Speaking from the Disciplines
Table of Contents
Prof. Pat Oles- Social Work: "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: A Distant Mirror"
Prof. Monica Raveret Richter - Biology: "Sustainability and Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers"
Prof. Linda Simon- English: "What is Creative Nonfiction?"
Prof. Gordon Thompson- Music: "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Lessons India Taught Me and Connections"
Richard Chrisman- Director of Religious and Spiritual Life: "Religion and Behind the Beautiful Forevers"
Prof. Patricia Rubio - Spanish
Prof. (Retired) Steve Hoffmann - Government: "Learning More About India"
Prof. Pushkala Prasad - Management & Business: "Beyond the Beautiful Forevers in Context"
Behind the Beautiful Forevers makes the marginalized residents of Annawadi visible. Through careful, compelling descriptions of work, family life, and the failure of business, government, and private institutions, journalist Katherine Boo uncovers the fragile “infrastructure of opportunity” in India. Writing about real people--Adbul, Manju, Rahul, and Asha—negotiating the margins of modern capitalism, Boo offers a view of the interaction between the choices people make and broader social forces beyond their control. It is a subtle critique exposing the limits of explanations for poverty that stress only personal responsibility.
The people represented in these pages see, talk about, and adapt to the social and economic forces shaping their prospects. Unfortunately, the book offers little context or history. It does not claim to represent a country or an economic system, and it only makes a few explicit connections between the lives in this small slum and the macro-context. However, the compelling presentation of personal effort, hopes, and heartbreak provides a painful contrast to the cold, impersonal economic and political systems these people must negotiate. In this regard, India and the United States share similar economic and political problems. India and the United States celebrate the creative and productive potentials of robust economies, but each country struggles to explain and overcome the persistent poverty and disheartening inequality accompanying wealth and progress.Across the globe poor people live in the shadows of wealth. They are vulnerable, misrepresented and misunderstood until books such as Behind the Beautiful Forevers uncover their lives and the surprising similarity of those lives with our own. Indeed, some of the interactions in Annawadi are so familiar that this reader forgets the book concerns India. For example, when Manju and Rahul argue over the lotion for lightening their skin, they sound like US teenagers arguing about the remote control. However, too casual a reading can overlook what the whitening lotion says about race and beauty. The power of color and a celebration of an ideal body type oppress people in India as well as the US. Boo’s claim that Rahul and Mirchi’s friendship transcends the ethnic and religious divisions of India reminds me of the close interracial relationships adolescents in the United States often enjoy. Racial, ethnic and religious prejudice is unacceptable and discrimination illegal in both countries, yet economic disparity and marginalization persist in spite of good intentions, the law, and expectations for civility. Social justice—an especially urgent concern for the least privileged— remains a distant ideal without effective, coordinated economic and political institutions. What Katherine Boo calls the “infrastructure of opportunity.”
In these accounts of everyday life in Annawadi, Boo offers few comments about causes or villains. How did this situation arise? Who is responsible? Instead she describes how Abdul and the other garbage pickers work hard, all day, for little pay. They do not get enough to eat, a health emergency can bankrupt the family, and too few go to school. The economy demands labor and the government tolerates the expectation that these teens work, providing little protection and few benefits. A bright, serious, and determined student such as Manju instructs neighborhood children, but attends a depressingly inadequate school. Her household responsibilities are demanding and demoralizing. Without an education, these teens have few prospects. They may get an iPod, but they will never enjoy material comfort. Business, government, and social service agencies all exploit rather than care leaving Annawadians vulnerable and hopeless. Scarce resources and fierce competition mixed with moral failure and political corruption frustrate every effort at getting ahead. This is no accident; social institutions do not develop naturally. People create them and when they fail, only collective action can improve those systems.
The grinding poverty and institutional failure Boo describes is a subtle but devastating critique of capitalism and a potent rebuttal of those who blame the poor for their poverty. Boo concludes, “If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits is uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?” Leveling the land requires seeing these lives and a social system that values profit more than justice.
To create some context, consider that the World Factbook published by the CIA says inequality is worse in the United States than in India (Central Intelligence Agency, 2009) and recently, the Associated Press reported that poverty in the United States “is on track to reach a 46 year high” (Associated Press, 2012). At same time, Boo writes,
…almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks. Rather, the Annawadians were among roughly one hundred million Indians freed from poverty since 1991, when, around the same moment as the small slum’s founding, the central government embraced economic liberalization. The Annawadians were thus part of one of the most stirring success narratives in the modern history of global market capitalism, a narrative still unfolding.
Clever, almost funny descriptions illustrate the difficult challenge these conditions present. Boo writes, “Annawadi set 200 yards off the Sahar Airport Road, a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late.” A modern economy requires being on time along with roads, schools and courts. Without an effective state, there is no road, only a barrier that kills those who attempt a crossing without caution. In this regard, the road is an effective metaphor for corrupt charities, cops and courts and limited opportunity. For residents of the “over city,” traffic is an inconvenience, wealth can ease the discomfort of traveling, but traffic also obscures the suffering at the side of the road. Blaming the government is no wiser than blaming the poor and doing nothing serves the already privileged. The limits of individualism and government ineptitude frustrate efforts to eliminate poverty around the globe.
Boo knows you cannot “judge a whole by a sliver.” Complex social, economic and political conditions create and sustain slums and they resist change. However, by following individuals over the course of their lives to see who succeeds and who fails and what enables and what constrains yields the practical knowledge needed to promote social justice.
Some describe journalism as a first, rough draft of history, but this assertion understates the importance and power of looking directly at contemporary life. Deep, thoughtful journalism can make a difference. In 1890, Jacob Ris published How the Other Half Lives. It led New York City to develop modern sewers and to begin public trash collection. In The Jungle (1906) Upton Sinclair exposed the horrors of the Chicago meatpacking industry and facilitated passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Like these classics, Behind the Beautiful Forevers shows there is no moral or practical justification for businesses and governments to ignore the needs of society’s most vulnerable people. Classic liberals like John Locke and Adam Smith asserted that the wealth of a nation rested on its ability to provide real opportunities for citizens of every class, but their celebration of humanity and morality tempered their celebration of property. Smith argued, “It is but equity, besides, that those who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed and lodged” (Smith, 2009, p. 60). Boo reminds us of this classic vision of a just society. We can work toward that vision today.
Associated Press. (2012, July 22). US poverty on track to reach 46-year high; suburbs, underemployed workers, children hit hard. Retrieved July 23, 2012, from Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/us-poverty-on-track-to-reach-46-year-high-suburbs-underemployed-workers-children-hit-hard/2012/07/22/gJQA3Xa01W_story.html
Central Intelligence Agency. (2009). The World Factbook. Washington, DC. Retrieved July 24, 2012, from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2172rank.htmlSmith, A. (2009). Wealth of Nations, New York: Classic House Books, 2009, 60. New York: Classic House Books.
Sustainability and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Prof. Monica Raveret Richter, Department of Biology
Over the course of some 20 years, high reproductive rates combined with an influx
of economic and ecological refugees seeking opportunity in Mumbai’s economic growth
have increased the population of Greater Mumbai to 20 million, 3,000 of whom live
sandwiched at high density between the road and sewage lake delimiting Annawadi.
They sleep, as Katherine Boo reports in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, “his foot in
my mouth, my foot in hers.” High density populations in marginal habitat, “poverty’s
niche in the ecology of the city,” are, Davis (2006) argues, profoundly impacted by
resource limitations and especially vulnerable to unpredictable perturbations, including
forces of nature such as disease, flooding and fire.
Scavengers in Greater Mumbai form what an ecologist might refer to as a guild, one whose members sustain themselves by collecting human-generated resources that range from boosted construction materials through discarded garbage. One organism’s cast-off waste can be another organism’s resource, its poison or, perversely, it can be both. An exploration of the multiple roles and meanings of “garbage” in Boo’s narrative illustrates some important ecological facets of sustainability — the design challenge that we must meet if our species is to persist upon this planet for the long haul. Such exploration might also tempt us to extend ecological metaphors more broadly, some may argue too broadly, using them to try to characterize and understand the human condition.
The first ecological tenet of sustainability is that resources are limited: An ever-growing population depending on a finite resource base is going to hit an economic and, ultimately, an ecological wall. We can become more efficient; we can make substitutions, but at some point we just plain run short of essentials for which there are no substitutes: clean water, clean air. In the face of inadequate supplies and inequitable access, the contest can become intense, desperate. Closely following the exploits of Abdul, Sunil, Kalu, and others, Boo describes fierce competition for and ruthless defense of waste, the resource, along the airport’s Cargo Road. Efforts to skirt the dangers of direct competition result in complex alliances and specialized trash collection niches. Scavengers survive by appropriating and defending access to trash, by theft, or by using wits and agility to mine sources unknown to or inaccessible to others. Sunil emulated the strategy of Annawadi’s scavenging crows, “circling and observing before trying to seize.” He studied the habits of those who tossed trash and discovered his niche: High above the Mithi river, a hidden narrow ledge caught the cups and bottles tossed by taxi drivers. Here, the small and agile Sunil could work unchallenged to glean a modest catch. When risk becomes too great, when the resource becomes too scarce, trash pickers are forced to take up other livelihoods or to disperse and seek their fortune as pioneers in another marginal habitat.
Another tenet of sustainability is that matter is conserved — what you throw away doesn’t go away; it doesn’t disappear, even though the cover afforded by distant landfills might give that impression. Elements of our planet’s physical and biological environment are unavoidably, inextricably, potently interconnected over space and time, in ways that are not always intuitive, or as immediately obvious as in Annawadi. We cannot wall ourselves off from this exchange. To the extent that our air, soil and water are used as a planetary garbage can, the integrity of each of us is compromised, for our bodies are literally made of the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. If they are adulterated, so are we.
This is personal. In my body, I carry PCBs from industrial discharge into the rivers that fed Lake Michigan (dilution, we have learned the hard way, is not the solution to pollution), where my big brothers were sent to fish for our family dinners. We had no inkling of risk from industrial contaminants, and favored dining on the big, high-trophic-level predatory fish that best bioconcentrated fat-soluble pollutants. Through drinking her mother’s milk, my daughter has incorporated the legacy of the previous generation’s fish suppers into her own body. Consider the fish in Annawadi’s sewage lake, a habitat once clear “like swimming pool water” but now a receptacle for waste, filled with a noxious, stinking, black brew that dyes the bellies of wading pigs and dogs. Sunil reported that the lake fish he sometimes caught and sold in the slum tasted sweet, despite the source. Those who ate the fish gained much-needed nourishment. At the same time, they set another matrilineal chemical legacy in motion.
You can open a can of albacore (“white”) tuna and participate in this exchange, perhaps even directly taking on a bit of Greater Mumbai's discharge. When coal, the main source of India’s power (Reuters 2012), is burned, the mercury it contains is vaporized. Mercury vapor can, as Sandra Steingraber (2011) puts it, “wander the skies for years,” traveling far from the source until it is ultimately carried to the earth by precipitation, converted by bacteria into the toxic methyl mercury, and concentrated, as it moves up lengthy aquatic food chains, in high-trophic-level fish like albacore. (Some advice: if you eat tuna, switching from albacore to skipjack (“light” tuna) can appreciably cut your mercury intake; see Consumer Reports 2011). Such arrangements have come to characterize our food web. Those living at the margins have the fewest options for navigating, or even being aware of the trade-offs. But navigate we must; eating, breathing, and drinking water are not optional. Trash scavengers face such complexities and trade-offs not only when they eat, but also as they practice their trade: Garbage sickens the garbage pickers, even as they earn their livelihood from it.
Finally, one cannot overlook population. Human impacts are a function of consumption levels, mitigating technologies, and population size. Even if we moderate our consumption, achieve more equitable distribution of resources, and develop technologies to minimize negative impacts such as pollution, such efforts only buy us time if we continue to grow faster than resources can be replenished, and wastes absorbed and neutralized. Ecologists view our planet’s resource base and capacities as ultimately finite; exceeding limits will, in the long term, not be sustainable. When and how we, as a species, confront population growth will define, to a large part, the possible futures for our species.
We share all that is this planet, resources and poisons alike; population continues to grow and, if you accept the assertion that for some things we have no substitutes, supplies are limited. I have developed an ecological metaphor to characterize Annawadians in this milieu: ecological pioneers, dispersing to and opportunistically gaining a foothold in a marginal habitat. In the face of growing numbers and limited resources, these pioneers are forced into intense competition and sorely challenged, as individuals, in their ability to thrive long-term. Dispersal to another habitat is risky, and indeed may not always be an option. Boo repeatedly represents the perception, by Annawadi’s residents as well as citizens of Greater Mumbai, that Annawadians might be considered expendable, human effluvia; what Mirchi referred to as “shit,” surrounded by roses. Do we accept these as apt characterizations of our fellow humans and, if so, what does this say about our own humanity? Or, might we look further, as Davis (2006) suggests, to the human forces responsible for creating slums— greed, inequity, poor planning and lack of respect for human rights — and consider how such forces intensify the vulnerability, to both natural and human contingencies, of those who inhabit the margins of our environment and our society?
Consumer Reports. (2011, January). Mercury in canned tuna still a concern. New tests reinforce a need for some people to limit consumption. Retrieved 29 August 2012 from Consumer Reports: http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine-archive/2011/january/food/mercury-in-tuna/overview/index.htm
Davis M. (2006, March/April). Slum Ecology. Inequity intensifies Earth’s natural forces. Retrieved 27 August 2012 from Orion Magazine: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/167/
Steingraber S. (2011, March/April). Mind Games. How toxic chemicals are impairing our children’s ability to learn. Retrieved 27 August 2012 from Orion Magazine: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/6162/
Reuters. (2012, 8 August). India’s Tata Power profits slump 66 pct. Retrieved 29 August 2012 from Reuters: http://in.reuters.com/article/2012/08/08/tatapower-india-results-idINL4E8J84T920120808
Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a book of creative nonfiction, a term that sometimes generates confusion. If it’s not fiction, doesn’t that mean it’s not “made up”? And if it’s not made up, doesn’t that mean it’s “true”? And if the author is telling us what’s true, then how is that telling “creative”?
Let me explain.
Any writer in any genre—fiction, poetry, nonfiction, drama—makes choices: what to write about, what words to use, what details to include and what details to omit. Any prose writer makes choices about form, the structure of sentences and paragraphs, rhythm—all the elements that give a piece of writing a particular voice and style. An author’s choices help to convey a theme, and to evoke an emotional or intellectual response from the reader. In the field of literary studies, all of these choices matter. We analyze a work—whatever its genre—by questioning those choices and their effects on us as readers.
Boo is a writer of nonfiction, but she, like a fiction writer, creates characters. If a writer describes a character as “slender and timid” or “lean and agile,” we envision a person different from one who is “small and jumpy,” which is how Boo describes Abdul in the first page of her book. “Jumpy,” with its implications of nervousness and wariness, becomes important in our understanding of Abdul’s personality. She has not invented Abdul—he is a real person whom she met in India-- but all the same, she needs to invent him on the page, for her readers. “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 slumlanes,” she tells us. All of that description, and the image it evokes in our minds, is what is creative about creative nonfiction. Boo is conveying, as precisely as she can, what Abdul looks like, and also who he is. Her choice of words is deliberate and vivid: his eyes are not just dark in color, but set into the hollows of his skull; his cheeks, too, are sunken, evoking malnourishment and fatigue. And she sets him immediately in a hostile landscape: slumlanes—not paths or roads—congested with people. Abdul, after all, is her main character, and in the book’s first pages we begin to care about him, and maybe even to fear for him.
Boo’s opening pages depict Abdul alone, and we learn what he is thinking. Readers might wonder if Boo made up these private thoughts, but a writer of nonfiction promises to tell readers only what she can verify. “Verifiable” is more accurate than the slippery word “true.” In her afterward, Boo explains how she conducted four years of research in Annawadi, taking notes, making video recordings and audiotapes, and taking photographs. She used translators and had help from some children who documented events on a video camera. In addition, she did extensive archival research in public records pertaining to health, education, politics, courts, and city affairs. Doubtless, she ended up with thousands of pages of written sources and a huge amount of video and audio material. From all of those sources, she wrote a book of 256 pages. That honing—making choices about what to include and what to omit—is also what is creative about creative nonfiction.
Those choices result partly from the questions that motivated Boo’s project. Married to an Indian man, a frequent visitor to India, she wanted to understand the huge disparity between rich and poor: “What,” she asked, “is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government’s economic and social policy? Whose capabilities are squandered?” She found no answers to these questions in the many books she read about India, so she decided to search for answers herself. Formulating questions that shape research is one of the first creative moves for a writer of nonfiction.
Boo might have written a book of social or political history, like Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi, or a memoir, like Anand Giridharadas’s India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking. Instead, she chose to create a narrative that weaves together the stories of particular individuals who reside in Annawadi. She herself is not a character in her story, although she interacted with all of these people and observed them intimately. She chose to write in the third person, just as a fiction writer makes a choice about point of view. She made the choice, also, of beginning her narrative with a crime—the beating and burning of Fatima, a woman known as the One Leg—and the police pursuit of three suspects: Abdul, his father, and his older sister. The book, then, begins like a familiar detective story, and the tension that Boo creates propels the narrative. Boo might have begun anywhere—with the family’s settling in the slum, for example, or Abdul’s birth; and she might have chosen another protagonist from among any number of characters. Where to begin, how to structure the chronology of a narrative: these are creative choices.
Reviewers compared this book to fiction by Charles Dickens, who starkly evoked poverty and oppression in Victorian London. Some praised Boo’s writing as “novelistic.” One reviewer wrote, “Novelists dream of defining characters this swiftly and beautifully. . . .” These responses speak to Boo’s talents, not only for close observation (Dickens closely observed his world, as well), but, just as significantly, her talent to make brilliant choices, and to create a work that we, as readers, regard as literature.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Lessons India Taught Me and Connections
Prof Gordon R. Thompson, Department of Music
Katherine Boo’s book about life in a Mumbai airport slum offers much to consider about our relationships with each other and with our environment.
My first experience of Mumbai came in 1974 as a recent graduate who had never traveled more than a few hundred miles from home. Riding in a hot bus after two days on jets and in airports (my first time flying), I remember peering out the open window at the vast encampments on either side of the highway. I was part of a group of students determined to study music in India for several months that summer and our teacher (a Muslim whose family had lived in Mumbai) had helped us by negotiating our transportation and lodging. The city sweltered in the monsoon’s heat and humidity, but Mumbai’s jumble of Victorian, Indian, and modern architecture—not to mention the people—intrigued me. I have been back a number of times, but that first visit made a deep impression.
Like many Westerners when first encountering India, I was astounded by the poverty; it baffled me in ways I had trouble understanding. Conceptually, many Westerners never get any further than the airport slums. Their minds, mired in that reality, never escape and never see beyond that vignette of our global tragedy. Indeed, they never see the India that Indians see: the India of the beautiful forevers. The India of my experience—from Chennai in the south to Kashmir in the north—is beyond beautiful. Certainly, I met people on the take, thieves and villains of different classes and descriptions. As a Canadian, I had the same fear of New York. But I also met kind and generous individuals and families who beyond expectation hosted me in their homes and helped me to see a thriving and optimistic culture.
I have lived in India twice, including a year in the early 1980s when my experiences related directly to this book. Notably, I learned about the importance of garbage and water. In the west, we throw things out and they disappear into landfills. In India, when I threw things out, they did not disappear. I saw them hoarded, sorted, and sold; and I became acutely aware of the waste I produced. I learned that when you live in an Indian community, everyone knows what you do and that what you discard partly defines who you are, often in unflattering ways.
The value of fresh water presented another major realization. We take for granted our ability to turn on a tap and have clean drinking water. We do not have to boil it. It flows whenever we want it and in a seemingly endless supply. When I was in an Indian city, town, or village, I learned that clean fresh water is precious. You did not waste fresh water and you guarded clean water for its intrinsic value.
Boo’s book focused my attention on these three elements: poverty, waste, and water. How do we relate to poverty in our own nation? How does income disparity define us? What are the trends in income disparity? What happens to our garbage? Who sorts it? How does it define us? How do we use fresh water? How limitless is that resource? What do we hide behind the myth of our own eternally abundant environment, behind our own beautiful forevers?
* * * * *Katherine Boo’s book also raised a number of issues for me beyond those of poverty, waste, and water. Although she indicates that her book describes real people and events, she fails to mention a substantial fiction: her presence in Annawadi never figures in the main body of the book. Her efforts at documenting that community changed the events she recorded. We can argue that she may have changed some things for the better. Perhaps the city refrained from clearing the slum because it did not want the bad press she might generate. Perhaps the Husain family might have lost their case had she not been interested in (and possibly attended) the proceedings. More importantly, by using their real names, how might she have changed their lives for better and/or for worse? What are the likely consequences for Asha and Manju? For the Husain Family? When we study and write about real people, what is our responsibility to them? These are real people with very real problems. What would we say if we were sitting across from Judge Dhiran at his desk or if we encountered Sunil outside the airport terminal? If Boo were describing life at Skidmore, describing who was sleeping together, who was jealous of the success of others, who imagined themselves to be superior to others, and who traded social capital for favors, and if she used everyone’s real name, would that be ethical? How would you react? Would you be comfortable with Katherine Boo reporting on your life? What powers do you have to resist her? Did the residents of Annawadi have that power? Do the residents of Annawadi have any power at all?
As an ethnomusicologist who often looks at how musicians and music-related individuals interact in evolving networks, each individual pursuing personal ambition through familial and communal connections, I have found ecological models invaluable. The residents of Annawadi struggle to survive on the economic fringes, not just of Mumbai, but of the industrialized world. We can compartmentalize them by rationalizing that India is far away, but the book reveals that what we do locally has global implications. Every individual described in this book is looking to maximize his or her ability to exploit the resources available and to escape to something better. How are we like these individuals? What is our relationship with them? What is our relationship with the poor or Saratoga?
Finally, scholar and author Edward Said introduced the idea of Orientalism as a way to describe how the West has routinely trivialized Asia and Africa, eroticizing and exaggerating their cultures to justify our historic economic and military domination. Does this book trivialize India, reducing it to yet another tableau where the rich ignore the poor, where everyone is involved in bribery and corruption, and where lies and deceit rule everyday life? Does this make us feel better about ourselves? Does it justify or question our economic policies? Does this book help us to ignore or to focus on income disparity and poverty in our own nation?
Religion and Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Richard Chrisman, Director of Religious and Spiritual Life
I regard the whole college experience as a call to action, with the action plan left open for each student to fill in later. The First Year Experience summer reading assignment every year fits right in to my conception. The FYE’s intent is, first, to give all the entering students a common basis for interaction and conversation with each other and the faculty. But, as the FYE Program puts it, they also want this year’s book selection to prompt all of us to “think about [and discuss] the definition of happiness, the power of hope, and the problematic nature of progress.” This statement conveys, I believe, an implicit hope that these discussions will lead eventually, after many more courses and upon your Skidmore graduation, to enlightened and compassionate intervention in the world’s critical social and political problems. We live in a global community now, and everybody bears a responsibility to each other, invisible as so many might be to us from where we happen to sit at the moment. Exactly how will each of us act out our consciousness of that reality? We won’t know what action we are led to take till after we have experienced the book and the academic year together.
Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers opens a window onto a world which truly is inaccessible to anyone outside the very challenged precincts she describes. The invisibility of acute poverty is as true of the India about which Katherine Boo writes, as it is of almost any Western country today, including our own, and she has also written about poverty in America (“After Welfare,” New Yorker, April 9, 2001). Focusing on poverty entails hazards that can affect accurate reporting, inclining writers to romanticize or distort or politicize the subject. But Michael Harrington’s The Other America, published 50 years ago in 1962, set a standard of effective writing on this subject, which Boo’s book fulfills, as all the reviewers of her book attest. Nevertheless, the reader is still susceptible to voyeurism or a guilt of our own making. So we must be very alert to these problems as we try to expand our vision of the whole nature of our global community.
Of particular interest to me along these lines, as the Director of Religious and Spiritual Life, is the subject of religion in the book. When the writer refers at various points to animosities between Muslims and Hindus, she does so almost incidentally, as if they were so well known as not to need background or so unimportant as not to merit the space. We learn in the Prologue, for instance, that Annawadi had a population of 3000 people, “Hindus mainly, from all manner of casts and subcastes” whose varieties Abdul, as one of only 30 or so Muslims in the slum, never understood. All he knew was that he lived in “a place booby-trapped with contentions, new and ancient, over which he was determined not to trip.” Beyond that the subject seldom comes up. And yet, the principal, mortal conflict at the core of the book is between two families, one Muslim, one Hindu. Was religion a factor? It stands to reason that it would be, when you think what a difference in belief systems exists between them, Hinduism and its million Gods and Islam with no God but Allah, iconic Hinduism and aniconic Islam, sensual Hinduism and ascetic Islam.
Was religious identity a factor in the mortal conflict of this story? The author doesn’t say, although she will quote the disparagements some people toss at each other, for instance, “Muslim breeder,” or “dirty Muslim money.” Possibly she was just being faithful to her characters, who did not delve very deeply into the beliefs and practices of their enemies. Alternatively and more likely, although she doesn’t say so, she may have passed over the religious differences because they were secondary to the historical source of animosity between Hindus and Muslims. This animosity stemmed from their being descendants of an indigenous population (Hindus) and of an invading force (Islam in the 10th century). The invaders stayed and settled down, eventually creating an Islamic empire that lasted from 1500 to 1857 (when the British seized power). At the time of gaining independence from the British, in 1947, it was Gandhi’s hope that the country’s two principal religions would be represented in a unified government. Gandhi worked very hard to achieve this goal, though it cost many thousands of lives in inter-religious rioting in the months right up to the eve of Independence. But Pakistan was created instead, separating Muslims from Hindus. In Annawadi, as in India generally, people may have known nothing of religious differences in the content of the two faiths, only that their differences caused very bad history.
Could it be that this riveting story, told by a master storyteller, is not ultimately about India at all, and not only about poverty, but about the primal fact of how the strong prey upon the weak? Here is a picture of human society in nuce, Annawadi having been chosen only because Katherine Boo somehow felt called to enter that particular setting. Not just the people of Annawadi, but all people have some weakness that someone is bound to find and exploit to their advantage. It happens everywhere persons are viewed and treated as objects. It is going on in every strata of society, but the weakest have absolutely everything but their human dignity stripped from them and, often, that too. The book should make us ask ourselves, Do we conveniently shield our vision from this reality and deny the ways in which we tacitly participate and benefit? If Jesus, who had infinite compassion, could have said, “the poor you always have with you,” it had to be because he was saying there is always something or someone making people poor.
Who will call the wickedness out? “Uncomfortable questions about justice and opportunity for [the] least powerful citizens” demand answers, according to Katherine Boo. She is not a moralist and does not moralize, but she definitely has a moral perspective. What is rotten in Annawadi is not right. Although Annawadi is not representative of India as a whole, as she was at pains to make clear, nevertheless it is representative of too large a large swath of human experience in this age of globalization to be ignored. And she calls it out.
Yet, despite all that the children undergo, “a boy’s life [and a girl’s life] could still matter to himself.” We should certainly hope so. Throughout the book, Boo’s compassion and insight constantly bring our attention to the weakest of the weak, the children of the poor. They carry within them the ambition of “being ice,” even as it often happens that they only “become water.” This she does, not at all to make us pity them and thereby turn ourselves away from them. She lifts up the pathos of the children, I believe, to warn those running governments and the citizens who empower them what might we be doing wrong, individually and collectively, that we should change.
In light of Professor Linda Simon’s considerations regarding the choices authors make when writing their stories, one central question for me, in reading Katherine Boo’s book, pertains to her choice of an omniscient narrator. Given that Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a work of non-fiction, i.e. it portrays events in the lives of real people occurring in a verifiable place in a specific time, why did she choose an omniscient narrator as her narrative voice? I find the choice puzzling particularly because of her linguistic limitations and of her positionality as a privileged westerner, an outsider not only to India and Mumbai but also to slum life itself.
The choice of an omniscient narrator, which is one of the central narrative devices allowing the book to be read like a novel, is relevant because an omniscient voice knows everything about, and thus possesses total control over, the world s/he narrates. In other words, the omniscient voice occupies a position of unencumbered power and privilege. The information s/he offers, the interpretations s/he advances, the situations s/he develops, etc., are not easily questioned and appear as fully reliable because, from his/her god-like perspective, s/he has full command of the world s/he narrates. Thus, if we are in the presence of ‘creative non-fiction’ --and for the sake of my argument I am stressing the ‘non-fiction’ part-- it seems important to consider the identity of the narrating voice. Who does s/he represent? In the Author’s Note, Boo writes “I thought it would be useful to follow the inhabitants of a single, unexceptional slum over the course of several years” (p. 249), a statement that identifies the omniscient voice as that of the author herself. We know, however, that she has talked with the subjects of her story through translators, thus missing discursive nuances and expressiveness identifiable only to those who know the language, that one of her translator’s interpretations and “insights litter [the] book” (251). So in light of these circumstances, how reliable is the omniscient voice after all? In other words, how expansive is her ‘omniscience’?
Although I have no reason to doubt Boo’s best intentions to understand the plight and the humanity of the Annawadi dwellers, the scrupulousness of her research, her profound commitment to social justice in general and her outrage of the oppression Abdul, his family and friends suffer at the hands of corrupt politicians, the police, the local government and justice system, the slumlords, etc., I do question her authority to render herself as an all-knowing, fully controlling voice over a world that in crucial areas of her project she has experienced indirectly. In this respect, the final comment I want to advance pertains to whether we, the readers, should understand the choice of an omniscient narrator solely as the personal choice of an author whose goal was to present the wretched but profoundly touching and valuable lives of a group of people positioned at the bottom of the social and economic pyramid in India’s most populated city. I think not. In my estimation, her choice also represents –and I am thinking here of Professor Gordon Thompson’s reference to Edward Said’s Orientalism—a ‘western’, some would say ‘neocolonial’, attitude by which we need to translate, interpret, appropriate what is foreign and different even when we really do not know the whole story, when we lack the tools that are essential to narrow the cultural divide between ‘us and them’.
Learning More About India
Prof. (Retired) Steve Hoffmann, Government
As someone focused strongly on Indian foreign policy and defense issues, I find Katherine Boo’s book on internal India very interesting indeed. Reading it has motivated me to investigate the Indian domestic scene further by raising some questions.
One such question is: how can the Indian internal class structure be explained now, as a whole? A number of my impressions of it, gained through earlier study and through living in India, now seem out of date. Here are some new impressions, gained from putting together the Beautiful Forevers book with some limited recent research, and with my old experiences.
I do agree with Katherine Boo that, generally speaking, the Annawadi slum inhabitants in Mumbai best deserve to be called the poor, any contrary official Indian claims notwithstanding. But I would think that India’s hundreds of millions of poor people, some better or worse off than others, should be said to include rural people such as landless laborers, and not just city dwellers.
A bit different from the Annawadi people as Boo describes them are workers engaged in manufacturing goods for the commercial market. The Mumbai slum called Dharavi is a better place to observe the economic and social imprint of these poor people. Unlike tiny Annawadi, the massive and famous Dharavi slum contains a major manufacturing industry.
With its approximately 60,000 structures and a population perhaps as large as one million people, Dharavi annually produces goods and services estimated to be worth 600 million to more than a billion dollars. Dharavi’s various workshops produce such items as leather goods and children’s clothing.
India’s poor can be said to also include large numbers of land-owning ordinary farmers or peasants who generally manage to survive, although often precariously, on small plots of land. They often must supplement their own farming labor with government support, as well as other outside income sources. Especially in certain regions, farmers have come under intense pressure from such problems as the perils of commercialization of agriculture, and unreliability in the governmental support system.
Alternatively one can argue that India has a separate lower class, distinct from the poor, and made up of the ordinary farmers, the manufacturing workers, as well as other occupational groups like shopkeepers, and household servants. A problem for me is that my current sources don’t conclusively demonstrate that the living standards of most of these people, even the workers, are generally higher than those of the poor in Annawadi, Dharavi, and elsewhere.
India’s middle class having exploded in size during the last sixty or so years quite possibly amounts to hundreds of millions of people itself. But however harsh its treatment of the poor may be, it also shows great energy, initiative and worldliness. As someone attached to a number of middle class families by ties of long-time friendship and affection, I can testify to their having advanced by using their own admirable work ethic, and having undergone their own trials and crises over long lifetimes.
Like the poor, the Indian middle class can arguably be said to inhabit both urban and rural India. That requires looking beyond professions like business people, and governmental civil servants, to also encompass groups like prosperous farmers. A good many of those farmers, while recently switching to other professions, remain in the countryside.
India’s highest class, a small but conspicuous segment of Indian society, certainly includes the super-rich. But for me it has remained difficult to perceive a sharp class-defining difference between the less rich families of the Indian upper class and what I would call the upper portion of India’s middle class. Adding to my confusion is my observing that households at either levels of affluence will have domestic servants with jobs like cook, cleaner, and driver, while also employing electric appliances.
Two other main components of Indian society should really be considered parts of the class structure, making that structure rather complex. I refer to the caste system, India’s older pre-modern class structure, still very much in existence, and India’s numerically large Muslim minority.
The majority Hindu society strongly features castes, although Muslims have some castes too. The number of castes and sub-castes runs to thousands. Each caste has a traditional name, traditionally marries within itself, and sometimes monopolizes a particular occupation, although now caste members, as individuals, can often work in various other professions. A particular caste remains included in an economic and social network with other castes, a network that covers its own rural village, and a caste will hold a certain rank and status particularly within its region.
A rough correlation exists between caste and class, in that higher caste people are more likely to be in the middle and upper classes, while lower caste people are more likely to be poor in terms of class. Many but not all members of what might be labeled the middle castes have joined the middle class, and significant numbers of persons from lower castes do succeed in obtaining middle and upper class status.
The social and economic standing of Muslims remains problematical in relation to Hindus. Reasons for Hindu-Muslim estrangement and even episodes of violence are numerous, too much so to be properly covered here. Often, more than just religious practices are involved. Yet, despite the fact that Muslims suffer discrimination and even persecution, many Muslims have helped to populate the middle class, and some belong to the upper class.
Hindu extremists do victimize Muslims, but fortunately most Indians, whether Hindu or Muslim, are not extremists. Day-by-day acceptance of community differences is the norm in India, however grudging and tenuous such acceptance can become at times. Moreover, democracy allows Muslims and lower Hindu castes to participate as voting blocs and thereby gain concessions from politicians.
All told, looking at class structure makes India seem even more socially complex than the Beautiful Forevers book does. I should say, too, that this structure can be portrayed usefully and accurately in other ways than I have just done, and with even more complexity.
I do hope that the little illustrative exercise in socio-economic description, just
conducted here, encourages many of the book’s readers to go further, and seek to understand
India through additional reading and research on matters of interest to them.
“Caste and Class,” in James Heitzman and Robert L. Worden, eds., India: A Country Study, Federal Research Division Library of Congress, 1996. http://countrystudies.us/india/89.htm .
Jim Yardley, “In One Slum, Misery, Work, Politics and Hope,” New York Times, Dec. 28, 2011.
Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods, The Strange Rise of Modern India, New York: Doubleday, 2007.
Dietmar Rothermund, India, The Rise of an Asian Giant, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Mira Kamdar, Planet India, The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World, New York: Scribner, 2007.
Carin Zissis, India’s Muslim Population, Council on Foreign Relations, Website, 2007.http://www.cfr.org/india/indias-muslim-population/p13659.
D.L. Sheth, “Secularisation of Caste and Making of New Middle Class,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 34, No. 34-35 (Aug. 21 – Sept. 3, 1999).
Any narrative text (either fictional or otherwise) i.e. embedded in and derives meaning from its context. As you read Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, you might want to keep in mind that it (like any other text) should be understood in its context. However, a contextual understanding in this case may not be self-evident or easy to attain. I would suggest that a hermeneutic reading of the text can help accomplish this. Hermeneutics was first developed by Biblical and judicial scholars and later refined by 19th century philosophers who understood precisely how difficult it was to engage in a contextual analysis of any text. Hermeneutics can help us avoid an oversimplified reading of any text, and typically raises more questions about the text and our own connections to it, rather than provide facile interpretations of it.
Some relevant contexts for Beyond the Beautiful Forevers might be the city of Mumbai, India as an emerging economy, non-western culture or our increasingly globalized world. How does an understanding of these diverse contexts mediate our understanding of the dynamics of poverty and hope in Annawadi? For instance, are there specific national or global policies that have aggravated income inequalities in places like Annawadi all over the world? What role have increased capital flows into a country like India played in the creation of slums like Annawadi? An appreciation of these contexts might also prompt you to ask: why would we find such a concentration of poverty or violence in the city? Is this unique to Mumbai? Are we likely to find these conditions in other countries as well? If so, where might we find them? Would they be likely to contain similar dynamics? Why does Katherine Boo choose to focus on Mumbai?
A narrative text can also provide readers with impressions of the socio-cultural context that are often more powerful than those offered by scientific or academic texts. In this case, the Annawadi story becomes a prism through which the readers sees not only the immediate context of the slum itself, but also the city of Mumbai, the country of India and even the broader domain of the Third Worlds. You might want to ask yourself what impressions you have formed about Mumbai, India and the Third World from reading the book. You will probably realize that in the absence of a deep and familiar knowledge of the wider context, your impressions are likely to be somewhat one-dimensional – you may see an entire country as mired in poverty, corruption and grotesque violence. Is this likely to be a barrier to your own intellectual development? Why so? How could you better inform yourself of the broader context so that you might develop a more meaningful understanding of the lives and people in places like Annawadi?
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger famously observed that anytime we read a text, we bring a whole package of implicit assumptions, beliefs and expectations that inevitably influence the messages we infer from the text. In other words, the text does not have an independent life outside interpretations of it by its readers. What might be some of your assumptions – about poverty, urban ghettos, Third World countries, corruption, everyday violence, etc. – that played a role in your own understanding of Beyond the Beautiful Forevers? Were these preconceptions confirmed or dislodged? After reading the book, do you now have a new set of preconceptions with which you might “read” other texts on global cities, or violence, corruption or income inequalities in your own country? And finally, of course we might want to also remember that there is the whole question of the author’s personal context – her location as a privileged outsider entirely dependent on the skills and interpretations of local translators – in shaping the contours of her non-fictional narrative text.