What do we know of the poor? The question is connected to how we—by which I mean the relatively rich—write about them. Poverty first became a focus for literary investigation in the industrial cities of the nineteenth century, when its sights, sounds, and smells moved too close to middle-class houses to continue being ignored by the people who lived inside. “We had but to go a hundred yards off and see for ourselves, but we never did,” wrote William Thackeray of his friend Henry Mayhew’s newspaper series on London street life, which in book form became London Labour and the London Poor. By traveling “into the poor man’s country” and returning with tales of “terror and wonder,” the novelist believed that Mayhew had revealed to the rich the “wonderous and complicated misery” of the poor for the first time.
This explorer’s approach, in which the poor are a foreign territory to be penetrated, was widely adopted in the last century when socially concerned writers not only spent time among the poor but also tried to live as poorly, so that they might close the gap with their subjects and underpin their observations with firsthand experience. The writer’s immiseration was sometimes brief. George Orwell spent less than a month in Wigan for the book that became The Road to Wigan Pier, and only some of that time in what must have been that coal-and-cotton town’s filthiest lodging house, which he had determinedly sought out. Nonetheless, the experience provided some of the book’s most memorable images: the chamber pot that was kept under the kitchen table, the landlord’s dirty hand that left thumbprints on the bread. Like Mayhew, Orwell returned with stories of wonder and terror, but where in his book did the poor speak or establish their personalities?
The only voice to be heard was the author’s. The distinct aspirations and fears of the people he happened upon couldn’t fit a book that was split between a polemic and a travel account, even in the hands of a writer as gifted as Orwell. Starting with Dickens, that individual complexity had become the province of the novel. In the 160 and more years since the Artful Dodger and Jo the Crossing Sweeper first appeared, it has tended to be compassionate fiction rather than the inquiring reporter that has fixed the poor in our memory as something more than a condition or a cause—as people as diversely and richly human as ourselves.
One of the remarkable achievements of Katherine Boo’s study of life in a Mumbai slum is to bring poor people so much closer to us, as close as they might be in fiction. The story unfolds in the third person and the “I” of the author never intrudes until the book’s postscript. Characters develop and connect to each other in a chronology that moves back and forth across a four-year period. None of this would be so surprising if the author were a novelist turning her talents to some off-duty reportage—bending the precise truth a little as well, perhaps—but Boo is a reporter who won a Pulitzer when she worked on The Washington Post (for a series on the abuse and neglect inside homes for the mentally ill) and since 2001 has written, mainly on American impoverishment, for The New Yorker.
Verifiable information matters to her: stuff that’s true in its details. She spent more than four years with the residents of Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai airport, documenting their experience in written notes, video recordings, and photographs, and consulted more than three thousand public records, many of them obtained only after her persistent petitioning of government agencies. She assures us in her postscript that every name is real and every event has either been personally witnessed or assembled from interviews with several other witnesses. Nothing has been disguised or adjusted. There are no pseudonyms, composite characters, or incidents that have been shifted from one time and place to another. (Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier was never so pure.1)
Behind the Beautiful Forevers takes its title from a slogan for a brand of floor tiles, repeated in advertisements that line the road leading to Mumbai’s airport. Behind this wall of ads lies Annawadi, a slum or what Boo terms an “undercity,” where three thousand people are packed into around three hundred huts held together by duct tape and rope and overlooked by five luxurious airport hotels. Annawadi is by no means Mumbai’s most famous slum—that title belongs to Dharavi, with its one million inhabitants and organized tourist excursions—but it can hold its head up in any competition for squalor and stink. Every night, the airport hotels dump rotting food to feed the slum’s hundreds of feral pigs. A vast lake of sewage laps against the slum’s one public space, a noxious beachfront that Boo records as “bedlam” on most evenings, filled with people
fighting, cooking, flirting, bathing, tending goats, playing cricket, waiting for water at a public tap, lining up outside a little brothel, or sleeping off the effects of the [local] grave-digging liquor….
Diseases flourish, especially those that clog the lungs, weaken the heart, and erupt in the digestive system. Maggots are quick to penetrate any break in the skin.
Twenty years before Boo first went there in November 2007, Annawadi had been an anonymous and neglected piece of scrubland that was considered too wet to build on or do much with, even in a city with limited room for expansion and a never-ending inflow of migrants. Then in the early 1990s a band of laborers traveled north from Tamil Nadu to work on some runway repairs and decided that, even with its snakes and waterlogged ground, somewhere so close to the airport and its “tantalizing construction possibilities” might be not a bad place to settle. As it turned out, few of the Tamils stayed; Mumbai’s governing party, the anti-migrant Siv Sena, displaced them with native Maharashtrians to expand the party’s voting base.
But the Tamils had been right: it wasn’t a bad place to make money. Residents of Annawadi began to earn their living from what the airport’s customers threw away—cigarette packets, tins, bottles, magazines, scrap metal, anything of the smallest resale value—and by the winter of 2007–2008 they were throwing away more than ever before. India’s economy, second only to China in its growth rate, had produced, in Boo’s words, “a smogged-out, prosperity-driven obstacle course up there in the overcity, from which wads of possibility had tumbled down into the slums.”
India’s stock market reached a new high. Business travelers and society weddings added to the tourist trade to fill flights and hotels, while the pre-Olympic construction boom in Beijing inflated scrap metal prices around the world. Every morning, scavengers would fan out from Annawadi across the airport lands, to return in the evening with garbage-stuffed gunny bags over their shoulders “like a procession of broken-toothed, profit-minded Santas.”
All of this was good news for Abdul, a young Muslim who when the narrative begins is sixteen or nineteen (“his parents were hopeless with dates”). A pinched, ill-favored boy with a face disfigured by rat bites, Abdul deals in the waste that scavengers bring to him, first sorting it and then selling it to recycling plants a few miles away in the Mumbai suburbs. Abdul excels at sorting, a skill he began to acquire at age six and expects to do for the rest of his life, but the increasing sophistication of waste matter makes his work more difficult. Bottle caps, for instance:
Some had plastic interior linings, which had to be stripped out before the caps could be assigned to the aluminum pile. Rich people’s garbage was every year more complex, rife with hybrid materials, impurities, impostors. Planks that looked like wood were shot through with plastic. How was he to classify a loofah? The owners of the recycling plants demanded waste that was all one thing, pure.
Generally, Abdul’s future looks brighter than most. His hard work has paid the deposit on a plot of land in a new settlement further out of the city, where his family will have Muslims from North India like themselves as neighbors. Meanwhile, he can afford to feel fortunate in a slum where some people are so poor that they trap rats and frogs and fry them for their dinner while others eat the scrub grass that grows at the sewage lake’s edge. Boo writes that these deeply unfortunate people “gave those slum dwellers who didn’t fry rats and eat weeds, like Abdul, a felt sense of their upward mobility.”
This proves to be misplaced. Abdul’s life falls apart after a row breaks out with his neighbor over some messy improvements he is making to the family hut. The book’s central narrative turns on this incident, which, to quote Boo, begins “the chain of contingency that would damage two families forever.” The neighbor is a self-dramatizing woman known as Fatima the One Leg who swings about sexily on her crutches to seduce men other than her husband, hoping “to transcend the affliction by which others had named her.” Now, in a fit of self-pity and rage, she deliberately sets fire to herself. Badly burned and dying in a hospital, she falsely accuses Abdul and his father of inciting her suicide. A great web of legal, police, and petty political corruption then enfolds the family as father and son await the trials that eventually set them free—too late to save what remains of Abdul’s business.
Corruption has recently become a popular cause for middle-class protest in India, a concern fed by some high-profile instances of big business corrupting politicians but also at a less dramatic level by the bribes the middle class regularly pays public servants in the ordinary course of daily life. Last year the social activist Anna Hazare and his supporters used Gandhian hunger-strike tactics to secure a promise from the Indian government that it would introduce rigorous anticorruption laws and set up an ombudsman to hear and decide public complaints.
The corruption that prevails in Annawadi, however, seems unlikely to be checked by legislation. Viewed from the standpoint of the sewage lake, the anticorruption campaign seems a pious irrelevance. Almost any contact with the police or the health, legal, and educational systems brings with it a demand for under-the-table money. A police doctor tells Abdul he’ll certify his age as seventeen if he pays two thousand rupees, otherwise he’ll put his age down as twenty (for Abdul’s prospects in dealing with the law, the younger he is the better).
Abdul sat up, angry. He didn’t have two thousand rupees, and what was it with this rich doctor, asking a boy in detention for cash? The doctor held up his hands, rueful. “Yes, it’s rubbish, asking poor boys like you, but the government doesn’t pay us enough money to raise our children. We’re forced to take bribes….” He smiled at Abdul. “Nowadays, we’d do almost anything for money.”
1 See Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life (Little, Brown, 1980), where a passage on pp. 187–188 shows how an incident in Wigan has been heightened and transposed. ↩
See Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life (Little, Brown, 1980), where a passage on pp. 187–188 shows how an incident in Wigan has been heightened and transposed. ↩