Our May Book of the Month discussion will conclude with an interview with Katherine Boo, author of “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.” The MacArthur Genius winner, recognized for the prodigious research, elegant writing, sharp insight and great empathy manifested in her work, reflected on the origins of the book, and how it changed her. She spoke to Printers Row Journal from her home in India.
Q: Why Mumbai?
A: I was spending a lot of time in Mumbai after I met my husband, who is Indian, and while parts of the city were prospering like crazy, I couldn’t quite make out how the new wealth had changed the prospects of the majority of city residents who lived in slums. So after a few years I stopped wondering and started reporting. As in some poor neighborhoods in the U.S., the work available in the slums was mainly temp work, and the educational options for children were abysmal, but the families I got to know … were using their imaginations to find a way around the obstacles, reinventing themselves again and again, so that they, too, could become part of the Indian growth story. I felt those efforts were worth documenting closely.
Q: How different were the reporting challenges in India?
A: I used the same general approach I practice in the United States — following people around, recording daily life and gathering official records in order to scrutinize whether government aid reached the people most in need. But there were two major differences in India: I was working with two committed translators and I was using a small video camera. Some Annawadi children learned to use the camera, too. Though our footage was pretty rough, I could watch moments over again, picking up nuances I would have otherwise missed, and write scenes with more precision. I’ll never report without a video camera again.
Q: You deftly wove together these observations and interviews with official documents. Did you do this simultaneously?
A: After watching an incident unfold in, say, the police station or the public hospital, I’d pursue the official government record of those events by using the landmark Indian Right to Information law. The law is somewhat like the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, and, alas, one of the similarities is that you often have to fight to get the government to release the documents. But the intertwining of firsthand reportage and official documentation can be incredibly revealing.
Q: After you spend three years with people who are so poor, does American poverty strike you as different?
A: For one, I’ve become more mindful than ever of how the threat of explosive violence in many American low-income communities changes the psychologies of children. The violence in Indian slums tends to be less random and involve fewer guns. … That said, against the scale of Indian poverty and the corruption of many government institutions, American poverty also strikes me as more fixable than it did before I started reporting in India. The U.S. institutions serving the poor, from criminal justice to public health, have serious and systemic problems, but now I see their strengths and potential more clearly.
Q: What is the relationship between corruption and poverty?
A: In any country, corruption tends to increase when more respectable means of social advancement break down. And I think that correlation becomes more powerful in cities (Mumbai among them) where both hope and inequality abound. People naturally long for a bit of the wealth that is whorling all around them, and if the work and education available to them won’t get them closer to the comforts that they see others enjoying, the temptation to take shortcuts can be fierce.
Q: What do you hope readers take from this book?
A: One hope was that if I presented the slum dwellers in their thinking, acting complexity — instead of writing about them as passive, representative poor persons — readers might feel a deeper and more meaningful connection than one of pity. Maybe somewhere in the book they might even start asking, “What would I do, under these circumstances, if I were Asha or Sunil or Meena?” That’s what I’m always asking myself.
But I’m interested in social structures as well as stories, so my greater hope, no matter what community I’m reporting from, is to help readers see that many difficulties faced by the individuals I write about are also systemic problems to be isolated, worried over and solved. A great deal of what is presumed to be intractable or inevitable in this world doesn’t strike me that way at all.
Q: How did reporting in Annawadi change you?
I’m still a little wrecked from the reporting this book, to be honest, but I’d do it all over again, and not just for the obvious and animating social reasons. Most of my convictions about what matters and what doesn’t in my own life come from the amazing people I’ve met in my work. Although as an Annawadi mother named Zehrunisa Husain pointed out to me recently, I still have a boatload to learn.
Printers Row Book of the Month
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email.
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