This is Katherine Boo’s first book, however she has worked as a journalist for many years and is currently a staff reporter at The New Yorker. Her reporting on disadvantaged communities over the years led to her being awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and thus she was perfectly poised to write about ‘Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity’ (the subtitle of the book).
This beautifully written non-fiction book focuses on three families living in Annawadi, a slum settlement next to the luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport. Set in a time when India is starting to prosper financially, the inhabitants of Annawadi dare to hope that their lives might change for the better.
Abdul, one of the major characters, is an enterprising teenager who collects recyclable rubbish that the rich throw away, and sells it, making his family (the Husains) one of the ‘richer’ in the settlement. He is energetic, determined and an expert at sifting through rubbish; he dreams of a making a fortune.
His neighbour, Fatima, is envious of the money he earns. She is a cripple, called ‘One Leg’ by the community, however this disability does not stop her ferocious sexual appetite that her old husband can’t satisfy.
Asha, the third main character, works for a right-wing political party, and harbours ambitions of becoming a slumlord. She holds considerable sway over many of the inhabitants and takes advantage of her position through bribery and cunningness. Her daughter is Annawadi’s only college student, and Asha truly hopes her English teaching degree will earn them their way out of the slum.
With the Husain’s relative fortune, Abdul decides to increase the size of their shack and, after the building affects Fatima’s hut, she rages against the family and, out of spite, douses herself with cooking oil and sets herself alight. She dies from her injuries and the Husain family is blamed for inciting Fatima to commit suicide. Abdul, his sister, and his father are sent to prison. Over a period of years, they are beaten, starved and denied justice. By the end of the book, the sister and father have been released but Adbul’s case still has not been resolved.
Boo visited Annawadi on and off for over three years and, despite never learning the language, she obviously immersed herself in the culture and got to understand the people. One of the strengths of this book is that her voice never comes in to it, and thus it has a novel-like quality with a seemingly omniscient narrator, allowing us to get to know and empathise with the characters. Her incredible attention to detail allows the readers to get to know the slum and its inhabitants well. At the end of the book, she explains in an epilogue the motivation for writing the book and the process of reporting etc.
As a South African reader, I found there were many aspects of the book that were familiar such as the massive income disparities and the thriving underworld, crime and corruption that exist within shack settlements in this country. Unlike Boo, however, I have never spent any meaningful amount of time in a community of that sort, and as a result, this book was a complete eye-opener. Despite its subject matter, I didn’t find it to be a totally depressing book. I would highly recommend it, and look forward to Boo’s second book which is in the process of being written.
PS: The unusual title comes from the wall that separates Annawadi from the affluent area near the airport. The wall is plastered with ads for an Italian tile company saying ‘beautiful forever …. beautiful forever …’