A Decent Life Is the Train That Hasn’t Hit You
Katherine Boo’s spellbinding story of a Mumbai slum.
Photo by Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images.
On Wednesday Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity won the 2012 National Book Awards in nonfiction. The minutely researched, compassionately reported account of waste-pickers in an Indian slum earned praise for its “interview-based narrative in which the interviewer never appears.” In a recent Q&A, Boo explained that “when you spend years in a single place, you get to know the children whose perspectives you can trust.” Elaine Blair introduced us to one such child—and his family—in her review of Boo’s book last February. The original piece is printed below.
Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer-winning journalist and New Yorker staff writer, has many ways of illuminating the people she writes about. The most important and obvious is that she listens closely and intelligently. But the most unusual is that she teases them—or lets them tease themselves. You can feel the richness of her affection in her ironic appreciation of their oddities. When, for example, in her spellbinding first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Random House), we meet Abdul Husain, a 19-year-old resident of the Mumbai slum called Annawadi, we first hear him tell us of his shortcomings: “Allah, in his impenetrable wisdom, had cut him small and jumpy,” Boo writes. “A coward: Abdul said it of himself …. What he knew about, mainly, was trash.”
Abdul buys recyclables that the neighborhood’s waste-pickers have scavenged and then resells it in bulk to local recycling plants. He works with his mother, Zehrunisa, who haggles with the waste-pickers. In Abdul’s view, her “one great flaw” is “the language she used when haggling. Although profane bargaining was the norm in the waste business, he felt his mother acceded to that norm with too much relish.”
Abdul and Zehrunisa are two of a handful of Annawadians whose fortunes Boo follows closely in the book. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the product of Boo’s three and a half years of reporting (with the help of translators) in Annawadi. The slum is home to 3,000 people (crammed into 335 huts) and unknown numbers of goats, feral pigs, and water buffalo. Lest you get the wrong idea: “Almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks.” In spite of the fact that a few residents have to trap frogs and rats to fill out their meals, the slum is officially reckoned a success story, full of people on their way out of poverty, and the frog-eaters give other, non-frog-eating Annawadians “a felt sense of their own upward mobility.” Annawadi was built illegally on land next to the Mumbai International Airport and is under constant threat of slum clearance. It is surrounded by new luxury hotels, which make it “magnificently positioned for a trafficker in rich people’s garbage.”
Many Annawadians make their small livings as trash scavengers. Abdul, as a buyer, is a rank above. His main job is to sort the valuable trash into one of 60 categories of paper, plastic, and metal. As the book opens in January 2008, Abdul has been steadily enriching his family (his parents and eight siblings) for several years with his trade. Their hut now has four solid walls (instead of the old sheet dividing them from their neighbors), and they’ve been saving money for payments on a plot of land outside the city.
Abdul sits in Annawadi’s main square (actually an empty dirt lot) most of the day sorting, and this gives him time to watch his neighbors and think. Boo, who never uses the word I and usually sticks closely to her subjects’ points of view, limits her own interpretations to a short author’s note at the end of the book. It is Abdul who supplies a lot of the book’s trenchant analysis of slum life.
It seemed to him that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they avoided. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.
Photograph by Heleen Welvaart.
To put it another way, what you don’t want is plot: When dramatic things happen in Annawadi, they are bad, not good. On the other hand, by this measure, a decent life for Abdul would be more of the same: working with garbage, “work that churned so much filth into the air it turned his snot black.” His dream for the future: a wife “who didn’t much mind how he smelled” and a home somewhere other than Annawadi.
Plot can also be a pitfall for a journalist. When writing about lives punctuated by violence, ruination, and stressful encounters with civic, medical, and commercial institutions, it is easy to lose sight of the person at the center of the drama, the one who is constantly making choices and recalibrating her sense of her life and possibilities. Boo, who has also reported extensively in poor neighborhoods across the United States, has always focused precisely on her subjects’ choices. When we first meet them, they seem like the heroes and heroines of 19th-century novels: They are on the make, or they hope to be, and they have a complex view of their lives and their place in the social landscape. As Boo follows them around, we see how much they are able to make of their limited and sometimes downright lousy options—and we also see the kind of daily binds that make it so difficult, when you start at the bottom, to get economic purchase.
Eventually, plot catches up with Abdul Husain. His next-door neighbor, Fatima, attempts suicide by self-immolation and then accuses Abdul, his father, and his sister of driving her to suicide by beating and threatening her. There are hundreds of witnesses to disprove Fatima’s claim, but that’s not the point. Everyone knows that Abdul’s family has some money socked away, and now everyone sees an angle for getting some of it.
Police officers arrest the accused and demand bribes to release them; a government official coaxes a written accusation from Fatima, then uses the document as leverage against the Husains; the Annawadi village fixer, Asha, offers to make the problem go away for a fee. When Abdul’s mother refuses to pay most bribes, all three of the accused Husains are held in jail and beaten. Abdul is then sent to a juvenile correctional facility.
The arrests, incarceration, and court trials of the Husains give us an inside view of the Indian criminal justice system, and there is nothing good to see. At least as far as the Husains’ case is concerned, it is a vast spectacle of corruption and incompetence in which bribes are required at every step. Abdul quickly sees that “the Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage.” We wish that he had been spared this firsthand knowledge; Boo makes sure we are always aware that our own education in Indian criminal justice for the poor is the result of the Husains’ misfortune.
In a New Yorker piece about Mumbai slum life, Boo once wrote critically about the movie Slumdog Millionaire and its fraudulent conceit “that a child’s specific miserable experiences might be the things that spring him from his deprivation.” Abdul’s specific miserable experiences of arrest and incarceration certainly do no such thing; while he is in juvenile detention, his family’s garbage-sorting business flounders and never picks up again. Another of his younger brothers has to drop out of school so he can help earn money for the family. The Husains lose the deposit they had put down on the plot of land outside the city.
Incredibly, however, Abdul’s time in juvenile detention (where, unlike at the local jail, he is not beaten but largely left to his own devices) does enlarge his sympathies. In Annawadi, Abdul had been “overwhelmed by his own work and worry.” His stay at the detention center, he realizes later, “was the first long rest he’d ever had.” While there, “something had happened to his heart.” He finds himself feeling sorry for other people. He finds in himself a desire to be generous and noble. When he is released on parole, he brings this desire back home with him.
What are the prospects for a young man with broadened sympathies and a sharpened sense of justice back in Annawadi? Abdul’s first resolution is not to trade in stolen recyclables, which he normally buys and sells with the legally scavenged trash.
Boo has never put forward policy suggestions or articulated political ideals, but in her American reporting she has considered the effects of specific policy initiatives on the lives of the people she writes about. Here, too, she writes about a number of different laws and policies that come to bear on the lives of Annawadians. (In addition to her field reporting she has also “used more than three thousand public records.”) But, as her reporting painstakingly reveals, the effect of any single policy is dwarfed by the general mad siphoning of money into private hands that goes on at every turn and every income level. Some women in Annawadi make money by taking government-subsidized micro-loans for poor women and lending the money to even poorer women at a higher interest rate. The nuns at a local orphanage are selling donated foods that have passed their expiration date to poor women who then resell them to the public at roadside stands. Patients at the local hospital have to buy their medicine elsewhere—everything in the hospital’s supply cabinets gets pilfered and resold.
It is in this context of financial free-for-all that we must consider the remarkable case of a teenage garbage trafficker who decides to draw a line between legally obtained scrap metal and illegally obtained scrap metal. Boo describes Abdul’s shifting moral sensibility without sentimentality or emotional punctuation. He tries, for a while, to stick to his resolution, but finds that he can’t make enough money only on legal trash. As he puts it, “I tell Allah now I love him immensely, immensely. But I tell him I cannot be better, because of how the world is.”
Elaine Blair is on the staff of the New York Review of Books.