I finally got to read Katherine Boo's 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity" a few weeks ago. Praised to the high heavens as an authentic portrait of authentic people (as opposed to fake Slumdogs) in Annawadi, a dirty, sewage cesspool surrounded by assorted huts, inhabited largely by upwardly mobile garbage processors and resellers, Boo puts together a curiously clinical dissection of life in the slums.
From the New York Times on Katherine Boo's attempt to piece out the lives that she describes in her book:
"In her early visits to Annawadi, which began in 2007, Ms. Boo, who is small, blond and delicate looking and knew none of the half dozen or so languages spoken there, was anything but invisible. There are, or used to be, two main landmarks in the slum: a concrete wall with ads for Italian tiles (“Beautiful Forever”) that give the book its title, and a foul-smelling sewage lake: a junk-rimmed pool of excrement, monsoon runoff and petrochemicals. While videotaping one day, Ms. Boo fell in, and when she came out her feet were blue.
“At first it was a circus act,” she said in New York the other day. “It was, ‘Look at that crazy white woman!’ ” But she spent so much time in Annawadi, reporting almost daily for four- or five-month stints over a span of four years, that eventually she became a fixture and was taken for granted. “The people got bored with me,” she said, “and they started laughing when others thought I was interesting. I think some of them even felt sorry for me.”
In a sequel to her book, this New Yorker article had a short video of the denizens of Annawadi, showing a brief glimpse of some of the people whose lives she describes.
But as ever, she offends the sensibilities of the 'India Shining' crowd, one of whom has left a telling comment at the end:
"I requested to Katherine Boo your work as a report of sanitary Inspector of India I read and understand Now please just visit to ghetto of America and describe how poor people of U.S.living most penury condition,how horrible crimes occurred there.Let world know how most mighty and super rich America treated her poor people"
Which is exactly what she had been doing for years before turning those sharp eyes to India. From her Wikipedia page:
"In 2000, her series for the Post about group homes for mentally retarded people won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The Pulitzer judges noted that her work "disclosed wretched neglect and abuse in the city’s group homes for the mentally retarded, which forced officials to acknowledge the conditions and begin reforms."
In 2003, she joined the staff of The New Yorker, to which she had been contributing since 2001. One of her subsequent New Yorker articles, "The Marriage Cure," won the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing in 2004. The article chronicled state-sponsored efforts to teach poor people in an Oklahoma community about marriage in hopes that such classes would help their students avoid or escape poverty. Another of Boo's New Yorker articles, "After Welfare", won the 2002 Sidney Hillman Award, which honors articles that advance the cause of social justice."
But the comment did remind me of something else: the redoubtable Katherine Mayo and the polemics of her 'sanitory inspector' job of reporting on pre-Independence India. Much of that was truth, but when presented with a biased eye, raised considerable outrage, whereas Katherine Boo's willingness to slum it out with the Annawadians makes for a very different approach.
Boo offers no prescriptives, except when she is pressed, here in this interview by Bill Gates. On her being asked about why she eschews policy recommendations:
"As a documentary journalist, I don’t see my role as lecturing governments or international development people about what they should do. Rather, I’m trying to give an unsentimental, rigorously reported account of how government policy or market forces affect lives and prospects on the so-called ground—not least because I think that’s information conscientious policymakers and philanthropists long for, and often lack.
On the books in India, for instance, you’ll find internationally acclaimed laws intended to involve more Dalits and women in the governance of the country, as well as to bring child laborers and girls into the education system. But when I looked closer in Mumbai, I found that the reforms had been implemented so shoddily that their main effect was to circulate money and power among the political elite. (I’ve seen variations on that theme in American inner cities, too.) If such diversions of public funds and subversions of policy intent aren’t brought to light, we might assume that low-income or low-caste families have received more help than they’ve actually had. Worse, we might see their failure to thrive as a reflection on their capacities, when the essential failure has come at the level of the powerful.:
Another Katherine, another era, but a different kind of lens, unsparing but not judgmental.