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 narrative picks out the lives of a handful of these residents as they struggle for minor material advancement. The first are the Husains, a Muslim family of garbage pickers, working as part of the recycling supply chain that provides employment for many slum-dwellers, and in particular their eldest teenage son:
Avoid trouble. This was the operating principle of Abdul Hakim Husain, an idea so fiercely held that it seemed imprinted on his physical form. He had deep-set eyes and sunken cheeks, a body work-hunched and wiry—the type that claimed less than its fair share of space when threading through people-choked slum lanes…A modest, missable presence was a useful thing in Annawadi, the sumpy plug of slum in which he lived.
As this passage makes clear, Boo’s style is literary, almost novelistic. She provides Abdul, his parents and siblings, and the book’s other characters with detailed and moving interior lives, drawn from a combination of observation, interviews, and her own perception. The result is an often horrifying but also deeply human account of the daily insecurities of slum life, quite unlike any that I have read.
Yet the book is as interesting for its substance as much as its style. True, for a work of nonfiction it is strikingly nonjudgmental. In 250 or so pages there are few explicit opinions, and the author avoids anything that might be described as policy prescriptions for improving the bleak conditions she describes. Nonetheless there are a number of arguments underlying Behind the Beautiful Forevers, even if the author makes them obliquely. This is a more political book than it first appears.
Her first argument concerns the setting. In recent years slums have undergone something of an intellectual renaissance. The likes of Harvard economist Edward Glaeser and environmentalist Stewart Brand have published books that try to turn around the traditional images of slum housing as hellish and intolerable. The revisionist account points out that people move to slums voluntarily because they are economically vibrant and socially supportive—a bottom rung on a ladder that can lead to social advancement. There is an undeniable logic to this view. Mankind’s future is urban. Estimates suggest India’s cities will double in population from 300 million to around 600 million in the next two decades or so. Mumbai, already absurdly crowded, will grow to something north of 30 million. Many of these newcomers will live in slums, and there is little that can realistically be done to reverse this tide of human migration. Despite well-meaning attempts to revitalize the countryside of nations like India and China, rural residents there know that economic opportunity and a degree of social freedom are to be found only in cities, and they vote with their feet. Nonetheless any description of slums is problematic if it downplays the problems that lie within them. This is Boo’s first argument: Slum life contains richness and complexity, but it remains extraordinarily unjust.
The theme plays out throughout the tragedy that lies at the heart of her book. As the narrative begins, Abdul is cowering inside his garbage storage shed, having fled the scene of an argument between his family and a neighbor. The spark was a decision to improve part of their tiny family home. Abdul frets about the move, thinking it will attract envy and attention. His concerns are borne out when a quarrel over the work spins out of control, and an angry neighbor retaliates by setting herself on fire: “The brothel keeper was the first across the maidan, three boys fast behind, throwing their weight across the door until it broke. They found Fatima thrashing on the floor, smoke pouring off her skin. At her side was a yellow plastic jug of kerosene.”
The grim chain of events that follow is partly about injustice in a literal sense, as Fatima, a disabled woman known in the slum as “One Leg,” accuses Abdul’s family of burning her. The police get involved, mostly because crimes provide an excuse for extortion. The family is plunged into the brutality and petty corruption of India’s local law enforcement, and eventually its courts, a world in which “the most wretched tried to punish the slightly less wretched by turning to a justice system so malign it sank them all.”
More generally, however, Boo’s concern is the broader injustice of slum life that comes with being overcome with bad luck. In a slum, even minor ructions can have profound consequences: Fatima ends up in a hospital where she dies for lack of medicine; Abdul and his father both land in prison while their family pitches into a desperate struggle against the malignant authorities. As Boo notes, again describing Abdul, the lives of residents are marked by their precariousness as much as their brutality:
It seemed to him that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slum lord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.
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