Notes from the Undercity
Katherine Boo’s new book documents the resourcefulness of Mumbai’s poor, even as it describes a nation incapable of lifting them up.
The best view of what Katherine Boo calls the “overcity” is to be found on the roof deck bar at the top of the Four Seasons hotel, 34 floors above midtown Mumbai. It is a flashy place, full of glass partitions and uncomfortable white furniture, where crowds of ex-pats and well-heeled locals drink thousand-rupee (about $20) cocktails. In the distance you can make out the 27-story silhouette of billionaire industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s new home, Anitilia, a residential skyscraper built a few years back at an estimated cost of $1 billion—one of the most expensive homes ever constructed. Next door to the hotel there is a slum. The last time I visited at dusk, I looked down to see smoke rising from many dozens of tightly packed shanties. But once night falls, it is barely visible.
Other high-rises dot the horizon of an area once dominated by textile mills and industrial plants, new homes for the banks and brokerages that embody Mumbai’s aspiration to challenge Singapore and Hong Kong someday as Asia’s financial capital. Peer between them to the north and you can just about make out the city’s “sea-link” bridge, a rare piece of newly built infrastructure running up the left side of the peninsula. It cuts the time to reach the airport by around 30 minutes, although at 50 rupees (or about $1), the toll is much too expensive for most Mumbaikars.
This is a panorama of what author Sukheta Mehta christened the “Maximum City”—a sprawling metropolis with a population edging close to 20 million, whose vibrant mixture of commercial possibility and Bollywood glamour plays much the same role in the imagination of aspirant Indians as New York or Los Angeles does in the United States. It is also a vision of what is often known as “the new India,” a partly mythic country found in Harvard Business School case studies and the columns of Thomas Friedman: a nation of business parks, clever software developers, and efficient outsourcing businesses. Twenty years ago India opened its economy to the world. This is the result.
All this is not the real focus of Boo’s revealing book, whose subtitle is “Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.” But the geography of India’s most glamorous metropolis—its elite neighborhoods, five-star hotels, and slum-surrounded airport—is a constant presence. Just as the Four Seasons was built on land reclaimed from a slum, so the lives Boo describes, of Mumbai’s most downtrodden, are at once distant from and inextricably linked to the fast, global, and partly prosperous city on which they squat.
Boo is a journalist best known for highlighting the plight of America’s poorest, most notably in The New Yorker, where her style of thickly descriptive and deeply compassionate writing about the inner lives of the underprivileged has won widespread admiration. It also saw her pick up a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 while at The Washington Post for articles examining neglect in homes for the developmentally disabled. But having come to India late in life—she fell in love with an Indian academic, as she explains in an afterword—Boo, 47, found the questions of injustice and poverty that informed her writing in America laid out even more starkly.
Unlike most books written by foreigners on the subcontinent, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is narrowly focused. Boo paints a portrait of just a handful of characters in a small corner of one city, rather than a sweeping tableau of the nation. But for that it is one of the sharpest and most urgent critiques of the country’s model of development, and the failures of its political and business elites to keep pace with the rising aspirations of India’s more than one billion citizens.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers details the three or so years Boo spent visiting Annawadi, a small slum perched on the edge of the international airport. As she explains early on:
Annawadi sat two hundred yards off the Sarah Airport Road, a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late. Chauffeurs in SUVs honked furiously at the bicycle delivery boys peeling off from a slum chicken shop, each carrying a rack of three hundred eggs. Annawadi itself was nothing special, in the context of the slums of Mumbai. Every house was off-kilter, so less off-kilter looked like straight. Sewage and sickness looked like life.
Annawadi is a name virtually no one outside its neighborhood would have heard of. Visitors to Mumbai might chance to see its rooftops from their windows as they fly in. But this is a hamlet of around 3,000 people in 335 dwellings, in a city where a single slum can house hundreds of thousands—in one case, perhaps more than one million. That the lives Boo catalogues are both unremarkable and anonymous is part of the power of her story.
Boo lived in Annawadi for long periods, shadowing and attempting to understand its residents, often in arduous conditions. At first the slum-dwellers would point her toward the nearby hotels, worried that she was lost. But she hung around long enough to fade into the background, and put together a rich and textured picture of those living there.
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