|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Liam Julian on Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
The Branding on the Wall
August 3rd, 2012
KATHERINE BOO'S BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS, set in a Mumbai slum, is a marvel of reporting, its triumphs legion. The characters are striking, vibrant, and dimensional, not at all the stereotyped, ghostly manifestations of ideas that too often plod through similar works. Boo’s players are unvarnished; they’re un-theorized and real. She records their stories clearly and candidly, tales which are profoundly compelling.
Boo writes in a genre called creative/narrative/literary nonfiction, an approach that blends the fact- and research-basis of traditional journalism with the storytelling devices of literature: setting, detailed description, and characterization. She began reporting in the late 1980s for the Washington City Paper. Her editor there, Jack Shafer, says that Boo “had the soul of a poet but the arm strength of an investigative reporter."
Boo moved on to the Washington Monthly and, shortly thereafter, to the Washington Post, where she turned out poignant pieces about the city’s underclass: poor single mothers, drug dealers, housing project denizens — people whose situations were less misunderstood (though they certainly were that) than unknown. One of Boo’s articles, from 1993, documents her time spent on the street with a crack-addicted prostitute, Starla, who has sex with men in order to amass each day the $60 she needs to get and stay high. It’s a scenario replete with traps for a reporter but Boo carefully avoids them, never wallowing in the more sordid details nor using Starla as mere backup for comment on rehab programs or the war on drugs. She tells Starla’s story with no identifiable motive other than to make the story known.
Boo’s preferred approach is to immerse herself in an environment, learning about its inhabitants by spending time with them. For years that environment was the rougher parts of Washington, D.C., but in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, her first book, it is Annawadi, a Mumbai slum of some 3,000 people across a “coconut-tree-lined thoroughfare” from the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.
Annawadi’s first residents came to Mumbai in the early 1990s from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, to repair a runway. They finished their project and then stayed, deciding that “a sodden, snake-filled bit of brushland” by the airport “seemed the least-bad place to live.” They cleared the brush and transferred dry dirt to the muddy morass, gradually rendering the area barely habitable.
Boo arrived in Annawadi sixteen years later, in November 2007, when she was touring Mumbai with a government official and a social worker who were squiring her from one location to another. At each stop, groups of women had been assembled to attest to the utility of government-run social programs. Last on this orchestrated tour was Annawadi, where Boo surveyed the crowd and noticed one woman, in particular, clearly uninterested in the proceedings. She was Asha, and she stood, aloof from the charade, next to a beautiful, younger woman — her daughter, Manju. Boo was struck by the pair and later told Outlook India that she “sensed there was another story there. How did Asha manage to raise such a daughter? […] What was the real story of these women?”
For the next three and a half years Boo reported in Annawadi. She was there early and stayed very late, lingering around the residents, talking to them, taking notes and pictures, and making audio and video recordings. She would report until, in her words, she “just couldn’t take it anymore.” Then she would go home, rest a bit, and return. All the while Boo and her translator, an enthusiastic young woman named Unnati Tripathi, remained uncertain of their work’s purpose and meaning. She and her translator constantly “wrestled with the question of whether days in rat-filled Annawadi garbage sheds and late-night expeditions with thieves at a glamorous new airport had anything to contribute to an understanding of the pursuit of opportunity in an unequal, globalized world. Maybe, we firmly concluded.” Perhaps what’s most impressive about Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the restraint of sentences like these. Boo’s writing is not cold but neither is it emotive or imposing. She has found — or, rather, worked very hard for very long to foster — a skillfully elusive style that outrages and delights without seeming to try.
Boo is of course not the first person to do immersive reporting from destitute places. Her most famous predecessor in the field is probably George Orwell. In Down and Out in Paris and London, he famously cataloged his days laboring as a plongeur in the gritty bowels of a gaudy hotel near the Place de la Concorde and nights spent roaming English streets in the company of tramps. Several years later he came out with The Road to Wigan Pier, a record of his time living among the working-class people of England’s industrial north. But the differences between Orwell and Boo are many and stark. For one, Orwell played loose with the facts — it’s notoriously difficult to know, when reading his “nonfiction,” which parts are true, which are embellished, and which are simply invented. Orwell was also rarely ever able to keep himself out of his books (he was hardly able to keep himself out of single sentences), and his writing bursts with sentiment, with its author’s thoughts, theories, and prejudices.
Fast forward more than a few decades, to 2003, when Adrian Nicole LeBlanc published her groundbreaking book Random Family, the product of a decade of immersive reporting —hanging out with one family — in the South Bronx. If Behind the Beautiful Forevers is comparable to any other effort of narrative nonfiction, this is it. Boo herself called Random Family “a landmark work.” As Boo did in her book, LeBlanc endeavored to report individually and impartially in Random Family. She focused on one family in one neighborhood during a specific period of time. She introduced no grand, overarching lessons, included no policy exegeses or commentaries on urban life, New York City, or the American Dream. LeBlanc’s characters lived in a small world, their troubles were immediate and demanded their full attention, and her words reflected that.
No community in India had received this kind of long-term consideration until Boo showed up in Annawadi with a notebook. She was, in fact, reluctant to show up at all. In interviews she has confessed to initially doubting that she, new to India, so fresh to the country and its people, could make a serious and valuable journalistic contribution. And certainly she knew that Indians can be prickly about non-Indian writers who, they perceive, descend on their country, stick tape recorders in a few faces, and then jet back west to pen bestsellers. One particularly blunt illustration of this prickliness is an OPEN magazine piece by Hartosh Singh Bal in which he called British journalists in India “inheritors of a Raj that still lingers.” “Who else,” he asked, “would have the temerity to sum up a continent after a two- or three-year stay confined mostly to Delhi?” About William Dalrymple, a well-respected chronicler of India who has lived there for decades, Bal wondered, “How did a White man, young, irreverent, and likeable in his first and by far most readable India book, The City of Djinns, become the pompous arbiter of literary merit in India?”
It’s fair to say that Bal was unfair, but the source of his pique is real. The worst books about India are careless and insulting, today usually following the Thomas Friedman tack and portraying the country as some sort of glittering, high-tech playground (their authors must be blindfolded at the airport, the handkerchiefs removed only when they are safely ensconced in Bangalorean conference rooms). You can hear these volumes coming a mile away, too; clichés and buzzwords (engineers!) scream from the dust jackets. There are also those books that endeavor to decoct from 1.3 million square miles of beaches, mountains, jungles, deserts; thousands of languages; and well over a billion people the Indian essence—or, if not quite so hubristic, still attempt to paint a summative portrait. These don’t do well, either.
And yet there are many good books on India, lots of them by non-Indians. But even among these volumes Boo perceived a gap. When she first moved to the country after marrying an Indian man, she began reading in earnest, trying to educate herself about her new land. She found no shortage of “talking” nonfiction — books brimming with theory and commentary — but a real absence of what she calls “hard reporting” done about Indian communities and their people, especially women. “Whether in books or films,” Boo later said, “I came across prostitutes and dancers. But where were the mothers, where were the children?”
In Annawadi Boo found the mothers and children, beginning with Asha and Manju. Asha, 39, is introduced as an aspiring slumlord: “For the overcity people who wished to exploit Annawadi, and the undercity people who wished to survive it, she wanted to be the woman-to-see.” Female slumlords are a rarity, though, and the few women who hold the position usually had inherited land claims, or act as mere stand-ins for their controlling husbands. Asha is not about to inherit anything; her husband is a penurious alcoholic. If she wishes to be Annawadi’s slumlord, the woman-to-see, she will have to strive, scheme, maneuver, and plot to make it happen.
Manju is not like her mother in this way; power and prestige of the slumlord variety don’t excite her. Her efforts are concentrated on her college studies, and on learning English (she is an English literature major). Much of her homework consists of memorizing teacher-provided summaries of English novels and plays, which she does, out loud, as she attends to housework, stepping over scattering roaches and dumping food scraps into the sewage lake behind her home. “Mirabell — beau. Millament — gallant. Mr. Fainall — cuckold. No, Mirabell is the gallant,” she tells herself, attempting to nail down the plot of William Congreve’s The Way of the World. She sweeps the floor and continues the self-lecture: “In Congreve’s drama, money is more important than love.” This, Boo writes, was also Asha’s position, but “Manju wasn’t too interested in money.” Rather, she pursues virtue — partly, at least, in rebellion. Being kind, gentle, and generous is her way of defying her mother, whose callousness Manju dislikes, intensely.
Sunil is a scavenger, 12 years old, evicted from a Christian-run orphanage after Sister Paulette, the nun in charge, determined that children over age eleven were too much to handle. So he returned to Annawadi, where his mother had died of tuberculosis years before and his father, perpetually drunk, still rented a hut on the slum’s “stenchiest lane, where the feral pigs gorged on rotten hotel food.” Each dawn, Sunil heads out to collect trash, which he will later sell to Abdul, the teenage trader, for a few rupees. The place where air cargo was loaded and unloaded is a promising spot for a garbage collector, but the competition with other scavengers there over the choicest bits of refuse has grown too intense for the small boy. So he walks along Airport Road, seeking other venues:
It interested him that from Airport Road, only the smoke plumes of Annawadi’s cooking fires could now be seen. The airport people had erected tall, gleaming aluminum fences on the side of the slum that most drivers passed before turning into the international terminal. Drivers approaching the terminal from the other direction would see only a concrete wall covered with sunshine-yellow advertisements. The ads were for Italianate floor tiles, and the corporate slogan ran the wall’s length: BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER. Sunil regularly walked atop the Beautiful Forever wall, surveying for trash, but Airport Road was unhelpfully clean.
There are many others living behind the beautiful forever wall whose stories Boo brings to light. Most of them lead arduous, tenuous lives dependent on the vagaries of situations beyond their control, sometimes far beyond the slum’s borders. The global financial crisis and resultant construction slowdown depresses the prices of scrap metal, for instance, and the garbage trader Abdul Husain and his family suffer. A distraught neighbor douses herself in kerosene and lights a match, and the Husains suffer even more. The lives of Annawadi intersect in various ways, and Boo follows them wherever they lead — to trash heaps, to hospitals, to jails.
It is true that Boo has meticulously removed herself from Behind the Beautiful Forevers. As not a few critics have pointed out, the first-person singular doesn’t appear until the “Author’s Note,” at the book’s end. And yet the author is in a sense omnipresent in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Her distaste for conjecture notwithstanding, she does hold a strong position, make an argument, which is embodied in her writing — an argument for reportorial humility.
The world is awash in theories, and a country like India, so dynamic, with so many social and political troubles, is particularly susceptible to being drowned in them. Boo wants to do the opposite, so to speak — to be drowned by her subjects, to allow their truths to permeate her work. She wants to learn, to understand how, as she has said, the issues that are “overtheorized and underreported play out on the ground.”
We hear all about it today: Inconvenient facts discarded for art, serious topics simplified or manipulated in the name of “promoting awareness,” and arguments from those who continue to defend such bogus, exclusive dichotomies. But for Boo, accuracy remains the priority. She writes wonderfully, but her unique accomplishment may be the way she listens.