Next to Mumbai's bustling international airport, a boy picks through refuse, looking for pieces he can recycle and sell to support his family of 11. He is a resident of Annawadi, a slum built on a patch of reclaimed swampland — now fringed by luxury hotels.
As economists and activists fret over increasing income inequality in America, scenes like this one from journalist Katherine Boo's new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, are a forceful reminder of the extreme disparity of wealth that exist all over the world — and what people must do to survive.
Boo, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who earned acclaim for her pieces on poverty in America, became a regular visitor to Mumbai after she married a man from India. She tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep how she felt compelled to investigate further after witnessing the struggles of Mumbai's poor.
"When a kid like Abdul ... is supporting a family of 11 by buying and selling the things that richer people throw away ... you don't say, 'Oh yeah, well, I'm gonna go home now and go to Whole Foods and buy some cheese.' You just have to find out what's happening," she says.
Abdul, the hero of Boo's book, is a young man struggling to eke out a living when he's falsely accused of setting a neighbor on fire. By focusing on Abdul, Boo tells the story of one of the world's largest cities while maintaining narrow, intimate dimensions.
Boo reports that at the time of her visits, only six out of Annawadi's 3,000 residents had permanent work. Most made their living by buying and reselling the recyclable garbage of the rich people whose homes bordered the slum.
Others stitched quilts or strung marigolds on threads to make garlands. All of them were trying to get into the "over-city," as Boo calls it, by figuring out how the corruption around them might be turned to their advantage.
According to Boo, this is a key problem for people in the developing world: making sense of what she calls "the infrastructure of opportunity," an infrastructure that can seem designed to keep them down.
"We talk a lot about infrastructure in cities, and it's talking about highways and it's talking about trains, but I think more important to people who are low income is, how do I get from here to there? How do I become part of the affluence that's surrounding me?" Boo says.
In her book, a few of the residents of Annawadi actually break the barrier between the slums and the world of the rich — at least temporarily. For instance, one kid gets a job bussing dirty plates and bagging trash at a Bollywood party. But the job ends after two days, and he's back where he started, in the slums.
Boo admits that she was often daunted by the weight of her project. "There were so many times when I was reporting in Annawadi that I would just come home and cry, because I didn't think that I was going to be able to bring the stories to the page in a way that would make other people care," she says.
Added to that was the difficultly of being a stranger to the culture and language and having to depend on translators every time she talked to somebody. Her position as an outsider, she believes, allowed her to approach the story in fresh ways.
"When I first started talking to people about some of the issues that I was finding, people would be like, 'Yeah, it's all corrupt — of course it's going to be like that." And ... I was like, "No, wait — it doesn't have to be like that,'" Boo says.
Despite the difficulties she faced, Boo felt strongly that this was a story she needed to tell, and one that would challenge basic assumptions about how people get ahead in the world.
"There's some way in which we would prefer not to see very clearly the immense gifts and intelligence of some of the people who live in our most abject conditions," she says. "Maybe there are some things at work in deciding who gets to be society's winners and who gets to be society's losers that don't have to do with merit."
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The journalist Katherine Boo won acclaim writing about poor people in America for The Washington Post and The New Yorker. Then she began writing about poor people in a single neighborhood in the vast Indian city of Mumbai.
Did you know at the beginning what you were looking for when you began reporting this book?
KATHERINE BOO: I was so completely clueless when I started this book.
INSKEEP: Katherine Boo became too big a regular visitor to Mumbai after she married a man from India. The result is a new book, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers." She tells a story of one of the world's largest cities. While keeping the narrow focus, she writes of one struggling young man who is trying to make a living when he was falsely accused of setting a neighbor woman on fire. In this neighborhood, called Annawadi, Katherine Boo examines what she calls the infrastructure of opportunity for people in the developing world.
BOO: We talk a lot about infrastructure and cities. And it's talking about highways. And it's talking about trains. But I think more important to people who are low-income is how do I get from here to there? How do I become part of the affluence that's surrounding me? That I think is question of the infrastructure of opportunity.
INSKEEP: Now, I love the way that you phrase the question: How do I become part of the affluence that's surrounding me, because you chose a neighborhood that is in fact surrounded by affluence.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
INSKEEP: I may not like miles away. People look out of the front of their homes and there is a Western-style hotel, there's a big hotel.
BOO: Right, there's a Hyatt. There's an Intercontinental. There's a Sheraton. A few of the kids have actually broken the barrier between the slum world and the rich one. I talked about kid who gets a temp job bussing dirty plates and bagging trash at a Bollywood party...
INSKEEP: Suddenly, he's middle class, practically.
BOO: Exactly. And then, of course, the job ends two days later and he's back in the slum. But that's the way we work now.
INSKEEP: And this is a neighborhood that is near the Mumbai Airport.
INSKEEP: It must be a neighborhood that millions of people, including no doubt people listening to us now, who have, you know, come out of that airport and driven by it on the road and never noticed it. If you turn into that neighborhood, what's it like? What do you see?
BOO: You turn at this wall. There was a long wall advertising ceramic floor tiles that said: Beautiful Forever, Beautiful Forever, Beautiful Forever. And the advertisements were for the clientele of the airport. But if you went passed that wall, you get a road that was really more crater than dirt. And you turn inside, and you'd see this slum where thousands of people were living in, on top of, outside of, makeshift huts.
And the whole slum sat on this vast beachfront of sewage lake. It was a lake of sewage and illegally dumped construction materials. It was a breeding ground for malaria, dengue and other health hazards. And most of the people in the slum were making their living by buying and reselling the recyclable garbage of the rich people who lived all around the slum.
In that slum only six people out of 3000 had permanent work. So every day, people were getting up and saying, here I am in my piece of the global economy, now how do I take what I can do and try to convince the world that that's what they need.
INSKEEP: What are some of the ways that people make a living, the characters in your book?
BOO: Well, many of them buy and sell recyclable garbage. At the airport, every morning at dawn, thousands of scavengers go out around the airport area and they pick up pieces of the city's vendible excess: plastic bottles, old newspapers, old cans, metal scrap. And then they collect that and sell that by the kilo.
There are other people who are taking plastic remnants off of clothespins - work that they get paid by the kilo. Some people are stitching quilts. Some people are stringing marigolds on a thread. And some people are trying to get into the Overcity, as I call it, the more prospering city, by trying to figure out how some of the corruption around them might be turned to their advantage.
INSKEEP: Did frighten you or intimidate you at first to take on a project like this; to be a foreigner going in to study people who are not quite at the bottom but very near the bottom in India?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BOO: Yeah. And there were so many times when I was reporting in Annawadi that I would just come home and cry because, you know, I didn't think that I was going to be able to bring the stories to the page in a way that would make other people care. Whether it's in an Oklahoma City housing project or a colonia out in South Texas, or a housing project in Washington, D.C. or a slum in Mumbai, you go and then you start to care about people and you start to see what happens to them. And maybe something happens and you just can't go away because you are completely invested in understanding where the story is going to go.
When a kid, like Abdul, who is supporting a family of 11 by buying and selling the things that richer people throw away - when a kid like that gets falsely accused of setting a disabled woman on fire, and gets launched into this incredible web of a corrupted justice system - you don't say, oh well...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BOO: ...I'm going to go home now and go to Whole Foods and buy some cheese. You just have to find out what's happening.
INSKEEP: Do you think it was actually an advantage to be an outsider trying to learn the story and tell it?
BOO: No, I don't think so. You know what it's like to work in a place where you don't know the culture as much as you want, where you are using translators instead of just sitting across from somebody, in the way we're sitting together now. And so, so no, I don't think...
INSKEEP: I understand. I understand all that. But at the same time, maybe you're asking basic questions that people who are insiders haven't asked themselves in a long time.
BOO: When I first started talking to people about some of the issues that I was finding, people would be like, ah yeah, it's all corrupt - of course it's going to be like that. And to me, I was like no. Wait, it doesn't have to be like that.
INSKEEP: You're saying that you were not willing to assume that everything was decided, that everything was fated for the poor and that they were all the same.
INSKEEP: You wanted to see the gradations, the nuances between different people and different lives.
BOO: Right, exactly. Exactly. And I think that there's some way in which we would prefer not to see very clearly the immense gifts and intelligence of some of the people live in our most abject conditions. Because most of us who are sitting here talking about the world and the meritocracy or how people get ahead, well, we - you know, maybe we kind of think, hey, we worked hard, we got there.
And if you start to think about the people who are working harder than I, for instance, have ever worked, and start to think that they have real intelligences and real moral judgments, and are extraordinary people in many, many ways, maybe then you have to say, gosh, well, did I actually deserve to get here?
Or may be there are some things at work in deciding who gets to be society's winners and who gets to be society's losers, that don't have to do with merit.
INSKEEP: Katherine Boo is the author of "Behind the Beautiful Forevers."
Thanks very much for coming by.
BOO: Thank you, Steve.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION FROM NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.