I just finished reading Katherine Boo’s recent nonfiction “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” in three long sittings. I must say that the book deserves the hype that it has generated through some very good reviews. When I placed a hold request for the book through the local public library, I was number 121 in the list of people who had placed a hold on this book, an indication of the interest that the book has generated in Portland alone. I often order recent bestsellers through the library but had never encountered such long waiting list before.
The book provides what anthropologist Clifford Geertz would call a thick description of everyday life of a handful of residents in a slum community called Annawadi close to the international terminal of Mumbai airport. Some of the events in the book are depressing, sometimes shocking; those were the times I wished the book wasn’t a nonfiction. Children being bitten by rats while sleeping alongside garbage are common occurrences in this slum. It describes five unnatural deaths in a very short span of time, some of them young children. And these were not some anonymous statistics mentioned in passing, but they are people that the author had come to know fairly well during her time in the slum; she has described their life, their ambitions, their hopes in great detail. So I can imagine the emotional toll on the author in writing this book.
I can also appreciate the challenge for Katherine Boo to remain “invisible” while observing what she observes. As a foreigner, her presence would have invariably had an effect on the behavior of her subjects. For instance, as a foreign journalist, she would be perceived to have enormous power compared to her hapless subjects who would consider their association with her as a defense against police and other harassments. She would therefore had to take extra effort to triangulate different sources to arrive at a particular version of interpretation than had the researcher been someone who could blend in. But I also think there are obvious advantages of being an outsider in conducting such a research – a clear untainted pair of eyes, not numbed by the sheer prevalence of injustice and deprivation that most Indians have come to assume as the norm rather than an abnormality.
The book does not present too many numbers in the form of summary statistics. But it does offer important insight into prices, incomes, bribes, life expectancy, family sizes, floor space, levels of security of land tenure etc. in Annawadi through some of the lived experiences of its residents. An example of the numbers that the book offers was that of Sunil, a 13-year old garbage scavenger living on fifteen rupees (about 30 cents) a day and also supporting his younger sister. Compare that to thirty two rupees a day per person that the Indian Planning Commission intends to use as the official poverty line in urban India. The descriptions of the vulnerabilities, hopes, self-pride and the capacity to aspire (in Arjun Appadurai’s words) of people so far below even India’s ridiculously low poverty line should be an essential reading for those in policy circles interested in issues of poverty globally.
One concern I have about the book is with the issue of privacy and anonymity. The author uses real names throughout the book. The book greatly benefits from this making it a serious work of journalistic documentation. But concerns relating to privacy among researchers and ethnographers dealing with human subjects are real and pertinent. I wonder how she handled this delicate issue and whether her subjects fully understood the implications of sharing intimate details with her and if she asked for permission to be identified in the book when sensitive issues like theft, corruption and extramarital relations were discussed.
I intend to write a follow-up post with some lessons that can be drawn from the book for the policy types. Those interested should watch this space.