Katherine Boo’s about-to-be-released work of non-fiction, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is already getting rave reviews in America and India for the rigour of its reporting and its superb craftsmanship. The book — fast-paced, funny, shocking, evocative and profound — is the outcome of the three-and-a-half years that Boo, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning American journalist, spent following the lives of the residents of Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai’s international airport, in the shadow of big hotels. Senior Editor Anjali Puri interviewed the writer at length on her reporting experiences in Mumbai, on her kind of journalism, which involves being with her subjects—usually people from poor communities — for months and years on end, and on the genre she writes in, sometimes called literary non-fiction. Some excerpts:
What was Annawadi like the first time you saw it, and what were you like. Draw me a picture.
In November 2007, I was wandering around in Mumbai getting to know people and visiting various areas. And one day, I went around with a government official and a social worker with an enormous green snakeskin purse. They said, let us show you our self-help groups. So I went with them to one, and then to another and another. By the third one, I was pretty sure these weren’t actually groups but random women they had assembled. It was just an exquisite performance. Everywhere we went, they said, oh, we’ve been lifted up, we’ve been lifted up. The very last one was Annawadi, and there were women assembled, and there was Asha (a central character in Boo’s book). I looked at Asha and I felt, she’s seeing through this whole thing, she knows. And then there was her daughter Manju —sensitive, gracious, in college. By that time, I sensed there was another story there. How did Asha manage to raise such a daughter? What did she do to give her daughter a chance at a future unlike her own? What was the real story of these women? At that time, I was struggling to find a translator, one who wanted to work in the style that I wanted to, very patient and slow. So I said, when I get someone to work with, I am going to come back here. And then, six weeks later, I was back.
And how was I in the beginning? I was an absolute laughing stock. There was so much I didn’t understand. I was a freak attraction, I couldn’t have a personal conversation with anyone because there would be hundreds of people gathering at the door. The only way I could get anything done was to videotape, and just be quiet. And afterwards, I would watch the tapes and would see so many things I had missed in the beginning. By April 2008, I began to feel I was understanding more.
Did you have doubts, did you ever feel you had to retreat from this project?
I had so many doubts. The reason that I did the project was that Sunil (Khilnani), my husband, was here quite a lot of the time, and I also kept coming here, and hanging around people talking about how things had changed, and how things had not, without ever really getting a sense of what was happening on the ground. I felt there was so much talking, and so little reporting— hard reporting, I mean—being done about ordinary communities. I felt this especially about women. Whether in books or films, I came across prostitutes and dancers. But where were the mothers, where were the children? I felt that was a whole missing piece of the story. So, I thought, well, that I can do. But in the course of doing it, I cried so many times. I thought, if I am to have this long-term commitment to this country, I need to know more, I am trying to know more, but nobody is going to be interested in this. I don’t do it very well, and it’s completely hopeless. I am killing myself reporting, and what’s the point?
When did you stop feeling like that?
After a few months, when things had settled down and I developed immense respect for the people I was writing about, and became invested in what was going to happen to them. But there were things after that completely traumatized me, including the death of Kalu and the death of Sanjay (two teenage boys living in Annawadi). I felt I lacked the skills to make anyone care about the death of a boy who lives on a pavement, sniffs Erase-X, whose life matters next to nothing to the society in which he lives. It was the time of Slumdog Millionaire, of these stories of resilience, and human spirit and triumph over adversity, and I thought, who is going to be interested? That it is really important to me to investigate this, but this is not what people want to read. Obviously, I had to investigate it, it was important to me, and I did do it, but it was a very emotional time.
How much time did you spend in Annawadi, over the three-and-a-half years that you reported on it? You seem to have seen the sun’s rays fall at every possible angle on the sewage lake.
(Laughs). The night in the book when I talk about Asha waiting for Subhash Sawant (the area’s corporator) to come, and he doesn’t come, that night I was there till 5 in the morning. So you’re there late at night, you’re there early in the morning. How many days? I would report until I just couldn’t take in anymore. I would then go home — Sunil was working in Washington at the time.
How long would one reporting block last?
May be, six months, sometimes five months… It wouldn’t have been possible without my translator, an amazing woman called Unnati Tripathi. She isn’t a journalist but more of an artist. She didn’t feel she had to go in and say: What’s the essential story, let me sum this up. She really listened to people. Even emotionally, it wouldn’t have been sustainable had she not cared as much about the people, and the things that happened, as I did.
So six months at a time and then you would go away, and come back again, and spend a large chunk of your time in Annawadi?
Yes. But there were also times when I was doing investigative work. I did a lot of investigation on education and public health, at those times I wasn’t there—I was waiting in government offices. I also spent many days reporting from courts and the morgue and all manner of other venues— wherever the reporting urgency happened to take me.
You’ve said in your author’s note that you’ve witnessed most of the events in this book. So much happened: people were killed, they committed suicide, people stole, people had bribes extracted from them. What did you see?
I didn’t see people dying, but I did see people robbing. And absolutely did I see police taking bribes, police beating people.
Police had no problem beating up people and taking bribes in your presence?
You know, I have done work in America that is similar, where people are so routinised in what they do that they don’t even see you. (In Mumbai), there was even a moment when the police decided they would hold me, and they talked in front of me about what they would charge me with. They decided it would be abetment, and then they discussed, abetment to what? They have their sense of power; they don’t believe they can be challenged by somebody like me.
You use the phrase “immersion journalism” to describe the kind of reporting you do, spending months, even years, on one story. How does it work?
The idea is that to really understand a time or a situation, or the way economic policy works on the ground, is not to go and stick a microphone in someone’s face and say, “Explain to me what you feel about microlending.” Because the answer you get may just be an answer to make you go away. The best thing for me is to follow people for a long period of time, and not spend all that time interviewing. In the beginning, you do interviews, you get the basic histories. But then you just be with them, and go where they go, because I find that to be so much more telling.
Sometimes, you read these interviews with people living in airport slums. And all they ever end up saying is, “Don’t bulldoze our homes.” It sounds as if this is all these people ever think about. It is something at the back of their minds, constantly. But they have many other concerns: When am I going to get ahead? Why am I working so hard, and not getting ahead? Why do I keep slipping back down? Those are things you can’t get in a snapshot. They emerge over time. I spent so long with Abdul (a garbage trader, central to book’s narrative) without even realizing the things in his mind, the way he was categorizing the world, and his philosophy. Most of it was just watching him work, sorting garbage; it took a long, long time to get a sense of his mind.
What my practice of journalism tries to do is to tell you with more force and immediacy what the obstacles people face really are. And also, to understand who these people are, whose dreams get realized in India's new prosperity, whose dreams get thwarted, and also what a society loses when we squander the enormous potential of low-income children.
Give me a sense of the texture of your reporting life in and around Annawadi.
Late-night expeditions following young thieves around the airport area as they stole metal pieces and evaded security guards, trying [to] follow them quietly unobtrusively, so that I don't increase their risk of being caught and beaten. Following Asha to work at her government school and Manju to college. Following people dying of TB to Sewri TB hospital. Following Zehrunisa (another major character in the book) through her rounds of prisons after her husband, son and daughter are arrested. Sitting in huts watching domestic life, going to Cooper Hospital, to the courts…So much more —these are what come to mind.
Aren’t there dilemmas woven into your proximity? Somebody needs a heart valve, or a kid hasn’t eaten all day, and you have the money. Also, when you’re so involved, how do you disconnect? How do you even chuck a cup into a bin without thinking how much it would be worth to a scavenger you’ve been watching for months?
When I first started this project, my husband, who shared my belief that if I could really, really report with more depth (from Mumbai), that had some value, said, as I was leaving, “My overmastering concern is, you protect your health.” And I just cried because I knew I wouldn't keep myself as safe as he wanted me to be. If you are doing this reporting, if you're caring about the people, you can’t be standing back all the time and saying, I’m going to compartmentalize, I’m going to go home now and have a good dinner and a long sleep. Or go to Indigo (a Mumbai restaurant), or wherever. When I would come out of that world, I would find it impossible to go to those places. Anyway, people don’t want to sit next to you at a dinner party where they ask, “What are you doing?” and you say, “I need to find out who killed Kalu.”
So you end up leading a monastic life?
Yes. And it’s true, what you say about the garbage. I can’t fully finish a can of Coke without thinking of its value to boys like Sonu and Sunil (young scavengers). I suppose other people find a way to balance those two worlds. But I don’t know how to do that. I always have to take a long time between projects, whether it’s a magazine story or an investigative story. On the question of giving money and helping people, there is a convention that I don’t embrace unequivocally, that if you’re writing about people, you do not hand out money, because that skews the story. My job is not to be lady bountiful and say I’m going to solve your problems. It’s to see how people solve their own problems. There’s a toll for that, is all I can say. Everybody I know who does this work finds that (aspect of it) immensely difficult. You have to take those feelings and channel them elsewhere in your life.
Can you tell me a little about the genre you work in, which some people call literary non-fiction? I’m interested in this technique of getting inside people’s heads, and paraphrasing their thoughts. How do complicated characters end up telling you their innermost thoughts? Are the boundaries blurring here, with fiction?
Let’s say there is a day, and there is a scene in it. You get as much as you can in the scene, but you also don’t want to interrupt the scene. Afterwards, you go back and say (to the person involved), you remember yesterday, you remember two days ago? What were you thinking, what was on your mind, when this happened. And what was on the television at the time? It seems omniscient, but it’s all from interviews, from videotapes, even from police documents, there is a collage of material. Of course, there are some details you are never going to know. You can then bluff your way through it, and pretend more clarity than you have, or you can admit it. I make it clear that I worked hard to get those details but couldn’t retrieve them. I am not trying to make the reader more sure than I am.
Why is it so important for you to not be in the story?
My choices are on every page. But I do feel very strongly about not doing first person accounts. (Very occasionally, I have to do it in a piece.) People have a limited appetite for what I choose to write about. I have a small amount of space allotted to me, and I want as much as possible of that that space to go to the people I write about. Not, “Oh, I’m a writer and it was hard, and I’m on the bus, and it’s a rocky road”. Also, first person reporting can sometimes be self-aggrandising; it can be allowing the reader to know how hard the reporter worked.
I guess you also don’t want the reader to get fixated on the middle class person who is telling the story?
Right! So many times in my writing career, I get an editor who says, this is really nice, but I think you overestimate our ability to empathise with low-income people. Can’t you be the broker, can’t you just tell us more about you? I have resisted that throughout my career. The way I deal with it is, if you can’t empathise with these people, it’s because I have failed as a writer. So let me go back and try to do this better, so that you will. And you know, I have developed this terrible habit recently of calling fancy people in Delhi or Mumbai or Washington by the names of people in Annawadi that they remind me of. I know I'm doing it when I see my husband cringing from across the room. What I’m saying is that these people (in Annawadi) are not a different species, they remind me so much of myself, of other people.
You’ve said, in an essay, that the poor are often turned into saintly victims, or sensationalized. You’ve said that you have dabbled in those kinds of writing too—how did you train yourself not to write like that?
Every editor wants the happy story. They want the saintly nun who’s helping all the children. So, in the beginning, somebody would say, let’s do a positive story from the inner city (in Washington DC). And I would go out and find someone, and I would do something quick. And then I would feel, I just wrote this, but I really don’t know (if this is true). I didn’t stay with the intricacies long enough, I didn’t look at the tax forms, I didn’t look at the books. I’ve made people feel good about a nice woman, but it doesn’t feel good. I was an editor before I became a writer, and one of the things that motivated me most to become a writer was that some of the work being done was just so lazy. It was treating poor communities like, “I am going on safari. I’m spending two days and coming back to tell you what it was like.” The poor were so under-reported, and everybody had their theory.
You’ve said it’s very important for you to not just tell the stories, but also get documentation.
It’s not that one is the truth and the other is a lie. It is that between the stories and the documentation, you can get at the heart of something that you might not, otherwise.
One interesting thing you’ve said in the past is that a reporter’s instinct is always to settle on the exotic, different, articulate person, and you resist that impulse.
Yes, because if you don’t, the universe you get is of the most eccentric or maybe astonishing people. It is my own view of the way meritocracy works in my own country, and here, that geniuses may overcome odds, they may in fact triumph over adversity. But if you are talking about fairness in a society, the real question is not whether the very exceptional person can get ahead, but whether ordinary people can. I remember being blown away by Suketu Mehta’s account, in Maximum City, of a pavement-dwelling poet whose father teaches in a college. But most people who live on the pavement aren’t poets with well-educated fathers. I’m interested in understanding the world view of more ordinary people. The people on the pavement who are not poets may turn out to be extraordinary too.
You’ve written about poor communities in the United States for over two decades now. How is writing about poverty in India and America different?
For one thing, there are fewer guns here. So the immediate threat of great violence was less here. But that advantage was squandered because it was more dangerous in the police station. Believe me, police stations in inner cities in the United States are not beautiful places to be in. But I felt more gratuitously menaced by the police here than in the United States. Otherwise, so much of the experience (of covering poverty in India and America) is the same, so much of it is watching and waiting, there a lot of error and confusion and being overwhelmed, a lot of fighting for documents in both countries.
You said in your author’s note that you couldn’t get what you wanted to read in non-fiction based in India—deeply felt accounts about the lives of the poor. Have you thought about why there aren’t many?
It’s because people are so much more interested in ideological point scoring on these matters. There are two schools, the-nothing-has-changed school and the everything-has-changed school. One of my advantages as it turned out, is that I didn’t have a lot of preconceptions about what was happening. I knew enough to know that there were things that I wasn’t getting from books, but I didn’t have an answer. People (I spoke to) were so sure they knew everything; there was so much cynicism.
Your book is a very rigorous and very damning investigation of corruption and you have named so many names: the corrupt cop, the corrupt nun, the corrupt legal officer, the corrupt education officer…Was that a hard decision to make?
It was not a hard decision because these are public officials. If I am hiding the names then I am covering up the corruption, just like so many other people do. If it happened, and I am able to document that it happened, and if I don’t stand up and say it, and put my reputation on the line, then I am complicit.
What happens when you have a certain sympathy for a character? I am thinking of Asha and Manju, characters for whom you have a lot of sympathy. What happens when they are part of the corruption?
Asha’s answer in the book is the best possible answer to that. She says, “Why is it my corruption when the big people had me do all the papers, when they tell me to do it, and I do it. Is it my corruption or is it their?” That’s a very powerful statement.
What do you think will happen, now that you’ve documented and written about all this corruption?
I have no idea. I’ve done my best to tell the truth, and I don’t know what’s going to happen.
If people who’ve always argued against welfare schemes were to cite your book to say, we told you, this is money down the drain, what would you say?
Time and again, I face this choice of: do I not write things, if they are going to be misconstrued? But things are going to be misconstrued anyway. You cannot have control over how your work is used. All I can do, is try and get my facts right, and get the nuances right. In this country it seems to me that so much of the energy is spent on formulating really sensitive policies for addressing the problems of the neediest people; so little is placed on implementation. So it’s not the failure of a grand policy, the idea may be right. But if it is completely subverted at the local level, how can you possibly judge whether the policy worked or not? You can say it’s impossible to monitor. Even education officials told me that, how can we possibly monitor whether schools exist or not? (The book investigates a scam in which fictional schools are set up.) You can, it is possible. I can’t accept in my own country, America, that it’s impossible to monitor, I can’t accept it here.
Is there hope for people whose lives you observed so minutely in movements like Anna Hazare’s? Would the people of Annawadi have the time for a movement like that?
No, first of all, they wouldn’t. A crucial distinction that I have seen, and the people of Annawadi have seen over the last five years, is a change in the social contract. It used to be that a family, take Abdul and his family (central characters in the book), running a business on airport land, gave money to the police, say, once a week. Now, it’s night cops, it’s day cops, it’s clerks, and you see this in business after business. There’s so much of an increase in corruption from their point of view. And these are the people without the information to protest, without the resources to protest, and without the time to protest. Middle class anti-corruption movements seem to have been very successful in bringing to light high level and middle level corruption but I don’t know how that affects the people who don’t have the time to organize, don’t have time to protest, don’t have time to pursue their complaints in a bureaucratic form. It’s an open question.
By the time you were done, who did you blame more for the people of Annawadi not being able to get ahead, the state or the market?
I think markets matter more and more and states matter less and less in every country now. What, in the short term, is the state going to do when the bank in New York collapses and the bottom falls out of the price of garbage (in Mumbai)? How can any state react to these powerful buffetings by the market? So ultimately I think it’s a problem of capital whipping around the planet and more and more work becoming temporary and provisional. But as I write in the book, states therefore have increasing responsibility to understand the volatility with which lower-income people live and to address it. But what happens so often is that their own volatility, and their own failures, make the lives of the poor even more unstable than they would ordinarily be.