The Dangers of Novelising Non-Fiction
There’s a reason why Indians get prickly when they hear a foreigner has written a book about the country’s impoverished lot. The subcontinent’s reputation for being a festering mass of congestion, disease, inequality and tragic deprivation has lingered for centuries, cemented through works of literature, film, photography, art, theatre and journalism. But in recent times, India has acquired a glint of prosperity. We may have potholed roads but on them you can see Rolls Royce and BMW cars.
A staggering percentage of the country’s population may live surrounded by effluence, but Hermès is selling saris and Christian Louboutin has designed Bollywood-themed shoes to woo India’s affluent set. So now that we’re finally getting somewhere in our attempts to not be seen as a country of beggars, the last thing we want is an outsider coming in and poking around our sludge. As far as India’s upper and middle classes are concerned, they don’t want pitying glances, they don’t want to be lumped with the lumpen majority and they certainly don’t want an outsider to find what’s precious in Indian poverty and tell them what they already know about slums and the poor.
Enter Katherine Boo, staff writer for the New Yorker and Pulitzer prize winner, whose first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is about a slum in Mumbai. It has a half-naked boy scampering on the Indian cover. The foreign edition shows a little slum girl with a rapturous expression that is at odds with the swampy slum all around her. Neither makes for the most promising introduction. The book itself teems with characters and situations that would seem stereotypical if they were summed up in quick phrases. The quiet, shy slum kid is the hero, as always. His friend is a precocious optimist. The cops are corrupt, the judges are whimsical, laws are crocheted with loopholes.
Yet the stories of Abdul, Sunil, Kalu, Manju, Asha and other Annawadi residents never feel boring or predictable. Abdul Husain and his family are garbage traders. Asha, wife of a drunkard, craves power while her daughter, Manju, is Annawadi’s conscience and hopes to be the slum’s first female graduate. A trivial quarrel between Abdul’s mother and their crippled neighbour, Fatima, takes on nightmarish proportions when Fatima self-immolates and ultimately dies. The Husain family is dragged through interrogation rooms, jails, detention centres and court cases. All they can hope for is the relief that comes from slipping under the radar.
As a critique of globalisation, Behind the Beautiful Forevers falters since the desperation that characterises life for those below the poverty line is not a recent phenomenon. The careless cruelty meted out to the poor; the corruption riddling the police corps, local municipal corporations, the non-governmental agency circuit and the legal system—these are vintage India issues. We grappled with them in our socialist years, we’re grappling with them now. Also, as Boo acknowledges in her author’s note, the more open economy has helped alleviate extreme poverty, albeit very, very gradually. The truly depressing reality is that personal ethics are tilted on an increasingly selfish axis.
Boo spent a little more than three years reporting from Annawadi. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is meticulously pieced together from many interviews and is backed by rigorous documentation. Her descriptions of the “undercity” are filled with nuanced details. She noticed the lyrical qualities in the abysmal conditions that Annawadians accept as their home. Her keen ear recorded the poetry in the residents’ casual, throwaway lines. Aside from her interviews, Boo also went through more than 3,000 public records, which go a long way to document the yawning gap between what is recorded for the “overcity” and what actually happens in the undercity.
Boo moulded her research into Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a non-fiction account that has all the qualities of a novel. If done by a less able and trustworthy writer, this blurring of the line between journalism and literature is a dangerous trend that threatens the credibility of non-fiction. Boo, however, took her role as Annawadi’s bard seriously and you believe her when she says she didn’t put her thoughts in her subjects’ mouths but rather articulated theirs.
With a writer as skilled in writing the English language as Boo, there’s a very different concern. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Special Officer Poornima Paikrao, who writes up witness statements in a way that could earn her bribe money, is a real person, not fiction. Every one of the policemen who enjoyed thrashing Abdul and Karam exist and can probably be found sitting in Sahar police station this evening. When Meena commits suicide, it isn’t “exit stage left” for a character who acts as a foil to Manju, but an actual case of a girl so determined to kill herself that she consumed rat poison twice in a matter of hours. Names have not been changed, no one is anonymous, but courtesy Boo’s elegant storytelling style, the real people feel distinctly novelised, which isn’t a problem as much as a niggling unease about how elements from fiction are being morphed into non-fiction. It’s also what makes Behind the Beautiful Forevers so compelling and moving.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, Penguin, Rs499. Buy it from Flipkart.com.
Deepanjana Pal is a journalist and the author of The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma. She is currently a consulting copy editor at Elle magazine.Tags: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Books, Katherine Boo, Slums