“You’re going to Annawadi?” asked the man crammed into his cold drinks tapri. Behind thick eyeglasses with one shattered lens, his expression betrayed the barest hint of bemusement. “Well, listen, or you’ll wind up going in circles. Up ahead”—he gestured across the street past the Leela—”at the taxiwallahs’ hut, that’s where you go inside.”
Slightly off the road, surrounded by five-star hotels, just like in the book. It was so easy, I didn’t have time to hide.
“Become invisible, fade into the background, and let life happen around as you write it down.” That’s how Katherine Boo describes her reporting method. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the extraordinary product of the three years and four months she spent reporting in Annawadi, a slum sitting just off the Sahar airport road.
Boo has backed up her book with video and audio recordings and meticulous notes and documentation. And she has a well-earned reputation, with a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and a MacArthur Fellowship (known as a “genius” grant) for her reporting at the Washington Post on poverty in the United States.
Since 2003, Boo has been a staff writer for The New Yorker, an institution known for its scrupulous fact checking (made famous by Bright Lights, Big City). It retains a small army of mercenaries to scurry behind its writers and substantiate each detail, every scrap of assertion. But who will follow in Boo’s wake now? Who will wade into Annawadi to corroborate her story? Who will try calling the Ward 76 corporator on his mobile?
Approached from the far side, Annawadi is the last bead on a necklace of typical, almost model slums, brick-paved and teeming with the cheerful activity of urban village life. The food stalls were spotless and displayed under glass an impressive idli-vada-upma-poha-dosa-misal variety that bespoke residents’ disparate origins. (Many of the men addressed one another as Anna.) Passing through Sai Nagar, Technical Area and Gautam Nagar, I couldn’t help but suspect Boo had exaggerated the extent of her subjects’ desperation.
Then I laid eyes on Annawadi, and was relieved instantly of any doubt that she’d told it straight. A ramshackle collection of decaying wooden scraps, like a barricade out of revolutionary Paris, shielded it from the road. There was no brick path at the entrance, only mud laid with fragments of flagstone. While in other slums kids may have been small for their age, here children were visibly stunted. Even the dogs of Annawadi seemed defeated, their teats hanging to the ground.
My only quibble with Boo’s description of the setting was olfactory. By 10am, the sun was already coming down hard, but the much-discussed stench was nothing out of the ordinary. The garbage piled up was mostly sorted for recycling; trash fires swirled as they do elsewhere. I took a deep breath of what seemed to be, not to excuse it, standard issue Andheri air.
The sense that did hit me as soon as I walked into Annawadi was this: I had no idea what I had come for. I’d hoped to understand, or so I thought, the rules of reporting from Annawadi. How does a stranger enter these lives, negotiate a relationship to these surroundings, these neighbours? But now the question only highlighted how absurdly facile my effort would be. What could I possibly learn in the few minutes I’d spend there?
“She did a lot of hard work,” offered a man who called himself Ismail chacha. His tailoring stall abuts the residence of the Waghekars, a family the book describes at length. “She was here all the time: summer, winter, monsoon. She was with us when the rains came up to here”—he karate-chopped his thigh a few centimeters above the knee. Beyond him a church service was in session, as a number of men sat listening intently outside a set of steel grills scattered with tiny red crosses. From somewhere inside the hut, a man read Bible stories over a loudspeaker in heavily Southern-accented Hindi.
Annawadi’s residents were unfailingly polite. Boo had left a strong impression, especially among the children, who refer to her as “Katrina didi”. Many declined photos, and some asked whether I was a reporter. I said no—one type of lie I caught myself in—because, well, I don’t think of myself that way. Let me say that, in that moment, I truly wasn’t reporting; I was experiencing a kind of vertigo watching these characters, so vividly drawn, leaping off the page.
I had not yet had my full confrontation with reality. But there was the book’s Manju in the doorway, on orange tiles; there were the few Husains who hadn’t yet decamped to Vasai. As my introductions always came with “good names”, Manju introduced herself as Manjusha; Mirchi’s good name, it turns out, is Akhtar; his younger brother Sonu couldn’t tell me where the evocative pet name came from. The occasional resistance of words serves as a reminder that, as comfortable as the book’s translated dialogue feels, there are still layers upon layers undecoded and inaccessible, for instance, to non–Hindi speaking readers.
Fascinating as it was to meet the people I’d just read about, the uncanniest sensation of déjà vu came from the details that had vanished from recollection, but that I nonetheless knew to expect. Inside the Waghekar house, a pink newsreader appeared on the TV. I recalled that “something had gone wrong with the color”. The facts verified themselves, as it were.
As our reviewer observed, Boo has so skillfully constructed a self-contained, novelistic narrative that she risks preventing us from fully accepting the place as real. It’s no less difficult when we’re standing in it. What I needed wasn’t a fact check, but a reality check.
“Dickensian” is an epithet many reviewers have used to convey, I suspect, the empathy and moral realism of the world produced in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Another of Dickens’ great strengths, however, was the vividness of the imagery providing the backdrop—”the shit in between”, in Mirchi’s memorable phrase—to his novels’ inhabitants, so frequently drawn as caricatures. We forgive Dickens his liberties because we’re always in touch with the texture of experience. G. K. Chesterton saw these virtues as delicately intertwined: “It is well to be able to realise that contact with the Dickens world is almost like a physical contact; it is like stepping suddenly into the hot smells of a greenhouse, or into the bleak smell of the sea. We know that we are there.”
Ironically, it’s this very richness of texture that has allowed for the bizarre simulacrum of literary tourism called Dickens World, a British theme park described by one visitor as “soggy, dank, exploitative”. Had I not known better, I might have suspected he was talking about slum tourism.
The word “Dickensian” has, for me, a different association that I can’t shake: its derisive use in the HBO serial The Wire. Conceived by David Simon, earlier a reporter on poverty in the same region as Boo (and now another McArthur “genius”), the show demonstrates with delicious irony how we fall prey to patronising perceptions of poverty. Crooked journalist Scott Templeton, played by actor Tom McCarthy, fabricates interviews out of whole cloth to create a picture of Baltimore’s helpless—the “undercity,” as Boo puts it—that satisfied the expectations of middle-class newspaper readers.
McCarthy’s also a screenwriter, and not so long ago visited Mumbai while working on a story about India. A friend of mine asked me to help show him around Dharavi. I suggested the tour but he voiced understandable misgivings. Having been on the tour, I’ve learned that it’s much more about plastics than poverty. But it’s well worth identifying what, precisely, gives us pause about being there. (Hint: not the stench.)
A Dickens novel ends with the inevitable, call it the Oliver, twist: the fateful rendezvous of an undercity denizen with the overcity in which he is entitled, by high birth or sterling character, to reside, but from which he has been cruelly and wrongfully excluded. Templeton’s misdeed, ultimately, is not in the violation of journalistic ethics, but in sticking to the redemptive script, call it the Slumdog treatment, that covers up poverty’s real toll. Boo, on the other hand, through the voices of her characters, relentlessly attacks the tendency to counsel optimism, to project on these individuals—not to say characters—the hope that a better life awaits them. They’re just there, eking out what living they can, hoping to avoid disaster.
Speaking of facades, in place of the pair of Italian tile hoardings that once read “Beautiful Forever”, there is now a pair of seemingly dustproof construction site offices sitting out front. After walking out onto the dusty airport road, I began to see Annawadi as if for the first time. I’m on page 99.