The Secret Life of India's Slums

What Katherine Boo's new book teaches us about the country's sky-rocketing inequality.

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Courtesy: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

The slum of Annawadi in Mumbai is important only to those who live there. To the affluent Indians and foreigners who fly in and out of the city’s airport just next door, Annawadi is essentially invisible. Its 3,000 residents are a source of cheap labor, an annoyance at most. Something to turn away from.

But to Pulitzer-winning reporter Katherine Boo, Annawadi and its people are part of a globally important story. Boo, a New Yorker staffer and Macarthur grant recipient who has written widely on poor communities in the United States, spent three and a half years immersed in the lives of Annawadi’s residents – trash pickers, hopeful students, prostitutes, and small-time power brokers.

The book that resulted, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, is a complicated, sad narrative of what urban opportunity looks like in the booming slums of the global economy.

Boo learned about Annawadi after she married an Indian man 10 years ago and started visiting the country regularly. At a recent reading in New York City, she spoke about her motivations in writing the book:

"When I was in Mumbai, which is a city that was manifestly prospering and still 60 percent of the citizens live in slums, I found myself asking questions not unlike the questions I’ve asked in my own country," Boo said. "Whose capabilities get supported in this society, and whose get squandered? What’s the infrastructure of opportunity here? Who gets out of poverty and who doesn’t and why?"

The book's main character is a teenage boy named Abdul, one of a handful of Muslims in the slum. He has scratched out a career for himself by sorting and selling the trash other Annawadi residents, mostly children, glean from the dumps around the airport.

Abdul has managed to slowly better the station of his family by trafficking in valuable refuse like used tampon applicators, bottle caps, and aluminum cans.

When the book opens, he's hiding in the shack where he stores the trash before selling it, trying to evade police who are coming to arrest him on a trumped-up charge of violence against a neighbor. As the story plays out, everything Abdul has labored for starts coming apart, broken under the forces of ethnic prejudice, petty envy, the global recession, and – most of all – an official system so corrupt that justice seems impossible.

By essentially erasing herself as a reportorial presence and writing the book from her subjects’ point of view, Boo allows the reader to enter into the emotional lives of Annawadi’s residents completely. The technique is occasionally awkward, when factual and expository material is shoehorned into dramatic scenes. It’s also somewhat disconcerting – can this Dickensian world possibly be real?

But in the afterword, Boo explains her methods, which include intensive document research as well as daily presence in the community (with the help of an excellent translator).

"As a reader, it seemed to me that the effects of social inequality and of market globalization were among the most overtheorized and underreported issues of our time," Boo explained at the reading. "My hope, in what I’ve written, is to make a small contribution to that imbalance between reporting and theory."

The result is engrossing and depressing. The people Boo shows us are struggling against so many obstacles: exposure to all sorts of unknown environmental poisons, terrible nutrition, lack of education, brutal policing. Boo even exposes some do-gooder NGOs and charities as another source of corruption, their money leveraged by the most politically shrewd members of the community for personal advancement.

While corruption blocks the way forward for many of Annawadi's residents, for others, it represents a way out. Boo's willingness to face this reality may be one of the most provocative elements of Behind the Beautiful Forevers (the title refers to a billboard advertisement that shields the slum from view). No "virtuous" path is open, or even visible, for most of Annawadi’s residents. And in many of the world’s cities – including the ones that are growing most quickly – this bald trading of influence is the working model, no matter how unstable or oppressive it might be.

"This is an age in which capital is whipping about the planet," said Boo. "It’s an age in which work everywhere is becoming more temporary and more provisional. Meanwhile, the distribution of opportunity is becoming an insider trade, a circulation of money among the already privileged."

"In a time when profound and juxtaposed inequality has become a signature fact of the modern city, I wonder: Why don’t more of our unequal societies implode?" She doesn’t answer that question. But it’s good to hear someone ask.

Photo credit: Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.