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Citizens of an 'Undercity'

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (New Delhi: Penguin Books), 2012; pp 254, Rs 499.

Citizens of an ‘Undercity’

Kalpana Sharma

I
nequality has become almost a cliché in Indian cities. Fancy high-rise buildings juxtaposed next to ugly slums, some people defecating in the open along railway tracks even as others rush by in their BMWs, luxury goods and junk food being sold in glitzy malls even as children and adults rummage thr ough huge garbage piles looking for food. We have seen all this. There are movies made about this. Yet, is there something more to say, or another way of saying it? Is there a way that journalists can tell the story of the mismatch between glittering globalisation and the inability of millions to survive until the next day? Katherine Boo, the Pulitzer Prize winner staff writer of The New Yorker, has chosen narrative non-fiction to tell, what to many who live in a city like Mumbai is an obvious story. She tells us of the inequality and the injustice but through the lives of individuals we will never know so intimately. She translates their hopes and their dreams into words that fl esh them out not as caricatures but as citizens of the “undercity” that those who live in the “overcity” will never really know.

Writing with a Difference

To tell this story, Katherine Boo has chosen to study in close detail not just any slum in a city that has been sometimes called Slumbai, and not just any group of slum-dwellers. She has chosen Annawadi, located next to the city’s gleaming international airport and surrounding five star hotels. And her gaze is fixed on the people at the very bottom of the scale of those who are already at the bottom – waste pickers, or “scavengers” as she chooses to call them.

Perhaps to chip away at the false sheen of the constant and sweeping generalisations that accompany talk of globalisation and making Mumbai a “global, fi nancial capital”, it is precisely this kind of close, uncomfortable, detailed view that is needed to bring home the other

book review

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

(New Delhi: Penguin Books), 2012; pp 254, Rs 499.

side of the story, one that exposes the falseness of this dominant rhetoric. And it is not just the detailed gaze of the writer. But also the fact that she has succeeded in constructing her research into a narrative that reads like fiction, but is firmly rooted in well-researched facts. It is this that makes the book different. It is this that makes even the sceptical reader, one who might feel she already knows this story, realise that knowing facts and feeling for the people caught in the middle of the cauldron that is urban poverty are two very different things.

Journalism is a strange craft. You are taught to note detail. You are taught not to take anything for granted. You are taught to double-check everything. Yet, so often journalists begin to believe they already know the story. As a result, they skip over detail, finding it either uninteresting or tedious. They fail to listen carefully, thereby missing out important nuances in what people say. And when speaking to the poor in particular, this sense of knowing everything becomes even stronger, leading to paraphrasing what they “hear” the poor saying without actually taking the trouble to convey exactly what has been said. Often it takes an outsider, someone who does not take anything for granted, like Katherine Boo, to make you realise that what you thought you knew you really did not.

Story of Annawadi

The book is the story of Abdul, the waste dealer, Sunil, the waste picker, Asha, the woman with a political gleam in her eye, and an assortment of other equally fascinating characters who populate Annawadi, a place where out of 3,000

april 28, 2012

people, only six have permanent jobs and where “old India collided with new India and made new India late”.

Through the absorbing although often tragic stories of these individuals, Boo

has constructed the tale of a globalising city, where those who live off its discards are themselves discarded. Yet, it is also a story of enterprise as much as tragedy, of corruption that eats the poor and power that corrupts even the poor, of dreams that are never fulfilled and of nightmares that occur with frightening regularity. It is a story that haunts you long after you reach the last page.

The author undertook four years of dogged, persistent research before she wrote this book. She observed and followed the characters in her book, noted where and how they worked, where they lived, their fights their friendships. But she also used the Right to Information Act to get information. She scoured government documents to understand, to substantiate what she heard. She followed the highest standards of a researcher and a reporter. And then she used her felicitous pen to produce a book about which very little is wrong.

Through Abdul’s story you learn about the waste trade. The author conveys how the criminal justice system is weighed against the poor, the role of politics in their lives, how caste and community matter and yet do not when everyone is fighting for survival and how in the new India there is little or no place for those without material assets.

Too Many Elements?

As you read on, you wonder how a blonde, blue-eyed, rather frail American woman could enter the minds of the denizens of Annawadi. Boo gives a little bit of an explanation at the end, but in her understated style. In fact, this book is a tribute to the power of the understatement. When the reality is what it is for boys like Abdul, you have no need to overstate. It is dramatic enough in its bare facts. Indeed, everyday in slums like Annawadi is filled with drama – most of it played out in the open as there is no place to hide.

vol xlviI no 17

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

BOOK REVIEW

If there is anything one can criticise For Indian readers, the use of the term tells his friend Abdul, “Always I was
about the book it is the author’s efforts to “scavenger” would also probably jar as it thinking how to try to make my life
bring in too many elements. She tries, for has a specific connotation. Yet, you soon nicer, more okay, and nothing got better.
instance, through the life of Asha to bring realise that the author is referring to So now I’m going to try to do it the other
in farmers’ suicides in Vidarbha and rural people we call ragpickers or waste-col way. No thinking how to make anything
urban migration. She brings in some gen lectors. You soon forget the termino logy better, just stopping my mind, then who
eral observations about India’s economic as you follow Sunil as he searches for knows? Maybe then something good
policy in an effort to give context to the anything he can sell, is willing to perch could happen.”
story. Yet given the power of the rest of precariously on a ledge to collect a few
the narrative, this was possibly not needed. discarded aluminium cans and who Email: kalpanasharma@epw.in
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Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
april 28, 2012 vol xlviI no 17

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