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Finding 'Life, Death And Hope' In A Mumbai Slum

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Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo spent more than three years in Mumbai's Annawadi slum to do research for her new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Residents of the slum — which is located next to the Mumbai airport and in the shadow of several luxury hotels — live in devastating poverty.

Some inhabitants lack any shelter and sleep outside. Rats commonly bite sleeping children, and barely a handful of the 3,000 residents have the security of full-time employment. Over the course of her time in Annawadi, Boo learned about the residents' social distinctions, their struggles to escape poverty, and conflicts that sometimes threw them into the clutches of corrupt government officials. Her book reads like a novel, but the characters are real.

"I wasn't just interviewing people," Boo tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "I was going exactly where they went," whether it was teaching kindergarten or stealing scrap metal at the airport or sorting garbage. I would just sit and listen and talk intermittently as they did their work."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A new book by our guest Katherine Boo takes us inside a shantytown on the edge of Mumbai, India's thriving financial capital. The residents of the slum, called Annawadi, experience a level of poverty hard for most Americans to imagine.

There are about 335 huts, though some inhabitants lack any shelter and sleep outside. Rat bites are common among sleeping children, and barely a handful of the 3,000 residents have the security of full-time employment.

A young trash-picker named Sunil(ph) worries constantly that he will remain small because he doesn't get enough to eat every day. Annawadi is next to the Mumbai Airport and surrounded by luxury hotels. Boo spent more than three years among residents of the slum, observing their social distinctions, their struggles to escape poverty and conflicts that sometimes threw them into the clutches of shockingly corrupt government officials.

Boo's book reads like a novel, but the characters are real. The New York Times book critic Janet Maslin said of Boo's storytelling gifts: Comparisons to Dickens are not unwarranted.

Katherine Boo is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Genius grant. This is her first book. It's called "Behind the Beautiful Forevers." She spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Well, Katherine Boo, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's good to have you. Let's begin with a reading from the book. This is in the prologue. Early on, we are introduced to this character Abdul. Tell us about him and set up this reading, if you will.

KATHERINE BOO: OK. Abdul Husain is 16 or maybe 18 or maybe 19. His parents are hopeless with dates. And for nearly his whole life, he's been supporting a family of 11, buying and selling the recyclable garbage that rich people throw away. And as the book begins, he's been accused of a terrible crime, which is the burning of a disabled woman, and the police are coming for him, and his parents tell him to hide because if he's arrested, then the family will go hungry. And so that's where the book begins.

DAVIES: And he runs into the shed where he keeps his material, right?

BOO: He's - in the Bollywood movies, the outlaw kid would be running off across the roof of a train, but Abdul, his whole world is this slum of Annawadi, and the only place he knows to go to hide is in the shed where he keeps all his garbage.

(Reading) Inside was carbon-black, frantic with rats, and yet relieving. His storeroom - 120 square feet, piled high to a leaky roof with the things in this world Abdul knew how to handle. Empty water and whiskey bottles, mildewed newspapers, used tampon applicators, wadded aluminum foil, umbrellas stripped to the ribs by monsoon, broken shoelaces, yellowed Q-Tips, snarled cassette tape, torn plastic casings that once held imitation Barbies.

(Reading) Somewhere in the darkness, there was a Berbee or Barbie itself, maimed in one of the experiments to which children who had many toys seemed to subject those toys no longer favored. Abdul had become expert over the years at minimizing distraction. He placed all such dolls in his trash pile chest-down.

(Reading) Avoid trouble. This was the operating principle of Abdul Hakim Husain, an idea so fiercely held that it seemed imprinted on his physical form. He had deep-set eyes and sunken cheeks, a body work hunched and wiry - the type that claimed less than its fair share of space when threading through people-choked slum lanes. Almost everything about him was recessed save the pop-out ears and the hair that curled upward, girlish, whenever he wiped his forehead of sweat.

(Reading) A modest, missible presence was a useful thing in Annawadi, the sumpy plug of slum in which he lived.

DAVIES: That's Katherine Boo, reading from her new book "Behind the Beautiful Forevers." So Abdul was a guy who grew up picking through trash. He had a particular dexterity for sorting through garbage, right?

BOO: He'd been doing it since he was six. His muscles had developed around the labor. And so he became able to take what people threw away and make not just a subsistence living for his family but one of the best livings in the slum, and that caused some people to wish his family ill.

DAVIES: And that's because he graduated from just picking through trash but actually buying it from others and then getting it to recyclers, right?

BOO: Right.

DAVIES: So you were there for more than three years. How did people react at first to this blonde American woman, you know, in the slum?

BOO: Oh, god, at first I was a circus act. I was a freak. Everywhere I went, people would be like the Sheraton, the Hyatt, the Intercontinental. Because this slum, this slum was surrounded by luxury hotels, five luxury hotels, and people thought I'd lost my way, going from the airport to the Hyatt.

But the people in the slums had concerns a lot more pressing than my presence. They had work to do. They had families to raise. They had hopes to fulfill. And so after a while, they kind of relaxed and let me just follow them as they lived their lives. And one of the things that I would do was - I wasn't trying to gather people around a table and talk to them.

I was just going where they went. I was doing what they did, whether it was teaching kindergarten or stealing scrap metal at the airport or sorting garbage, and I would sit and listen and talk to them intermittently as they did their work because it was very important to me not to get in the way of their ability to make a living, but I also really wanted to know them.

DAVIES: Let me ask you to describe Annawadi, I mean, this slum. When you walk in, what do you see? How are people living?

BOO: Well, I'll describe it this way. You come into the Mumbai International Airport, you make a turn, and you go past a lavish Hyatt and a beautiful hotel called the Grand Maratha. By the time you get to the Hyatt, which is about three minutes in your car, you've already gone past this place.

There's a rocky road that goes into it, and you turn in, and the first thing you notice when you get into this landscape of hand-built, makeshift, crooked huts is one of the borders of the slum - or it was I came in 2008 - was this vast lake of extremely noxious sewage and petrochemicals and things that the people modernizing the glamorous airport had dumped in the lake.

And so it was almost beachfront property on this foul, malarial lake, and all around it in this, the single open space in the slum were people cooking and bathing and fighting and flirting. And there were goats and water buffalo. There was a little brothel, and men would line up outside the little brothel. And there was a liquor still.

And mainly there were families and children who were trying their best to find a niche in the global market economy. Almost no one in Annawadi had permanent work. Six people out of 3,000 last I checked had permanent work.

DAVIES: The corruption that you describe is just breathtaking. Everything comes at a price. The water taps that the government puts in are taken control of by the local political party. They charge for usage. Everything in the justice system - some of our characters get accused of a crime - everyone from the person who takes their statement to the people in jail wants a handout.

And then even medicines in the hospital are ripped off so that if you want - if you go to the hospital, and you want medicines, you have to get them yourselves. You say in here that the effect of corruption I find most under-acknowledged is a contraction not of economic possibility but of our moral universe. What do you mean?

BOO: I mean what I see all the time in children in any country is an enormous ethical imagination. I really think that from a young age, people have a sense of justice in a society that is so corrupt that even to help a neighbor bleeding on the street is to risk your own livelihood and your own liberty because the police system is so corrupt.

I think that that innate capacity for moral action gets sabotaged, gets abraded, and I think that I see that constantly in my work. I see constantly, that in incorrupt societies, in extremely viciously competitive societies, people's instinct to do the right thing gets turned upside down.

DAVIES: Katherine Boo's book is called "Behind the Beautiful Forevers." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is writer Katherine Boo. She's written a new book about three years that she spent in a slum near the Mumbai Airport. It's called "Behind the Beautiful Forevers."

India is, of course, a country with a long-standing caste system. And I wondered, in a place like Annawadi, where you people from many different regions engaged in all kinds of pursuits, surrounded by a country that's supposed to be modernizing, to what extent castes, you know, determined how people were perceived. To what extent could people, you know, transcend that structure?

BOO: Most of the people in Annawadi were low caste, SC or OBC, if people are familiar with those terms. But what's happened in the cities is that people are free to invent their own livelihoods in a way that they aren't in the village. So in - for instance, there was one Brahmin family, they had come from a rural community, where the only work that the Brahmin head of the household would have been allowed to do was religious work.

But since nobody from this village was around, and there was somebody who needed a laborer to roll tar on the road today, he could go and do it and wouldn't be stigmatized in his community. Similarly, there are historical - there are traditional castes who do rag-picking and scrap-picking, and - but now so many people see that that's the only work they can get, that people of all manner of caste have come into that business and made it extremely competitive and difficult for those traditional people like the Matangs, who have been collecting for generation upon generation.

But one thing - one thing that was very clear to me is that the young people in a place like Annawadi aren't tripping on caste the way their parents are. They know their parents have these old views. But every day at the slum, it was more important, well, you know, can you hit a cricket pitch, can you dance? What are your - you know, do you have a good job? I mean, those things among the young people were much more important in determining who got respect and who didn't than the caste that they'd been born by.

DAVIES: The poverty that you describe is - I mean, it is so grinding. So many people are on the very edges of existence. What are some of the ways that people escape, I mean, escape their misery?

BOO: The drug of choice at Annawadi was something called Erazex, which is the Indian equivalent of White Out, that you - when you mistype, you white it out. And they just - people in the office buildings all around Annawadi would throw out the bottles when they were not quite empty, and the kids of Annawadi knew the value of the dregs. You just, you know, spit in the bottle and get it on a rag and sniff.

And you got a high that was - for one, it was hunger-killing for the people who didn't have enough to eat. It was a very effective alternative to food. But the other thing is it just, you know, this work just day after day collecting garbage in a society that repudiates them for the socially necessary work that they do, keeping the streets of the prospering city clean, that really wears on your mind.

And the kids were very much aware, and the adults, of the fact that the people who went in and out of the airports looked at them as if they were garbage, too. And, you know, a little Erazex after the workday could kind of take the edge off that.

DAVIES: One of the most remarkable things to read here was that you tell us in the book that no one in Annawadi was actually considered poor by traditional Indian benchmarks. Is that right? I mean, if they're not poor, who is poor?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOO: Go to the village, and you'll see what poor is. No, so officially, the poverty lines in many countries, including India, are set so low that officially the people that I'm writing about look like part of the great success narrative of modern global capitalism. They look like the more than 100 million people who have been freed since liberalization in India in 1991 from poverty.

So usually in my work, I'm not looking to write about the poorest and abject. I'm not looking to make you feel sorry for people. I want readers to have a connection more blooded and complex than pity or revulsion. But really, the main point I have to say is that on the books, these men, women and children have succeeded in the global economy. They're the success stories.

But I hope what my book shows is that it's a little more complicated than that.

DAVIES: Well, I mean, so many of them are just on the edge of losing, you know, food and shelter for the day. I mean, are the truly poor, are they rural poor who sleep out in the open? I mean, who are the...?

BOO: Well, many people in Annawadi sleep out in the open, too, but when Asha(ph) - in the book, I follow Asha, the mother, who has used politics and corruption to try to give her daughter a college education, I follow her back home to Vidarbha, a very poor agricultural region.

And when Asha walks through the door, everybody can see on her face and the face of her children how good life is in the Mumbai slums. Asha's grandmother walks on all fours, she's so bent from agricultural labor. And when Asha walks in that door, she stands mast straight.

So however you think - however tough it is in the Mumbai slums, as Abdul Husain says once, you know, it's - the city is hard on migrants, and it's terrible sometimes, but it's also better than anywhere else.

DAVIES: And you write about suicides, particularly among women. How common was that?

BOO: In my work in general, I don't just immerse in a community and follow people over a long period of time. I also gather public records, official records from public hospitals, from police stations, from courts, morgues, public health offices, schools, education offices.

And one of the things that I became very interested in when I was at Annawadi is how people died because I had a very strong sense that the official record of what happened to people wasn't accurate. And one of the things that I found was that there were women who were taking their own lives and just refusing the very limited options that they were afforded in terms of choosing who to marry, in terms of whether to have children or not.

They were opting out. They were committing suicide. Part of what I talk about in the book is I tell the story of one girl whose arranged marriage was fixed at 15 who felt very strongly that there was another life, a more liberated life for women outside the slum. But she just didn't know how to get there.

She would see these commercials, and the actresses were lifting up an orange soda and saying, you know, now have a little fun, have a little wildness. And she wanted that. And I think for many, many young women in the slums, it's just a question of I know it's happening, I know it's happening right outside the walls of the slum, but how can I get there?

DAVIES: And rat poison was available.

BOO: Yeah, rat poison was available for 35 rupees.

DAVIES: You know, as I consider how much time you spent among these folks, I have to believe that you must have felt a lot of affection and sympathy for so many of them. And, you know, given the poverty that they suffered under, I can imagine that you must have at times felt compelled to help them. I mean, what you or I spend for lunch would have been a windfall to so many of these people.

On the other hand, you know, the need is so immense that you could give everything you own, and there would be more of it. How did you deal with that feeling?

BOO: When I first came to Annawadi, I explained that I was there to write about them and that the constrictions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, involve that I didn't end up paying them for their stories. It's a convention in my profession that I struggle with. But at the same time, I know that if I had gone to Annawadi and started handing out money to some people and not to others, first of all it would have been a very disruptive thing, and also my hope is that by following people I'm looking not just at...

Often in journalism, stories about the poor began with a reporter going to an NGO and saying tell me about the good work you're doing, and let me follow you, and maybe if you could just pick out some real success stories, I'll write about them. I think that those kind of stories do an injustice to the enormous amount of creative and enterprising problem-solving that low-income people do for themselves, that most of the ways that people get out of poverty in the United States, in India and anywhere else I've ever been, is through their own imaginations and their own fortitude.

And I don't automatically presume that my way - there were certain moments that - where I wanted to intervene and say no, this is what I would do. But it's not necessarily the case that in their societies, my way would have been the best way.

There are as a journalist, for me there are certain times when you absolutely stop being a journalist and you start being a human being. And there was one particular instance that I describe - a very, very brutal eviction, where some - a gang of drunken men set upon a young mother.

And there's a case where, no, you're not going to sit back and document this, you're going to do whatever you can to diffuse the violence. I will say this, that I have a few friends who do this kind of immersion journalism, and it's extremely difficult sometimes to remember that you're there as a journalist and not a social worker.

And I guess the only thing I can say is that you - what you end up seeing is you get a very close idea of how - of what the needs really are, and then you come from that reporting and try to think in your own charitable giving, well, you know, what can I do to do the most good, not just for one person who I happened to be writing about but for people that I've never met.

DAVIES: Well, Katherine Boo, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BOO: Thank you for having me, Dave.

GROSS: Katherine Boo spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Her new book is called "Behind the Beautiful Forevers." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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