Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Random House, 2012), a gripping work of reportage based on the three years she spent in Bombay's Annawadi slum, is a truly deserving National Book Award finalist.
Earlier in the year when I read the book, I hoped it would be in line for the major awards. I was impressed with the way Boo keeps herself out of the narrative, giving us a no-holds-barred dramatization of life in the slums, without any element of romanticization or exoticization. Boo is a staff writer for the New Yorker, married to the Indian academic Sunil Khilnani, and has previously written about poor communities in the U.S. There isn't a single jarring note as she transitions to reporting about Annawadi.
Boo's is not the only recent book in this genre. While the dominant impression from neoliberal propagandists like Thomas Friedman is that of an aspiring hegemon with a thriving middle class of more than 300 million people, and growing more powerful by the day, more honest writers have been presenting a mixed picture of the winners and losers resulting from India's high-stakes economic liberalization, a regime the country has been doggedly pursuing since the early 1990s.
Among the best of these books I've recently read are novelist Siddhartha Deb's emotionally wrenching The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, which relates, in riveting prose, how the new economic spirit is creating social schisms (out in paperback from Faber & Faber on Sept. 18, 2012, and deservedly the winner of the 2012 PEN Open Book award); Aman Sethi's A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi, about day laborers experiencing varieties of humiliation in Delhi's Bara Tooti market (Norton, Oct. 22, 2012); and Akash Kapur's gorgeously written India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India, about the losing battle of traditionalists against modernists in southern India (Riverhead, March 15, 2012).
To these books of reportage, I'd like to add Tarquin Hall's incredibly funny Vish Puri mystery series (three books so far, published in the U.S. by Simon & Schuster, the latest of which is The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken), a treasure trove of precise observation of India's social transformation, particularly in the Delhi metropolitan area, and Aravind Adiga's latest novel, Last Man in Tower, which is more programmatic and linear in plot development than his debut novel, but still effective as an indictment of the corruption, often involving land grabs, which epitomizes the rapacious aspects of the new Indian economy.
Most of these brilliant new books are by authors who either live in India or have returned there, as opposed to fiction writers based in America or Britain who typically offer magical realist multigenerational family secrets sagas that have little resonance with India's new reality but are beloved by publishers and book clubs in the West. It's as if a strong narrative countermovement has arisen in India as the country takes stock of the real costs of globalization, and the mass of critical books amounts to a declaration of independence on the part of the Indian publishing industry.
The central characters in Boo's book are a family of Muslim scavengers in the Annawadi slum, the Husains, who're doing quite well when the book begins. Abdul is the teenaged star of the family, hardworking and efficient, the envy of those less fortunate in the garbage recycling business. Abdul's impetuous mother Zehrunnisa, however, gets into a fight with the lame Fatima, a neighboring prostitute, who ends up killing herself. This entangles the Husains in the judicial system, out of which, according to Boo and the other writers I've mentioned, there is little hope of coming out in one piece.
The degree to which India's judicial system trails expected norms for a country desiring to join the economic superpowers is particularly dispiriting for all of the authors I've mentioned. Perhaps the ur-India book, Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (almost as important in its way for post-globalization India as Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children was for the preceding regime), also has judicial corruption as a central theme, and the desperate fight for land is never far from the story. As Boo reports, Annawadians live in constant fear of having their unsightly little slum in the shadow of Bombay's new airport demolished.
The other important characters in the book are Asha, a go-getting Hindu woman who hopes to become a slumlord of sorts, riding on the coattails of the fundamentalist Hindu political parties, and whose beautiful daughter Manju, like the young Abdul, is the pride of Annawadi, because of her university education and her refinement. But Asha is able to do little to help the Husains once events spiral out of control.
Though the slum-dwellers might acquire various degrees of security, and perhaps even well-being if they are lucky, their lives are superfluous, their dreams only able to persist as long as they coincide with the goodwill of the powerful who have arbitrary and overwhelming control over them.
Boo presents this most touchingly in the tragic fates met by many of Abdul's young recycling associates, or in the suicide of Manju's best friend Meena. Rat poison always seems to be at hand to end a life when things become too sad, and self-control is little more than illusion. This is a theme also brought out clearly in Aman Sethi's A Free Man, where the sheer unpredictability of life for Delhi's day laborers, making their home on the footpath, is conveyed by the sudden decline in the fortunes of Sethi's subjects just when we seem to be getting comfortable about their prospects. In that sense, the driving spirit of Sethi's and Boo's books is very similar.
By the end of Boo's book, one becomes burningly curious about her methods and resources, how she was able to get so close to the Annawadians, what risks she put herself through as she became a part of their lives for those tumultuous years. Her epilogue provides the answers. This, she says, is what prompted her to write the book:
I quickly grew impatient with poignant snapshots of Indian squalor: the ribby children with flies in their eyes and other emblems of abjectness that one can't help but see within five minutes of walking into a slum. For me...the more important line of inquiry is something that takes longer to discern. What 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? By what means might that ribby child grow up to be less poor?
She also notes this conundrum:
Some people consider...juxtapositions of wealth and poverty a moral problem. What fascinates me is why they're not more of a practical one. After all, there are more poor people than rich people in the world's Mumbais. Why don't places like Airport Road, with their cheek-by-jowl slums and luxury hotels, look like the insurrectionist video game Metal Slug 3? Why don't more of our unequal societies implode?
This is not Slumdog Millionaire, and this is not Thomas Friedman's rose-tinted view of Bangalore's high-tech millionaires. This is an India we need to hear more about, as we grapple with our own most pressing problem of an economic inequality straining credibility.
Anis Shivani's debut novel Karachi Raj, which will be published in 2013, deals with an American anthropologist doing fieldwork in a Karachi slum. His other books are My Tranquil War and Other Poems (2012), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009). He is writing a new novel called Abruzzi, 1936.