The book was “Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity" by Katherine Boo (2012). The proposer had recently become a trustee of a charity operating in India. This book had been recommended as a good introduction to the realities of Indian life.
Katherine Boo, who had recently appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival, was a distinguished American journalist. She had worked for the Washington Post from 1993 to 2003, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service by exposing neglect and abuse in homes for the mentally retarded, and a MacArthur Fellowship. She had joined the staff of the New Yorker in 2003, winning the National Magazine Award in 2004. One of her themes was the contrast between extreme wealth and extreme poverty in American cities.
Following her marriage to an Indian husband, she had turned her attention to India, and specifically to the Annawadi slum in Mumbai next to the airport. She tracked the fortunes of a number of the slum residents for a period of over three years. Although her ability to interact directly with most of the slum residents was limited by language, she was very tenacious, and had gone to great efforts to get things right by employing Indian translators and assistants. She had used freedom of information to obtain access to over 3,000 public records. Her book had won the National Book Award in the non-fiction category.
The book was described as “narrative non-fiction”, but it read like a novel. The proposer found it fast-paced, witty, grisly, and compelling. He had found it impossible to put down. It was a revelation as it illuminated the scale of poverty, of bureaucratic nightmare, and multi-layered corruption. Extreme poverty is obvious in India, but this showed how people are kept in that state and willing to accept their lot. Yet Boo’s journalistic style, and her ability to conjure up situations perfectly with one well-chosen phrase, made it a quick read.
Everyone found the book extremely readable, even including one who dreaded what calamity was next when picking it up again. Boo was undeniably effective in delivering a crisp and striking narrative, although some found the “journalistic” prose style a little irritating. But even these readers admitted she had a fine turn of witty phrase. She started with gentle irony, for example:
“Annawadi sat two hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road, a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late”
“Now the hut… had a high-status, if non-functioning, refrigerator.”
This became a more mordant wit as the book progressed:
“That job had been to clean public toilets and falsify the time sheets of his benefactor and other sanitation workers…”
“Then a doctor entered with the results…Abdul was seventeen years old if he paid two thousand rupees, and twenty years old if he did not.”
But humour and wit were not qualities often associated with this type of book. Nor was her welcome lack of sentimentality. Only in her insistence that children told the truth, while adults lied, did she perhaps lapse into romanticizing.
The format of the book – “narrative non-fiction” – was unusual. Most of us had assumed it was a novel, based on research. It therefore came as a considerable surprise to read in the afterword that it was based on real people whose names had not been changed. This required some substantial revision of the reader’s perspective.
This shock at the end certainly gave the book and its issues more impact. But it also raised concern. Why had the writer not used the usual convention of saying that the people were real but the names changed? There might be a good reason for this, but we were not clear what it was. Was it that the web of corruption was so extensive that one or two examples of graft amongst slum-dwellers would not be pursued? That nobody in the slum would read the book – but could you be sure? We worried that heavy-handed retribution might fall on the heads of some of the people whose lives had been dissected.
And what about the feelings of individuals? How might Axa feel about her alleged scams being revealed by someone she had trusted? Or her sex life being broadcast world-wide? Or to work out that much of the information might have come from her English-speaking daughter? We could not answer these questions without knowing the author’s defence, but we did hope that the author had not become another who exploited the slum-dwellers for their own ends.
Most of our discussion, however, focussed on the issues raised by the book, and we benefited from having some extensive knowledge of India within our group. Extreme poverty and hunger were poignantly revealed as the slum-dwellers fought to gather bits and pieces of everyday waste to sell to the recyclers for a rupee or two to keep them fed for another day. And the ghastly environment of the shanty-town with its lake of sewage – but cheek by jowl with the airport and its glittering luxury hotels - was unflinchingly recorded. However, powerful as this was, most of us were well aware, from visits, television or reading, that there was still appalling poverty in India on a giant scale.
What came as a more of a shock for most of us was the extraordinary scale of corruption permeating all levels of society. This was most brutally exposed in the saga of Abdul and his incarceration and torture for a crime he did not commit, with the constant refrain of someone offering to solve the problem if only his impoverished parents could offer them a big enough bribe. Every fine-sounding Indian government initiative to help the poor was subverted by local politicians for their own financial gain. The anti-poverty business was a good one to be in because of the sums of money that could be creamed off. In one of her many bons mots, Boo yokes “politics and corruption” together as one of three possible routes out of poverty (and the one most likely to work).
Occasionally the representatives of western governments and charities flit across the background, depicted as universally naïve and easily gulled into hearing what they want to hear. And, ludicrously, a western-inspired animal rights organisation intervenes in the slum to insist on the prosecution of an owner of horses. But the horses are better fed than the slum-dwellers, who consider the horses the most lovingly tended creatures in the slum. Meanwhile India had said it was now a rich country and did not need any aid from the West.
Equally shocking was the despair. The level of suicide – from self-immolation, rat poison or hanging – was harrowing. She quotes an “ode to low expectations”, a particularly sad Marathi song: “What you don’t want is always going to be with you/What you want is never going to be with you…”
She notes that “for every two people in Annawadi inching up, there was one in a catastrophic plunge.”
And in a particularly hard-hitting and radical conclusion she talks about the lack of mutual support and the narrowing of moral imagination in the slum. “Hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament. Poor people didn’t unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional…. The poor took one another down, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.”
However………did we accept that her bleak and angry portrayal of slum-life was accurate, and her hard-hitting conclusions fair? Here we were in difficulty in making a judgement. Based on the facts she presented, her conclusions seemed solid to most of us. But we were in the author’s hands in terms of what she chose to show us of the slum-world. Certainly a recently created and large urban slum, with the population constantly changing, and with different religions and different backgrounds, might be less mutually supporting than a rural village or even a South African township. And extreme poverty might challenge most people’s feeling for their fellow human-beings.
But some wondered if Boo had in certain areas overstated her case. Were the slum-dwellers quite as mutually unsupportive as she concluded? Even on the evidence of the book there was not a lot of inter-slum theft or violence. Most of the witnesses in the Fatima case told the truth. And, as she herself acknowledged, there was less religious discrimination within the slum than might have been expected.
And the economy of the slum did function at a certain level, and did support the wider economy of Mumbai. The alternative of giving up and returning to the poverty of the countryside seemed, for most residents, to be even less attractive.
And there was some evidence of Indian government initiatives making progress. For example, the initiative to give the Dahlits priority in university entrance must have had some success to judge from the protests made by other caste groups.
And was the legal system quite as bad as Boo implied? “The Indian criminal system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.” But the fast track system, which she ridiculed mercilessly, had at least reached the right verdict. And many of the faults she depicted – the length of time to reach a verdict, the lack of understanding of what is said in dialect, maltreatment of suspects by the police – could be found in older legal systems much closer to home. And although various intermediaries in search of bribes asserted that lawyers or judges might be bribed, she presented no evidence of any such corruption.
So what hope for the future? One of us with much background in India had put to an Indian think-tank expert the view that corruption was India’s number one problem. The expert agreed, but, depressingly, said he could envisage no circumstances in which it might be tackled. One of the problems was that governments were generally coalitions between a major party (of which there were two), and smaller parties with only a regional or sectional rather than a national agenda. It was common to denounce corruption, but that was the corruption of your political opponents rather than systemic corruption in India.
But was our concern – and Boo’s concern – about corruption just another example of people in the west ignorantly trying to impose our value judgments on a foreign country? Well, that was always a danger, but we remembered the analysis in the “The Undercover Economist” by Tim Harford (discussed 30/1/08) of how a country like Cameroon failed in economic growth compared to China. It was not because of lack of entrepreneurial spirit, but because of corruption.
Perhaps we could only console ourselves by taking the longer view. It had taken Britain a couple of centuries to come to terms with the growth of urban slums associated with our agrarian and industrial revolutions. It was 1942 before the Beveridge Report proposed the developed welfare state along the lines we now know. As for corruption, it was 1853 before the Northcote Trevelyan report recommended that merit rather than “patronage, preferment or purchase” should be the basis for recruitment and promotion in the Civil Service. We still had plenty of sink estates where life could be very unpleasant. In many respects India was now undergoing its own agrarian and industrial revolutions, and it would be naïve to expect them to be able solve the consequent problems overnight.