One night a few years ago in Washington DC, Katherine Boo tripped over an ‘unabridged dictionary’, broke three ribs, punctured a lung and, as she lay on the floor unable to reach a telephone, ‘arrived at a certain clarity’ about her future. With most people — certainly those like Boo with a history of wretched health — the clarity would have taken the form of some assuasive advice: ‘Take it easy,’ ‘Don’t push yourself,’ ‘Find something less difficult to write about.’
For Boo, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who has written mainly about poverty in the US, clarity suggested the opposite. If she was going to be felled by an unabridged dictionary, she reasoned with perverse logic, why not go out and tackle some really serious obstacles? Why not go and study slum conditions in Mumbai, a city where she didn’t speak the languages in a country which she hardly knew (her husband, though Indian, was working in Washington at the time) — a place where she would be regarded by her subjects with suspicion and perhaps derision, and where she did indeed become ‘a reliably ridiculous spectacle, given to toppling into the sewage lake while videotaping and running afoul of the police’. Fortunately these obstacles proved less obstreperous than the dictionary, and their successful navigation has resulted five years later in a remarkable book.
Annawadi is a ‘sumpy plug of slum’ encircled by the airport hotels, ‘four ornate, marbly megaliths and one sleek blue-glass Hyatt’. With some 3,000 inhabitants crammed into about 300 huts, it is not one of Mumbai’s largest slums. Nor is it one of the poorest, even though only six of those 3,000 have permanent jobs, and the most destitute of the rest live on a diet of weeds, fried rats and frogs from the sewage lake. It would be difficult for readers to imagine a place much worse.
In her search for how Annawadi functions and how its population survives, the author has assembled a cast of memorable characters. We get to know Asha, who uses cunning, corruption and seductiveness to increase her sway in the neighbourhood; Fatima One Leg, who has ‘a sexual need as blatant as her lipstick’ and, despite the drawback of her infirmity and the existence of an inconvenient husband, finds little difficulty in satisfying it; Robert the ‘slumlord’, who has painted two of his horses to look like zebras in order to rent them to middle-class families for their children’s birthday parties. (When it rains the stripes are washed away so that the animals stand ‘revealed as poke-bone, yellow-hide nags’ until their owner ‘refreshes the black stripes with Garnier Nutrisse hair dye’.)
Boo brings us close to these people and to the less colourful surrounding crowd of petty thieves, child scavengers and women struggling simply to keep their families alive. Yet she resists the temptation to turn them into Dickensian characters with funny quirks and amiable eccentricities. Their lives are too desperate to be made humorous. She will say of one Muslim man that he was too sick to work but ‘not sick enough to stay off his wife’, yet this is not a gratuitous aside: it is the fact that drives his young teenage son Abdul to discard all hope of leisure in order to earn enough money (as a recycler of garbage) to buy food for his parents and his many siblings.
The book traces the feud between Abdul’s family and their neighbour Fatima One Leg, who pours kerosene over her head, sets herself alight and before dying incites her relatives and friends to pursue the family as the instigators of her death. Thus ensues a saga of imprisonment, police beatings, attempted extortion and an interminable trial. Abdul’s father and sister are eventually acquitted, but in the process the family is ruined.
Life, death and hope have equivalence in the book’s subtitle but not in the daily existence of its subjects. There are occasional shimmers of hope where the human spirit rises above its perennial enemies; Abdul, for example, refuses to handle stolen goods even if they are only stolen garbage. Yet these are far outweighed by the sempiternal pairing of death and hopelessness. One youth is murdered, two commit suicide. Meena, one of the most appealing characters, is regularly beaten by the men in her family because she talks on the telephone to a boy, because she sits in the open outside her shack, and because she refuses to cook her younger brother an omelette. So she kills herself with rat poison.
This powerful and sympathetic book reveals the sheer scale of difficulties daily facing Mumbai’s poor, above all the incessant bribing required just to survive: to Asha so she can fix things with the neighbours, to the police so that they don’t beat you up or arrest you on a false charge, to witnesses so that they don’t tell lies in the witness box, to the doctor so that he doesn’t insert a false year of birth and have you sent to an adult court instead of a juvenile one. Such continuous pressure naturally leads to a tragic poverty of aspiration, to a state where such positives as exist are measured in purely negative terms. ‘A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.’
Pessimism like this inevitably saps intrinsic human characteristics such as kindness. Margins are too small, people are too poor for charitable feelings. Competition in Annawadi is so inexorable that people become harsher than they would like to be. They thus turn in upon themselves and not against their class enemies among the ostentatiously new rich: ‘Poor people didn’t unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional.’
People who write about poverty usually describe how that condition affects them, how they react to the squalor and degradation which they encounter. Even Orwell, intent on depicting the people he met, could not keep himself out of Down and Out in Paris and London. But Boo seems to efface herself completely; the first person singular doesn’t appear until the author’s note at the end of the book. The approach is thus reminiscent of the opening page of Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin: ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.’
Yet in other ways the author is very much in the book, in the quality of the writing and the intelligence of the appraisals: the Indian caste system may indeed be — as she neatly puts it — ‘the most artfully oppressive division of labour ever devised’. In the end one puts down this impressive work relieved that one can rest from the remorselessness of its tragedies yet grateful one has learned about them from a writer who combines such innate human sympathy with such high literary skill. We can be grateful too tothat unabridged dictionary for serving an unintended purpose.
More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us.