment firms, we have continued to be by any standard a very rich country. Rather, the economy attempts to characterize how free the flow of dollars is to and from particular sub-areas of the market as a result of people's mood. How secure do lenders feel that they will be repaid? How confident is a company that if they spend on hiring three more middle-level executives that they will make up that money in exchange for the goods they produce? How lucky does an individual feel he will be in choosing a low priced share in a company that one day will be worth more? Many of the measures via which we describe the economy are attempts to make a subjective judgment sound scientific in order to manipulate us. Sometimes the manipulation is overtly in the context of the marketplace, other times it is political, but the desired end is personal economic gain in a particular market.

Katherine Boo's excellent new book makes the economy of India far less abstract. The focus of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is what it means to be poor in India.
"The big people think that because we are poor we don't understand much," she said to her children. Asha understood plenty. She was a chit in a national game of make-believe, in which many of India's old problems-poverty, disease, illiteracy, child labor-were being aggressively addressed. Meanwhile the other old problems, corruption and exploitation of the weak by the less weak, continued with minimal interference.
To be poor in the slums of Mumbai is to be thought stupid. The stories the West hears of India's stock market being a rising star may be true as far as that construct called the economy is concerned. If you had money to invest in international equities over the last decade, no doubt you made a fair bit of money, but don't confuse this with improvements in the life of India's urban poor. The residents of Annawadi aren't even characters in that drama of change the Indian PR office has written.
To be poor in Annawadi, or in any Mumbai slum, was to be guilty of one thing or another.
To be poor in the slums of Mumbai is to be guilty. If the script tells us that the economy is changing, that disease and illiteracy are being eradicated, and certain Indians are not benefiting, then obviously they must be at fault.

You may have heard the recent stories about Mike Daisey's monologue about working conditions at an Apple parts factory in China. His "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," contained too much invented or, to be generous, imagined content. This wouldn't have been a problem if Daisey hadn't billed his work as documentary, rather than simply as drama or performance art. In Behind the Beautiful Forevers we have the opposite phenomenon. Here is a work of non-fiction but Boo makes the reading feel like a novel. She does this two ways. The first is a rich depiction of character which builds up over time a sense of how inner life motivates outward behavior. This is a way the reader can come to feel we "know" a character, because we make predictions about what they are going to do.
Abdul couldn't rule out the possibility that the officers would return to search for him. but from what he knew of the energy levels of Mumbai policemen, it was more likely that they would call it a night. That gave him three or four more hours of darkness in which to plan an escape more sensible than a skulk to the hut next door.

He didn't feel incapable of daring. One of his private vanities was that all the garbage sorting had endowed his hands with killing strength-that he could chop a brick in half like Bruce Lee. "So let's get a brick," replied a girl with whom he had once, injudiciously, shared this conviction. Abdul had bumbled away. The brick belief was something he wanted to harbor, not to test.
The second is the centrality of a plot surrounding Annawadi resident Abdul Husain, who earns his living by scavenging recyclable trash. As in any society, rich or poor, there is a hierarchy of distribution-whether of tangible economic resources or power. Those on the lower end struggle to raise themselves up. Ambition fuels greed. Failed striving fuels jealousy.

Fatima, otherwise known as One-Leg, and her family, sit at a lower rung than do the Husains, who have climbed their part of the social ladder by selling garbage. Petty jealousies erupt when the Husains experience a small bit of luck and Fatima sets herself on fire, hoping to avenge her own misfortune by blaming the Husains and gaining legal damages in court. The rococo web of corruption that the Husains face to fight for their innocence and restore some order to their lives bleeds them dry and shows the Indian law enforcement and court bureaucracies to be motivated by anything but justice.

Fashioning a damning indictment of social injustice fueled by corruption within a suspenseful and fast-moving plot makes what might otherwise be an intolerable account of poverty, heartless cruelty, and hopelessness into a warmly readable human drama. Although Dickens wrote fiction fueled by the economic disparity and corruption of a different urban underclass, Boo's work most evoked for me Dickens's mature fiction (although it is much shorter). Touching, informative, observant, and irresistably readable, I cannot recommend this fine book enough.


Barbara said...

I recently heard Katherine Boo's interview on NPR's The Bob Edwards Show. She was unable to get through discussing the suicide of a young girl in the slum without choking up which drove home to me the power of her experiences there. I made a mental note while driving to investigate this book farther and now you remind me of it with your thoughtful, beautifully written review. Thank you.

Ted said...

Barbara - I don't think you will be disappointed. Boo has found a poignant way to translate the meaning to her of these facts about the Indian economy in general, and about these people in particular.

Netherland said...

I've read in a couple interviews with Katherine Boo that she worried about whether she could make the reader care about the characters in this book, given their stations in life. I think she was wrong to worry at all. I'm a 31 year old man, not much given to tears, but the description of a mother from a neighboring slum wandering through Annawadi clamoring for answers about her son reduced me to a bawling child. Not just for how this woman must have felt, not just for her son; but for what happened at the Air India terminal, for a family subject to endless contempt and abusive corruption for no discernible reason. And on and on. I'm trying not to give too much away. All this impotent emotion had built up over the course of the book.

Ted said...

She worked very hard at not taking that connection for granted. When an artists' "worry" drives their effort to creating better work, as seemed to be the case with Boo, I admire it.