‘Being the subject of a book didn’t make life lovely in Annawadi’

“I was heartened when prominent officials engaged in the policy implications of the book,” says Katherine Boo. Picture shows her working in an Annawadi, Mumbai. Photo: Jordan Tierney  

The stage adaptation by playwright David Hare of "Behind the Beautiful Forevers", the book on a Mumbai slum by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo, was performed at the Olivier Theatre in London to much critical acclaim last month. Directed by Rufus Norris, the play offers moving vignettes from the experiences of a community of poor unorganised workers, whose lives are caught in the ebb and flow of unseen global economic forces, by actors who “care deeply about honouring the intelligence and strength of the people they represent,” said Ms. Boo.

Directed by Rufus Norris, the play stays true to the spirit of the book, if not to its layered complexity.

Katrina Lindsay’s inspired stage design re-creates the little shantytown of Annawadi that exists in the garbage and morass of the big city — under gaudy billboards and the shadows of great winged planes that swoop unendingly over. The play offers moving vignettes from the experiences of a community of poor unorganized workers whose lives are caught in the ebb and flow of unseen global economic forces.

Excerpts from an interview with Katherine Boo conducted over email after the play opened.

Katherine Boo, can you talk about the methodology you followed in your marvelous book, and what it does for authenticity?

It’s a methodology I’d developed over 20 years of work in poor communities in the United States. I follow people where they go, doing what they do, and then I ask them to explain the actions and decisions I’ve just seen them take. In other words, I’m not parachuting into a place and asking people to describe some dramatic event of the past. I’m watching people negotiate the dilemmas of their lives in real time. Simultaneously, I’m using investigative techniques, including right-to-information act requests, to illuminate events that involve the police, courts, voting offices, public hospitals and morgues, and even charitable institutions.

Documenting lives as they unfold, using video and audiotape for accuracy, is important to me, because for all of us, recreating events from memory is a tricky thing. Abdul Husain, the young scrap sorter, put it this way: “If you ask me how to get from Annawadi to 90-Feet Road in Saki Naka, I will tell you the same thing today as I told you two years ago. But if it’s something that gave me tension, I might not want to remember so clearly.”

Listening for a long time, and then doing documents-based reporting on the basis of what I’ve learned, helps me write about things like corruption with more precision and conviction, of course. But the time I spend also lets me know people in a deeper, more nuanced way. In the case of Abdul, the semi-literate teenaged scrap sorter, it took several months before I realized that he’d developed what I can only call an ethical philosophy — something he’d never articulated even to his family. For many low-income people in difficult circumstances, ideas are what keep them alive. But to discover those ideas requires an investment of time, not to mention an admission some wealthier people find difficult to make: that our respective positions in the meritocracy may have less to do with skill or intellectual ability than with sheer luck.

Have you achieved the purpose you set out for yourself in writing this book?

I had several aims in mind. One aim was to examine how fluctuations in the global economy were affecting historically poor communities. In Annawadi, there was a pronounced new volatility — a continual cycle of exuberant hope and despair. For instance, construction in advance of the Beijing Olympics raised the standard of living for Annawadi scrapworkers to an all-time high, before the collapse of investment banks in Manhattan sent that standard of living plummeting. Conversations about globalization are very often ideological in nature. Meanwhile, the practical effects on hundreds of millions of low-wage workers worldwide barely get reported.

Another aim was to examine the infrastructure of opportunity in an urban slum — to test the social springboards of the city, from schooling to entrepreneurship to political work, at a time when government spending on anti-poverty programs was at a historical high. What I came away with was a sense of how blisteringly difficult it is even for hard-working, intelligent, creative people to break the barrier between the slum world and the world of the middle-class. That difficulty is in part because of how little of the aid meant for the poor — ranging from TB treatment to education assistance — reaches the people who need it most.

And a third aim was to lay out specific social wrongs, and the human cost of those wrongs, with enough clarity that people with more power might pay attention. Take, for instance, the impossible caseloads of judges in fast-track courts. For years those courts have been widely praised for reducing case backlogs, but there’s been very little scrutiny of the quality of justice meted out.

As for whether I achieved those aims: That’s for others besides the author to decide, don’t you think? I roll my eyes when writers make great claims about the social utility of their books. I hope my work over the years has challenged some stereotypes about the urban poor and shed some light on social injustices. But all I can say with certainty is that I tried my best.

Was there any ‘official’ response to the book?

While there was no single ‘official response,’ I was heartened when prominent officials engaged in the policy implications of the book, including the crucial question of how to make programs more accountable and keep funds for the poor out of the pockets of the political elite. Such conversations happened more than I expected.

As far as positive change at Annawadi: I'm reluctant to assert direct correlations, since other factors may have been at work, but there’s more water in the slum now, and politicians respond to residents’ urgent concerns more quickly than they did before. I’m also told that harassment by the police has waned because of a fear that illegal activity might be documented. But being the subject of a book didn't make life lovely in Annawadi. Today TB deaths continue to ravage families, the municipal schools and Cooper Hospital remain deeply troubled, and organized drug trafficking is even more of a problem than it was.

Do you still remain engaged with the community? What has happened to Annawadi and its residents you describe?

My husband (Sunil Khilnani) and I are still engaged with the community, funding education, training and emergency aid to help families get through health and other crises. Some students have risen heroically to the challenge of good private schools — schools where even the guards at the gates make them feel unwelcome.

“Inspiring” is an overused word, but those kids inspire me — seriously. But progress in communities like Annawadi is often incremental, given structural issues like the prevalence of disease and the almost total absence of permanent work.

As for individuals featured in the book, Manju now has a master’s degree, and she and her new husband run two tuition centers. She’s a very popular tutor, with a particular concern for poorer students. Manju’s brothers have become drivers — work they like — and are also doing well. The Husain family now owns a home and business outside of Mumbai, and four of the younger children are doing well in a private school that is considered the best in their area.

But one person I wrote about died of TB-related disease, and another is fighting an addiction. This is real life, not a fairy tale with a happy ending. And a month from now, the circumstances of the people I’ve just mentioned may be utterly different, because if there’s one constant in places like Annawadi, it’s change.

The story of Annawadi is also the story of its children and their positivity through the worst. What would you want for them?

Abdul was one of many young people at Annawadi who wanted to have ideals, to live ethically and behave generously to others. But before long he was mourning the fact that he couldn’t be better “because of how the world is.”

The skills, intellectual capacities, and deep idealism of the children of Annawadi and similar communities around the world don’t get nurtured. They get squandered. I think we’d all be better off if that equation changed.

What next for you? Would you like to share your plans for the medium term? Will it be another investigative project, or more on Annawadi?

When in Mumbai these days I find myself still making tapes, documenting corruption and social problems — I can’t help myself. And I continue to feel that RTI is an underused resource for journalists interested in making social programs more accountable, and for making corrupt officials accountable too. But for now I think I’ve had my say on the urban issues of 21st-century India. My next investigative and immersion project will be elsewhere.

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Printable version | Jul 17, 2021 3:03:57 PM |

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