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

This interview was originally broadcast on Feb. 8, 2012. On Wednesday, Katherine Boo won the National Book Award for nonfiction for Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo spent more than three years in Mumbai's Annawadi slum to do research for her 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 trying to gather people around a table and talk to them," Boo tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "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."

Interview Highlights

On how people first reacted to a blond, American woman in the slums

"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 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."

On what it's like in the Annawadi slum

"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. ... 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 [when] 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."

On the caste system in Annawadi

"Most of the people in Annawadi were low caste. ... 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. ... There are traditional castes who do rag-picking and scrap-picking ... 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. ...

"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 ... can you hit a cricket pitch? Can you dance? ... 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."

Katherine Boo is a staff writer for <em>The New Yorker </em>and the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.
/ Heleen Welvaart
Heleen Welvaart
Katherine Boo is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.

On drug use in Annawadi

"The drug of choice at Annawadi was something called Erazex, which is the Indian equivalent of Wite-Out. ... 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. ...

"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."

On the people of Annawadi not being considered 'poor' by traditional Indian benchmarks

"Go to the village, and you'll see what poor is. ... 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. ...

"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."

On women in Annawadi who committed suicide

"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. ... 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?"

On not being able to financially help the people she was writing about

"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 ... it would have been a very disruptive thing."

On writing about people lifting themselves out of poverty

"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."

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