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Bare Minimum City

Katherine Boo takes you into the dreams and schemes,the decencies and selfishness of a Mumbai slum

Book: Behind The Beautiful Forevers

Author: Katherine Boo

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton

Price: Rs 499

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Don’t be misled by the superlatives that Behind the Beautiful Forevers has been wreathed in — the excellent,the unforgettable,the splendid Katherine Boo book. It really is all that.

It begins cinematically,with young Abdul Husain dodging the police on a moonlit night,framed for the murder of his one-legged neighbour. Then it rewinds to his life in Annawadi,a “sumpy plug of slum” near the Mumbai airport.

Annawadi,for most readers in India too,is another country heard from. Middle class Indians know so little of the inner lives,or even material lives,of the urban poor — even if you see it everyday,you never quite see it,through the veil of sentimental guilt.

And Boo’s book takes you right in,introduces you to the dreams and schemes,the neighbourly decencies and selfishness of a more than a dozen people — Abdul,a teenage waste-picker whose labour has enabled his family to dream of escaping from Annawadi; his easygoing brother Mirchi,who aspires to be a waiter in one of the nearby hotels; Sunil,a 12-year-old scavenger who only hopes that his hunger does not condemn him to puniness; Asha,a Shiv Sena activist,aspiring slumlord and cheerful subverter of welfare schemes; her virtuous daughter Manju; the dying Raja Kamble who is canvassing funds for a heart valve surgery,and so on.

You learn that metal is sorted by sound,how plastic is chewed to evaluate its quality,the classification challenge that a loofah presents. You see Annawadi boys’ idea of “the full enjoy”,the arcade in a shed,their take on the rich people in the “overcity” hotels.

But this book isn’t just a guided tour through an indomitable little slum — everything starts to go wrong for the Husains,after their resentful neighbour Fatima (One-Leg) sets herself on fire,and implicates them in the murder. Abdul,who has so far prided himself on being invisible and “chaukanna”,and his father Karam,whose cellphone rings out “Saare Jahaan Se Achcha”,are caught in the maws of this legal-investigative trap. Abdul is shown exactly how helpless he is — in the police station,in the juvenile detention centre,in the court. There is ample opportunity for extortion at every step — after all,as Boo reminds us,“to be poor in Annawadi or any other Mumbai slum,was to be guilty of one thing or another” — simply existing on that land and making a precarious living is illegal.

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On first read,this book seems to walk on a disconcerting edge between fiction and fact. Not because anything is untrue (Boo spent a few years immersed in this context,going through RTI reports,and has documentary evidence of all their confidences) — but because these characters are so rich and real,in a way that they seem to belong in a novel,not in non-fiction. I had to watch the accompanying videos with the e-book to have the reality of it ground in — to attach faces to the names,see the sewage lake,the arcade in a shed,the boy with yellowed eyes who would soon die.

And Boo’s voice is a marvellous thing — it’s wry,it’s moving,it’s vivid without announcing itself. She explains how almost no one in the slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks,though. “True,only six of the slum’s three thousand residents had permanent jobs… True,a few residents trapped rats and frogs and fried them for dinner. A few ate the scrub grass at the sewage lake’s edge.” She compacts a whole corrupt world into a line like this,about Asha: “Her own aspirations centred on anti-poverty initiatives,not garbage”.

In a buoyant India,Annawadians expect a better life,and know the routes to it — entrepreneurship,corruption,or education. But the abyss between those projects,and the world that thinks it owes them nothing,can open up under their feet anyday. This is a world where a waste-picker bleeds to death on the street as people pass by,ignoring him because their own needs are painfully distracting. Where a father empties a pot of boiling lentils on a baby. Where a young boy,whose hand is sliced off by a shredding machine,apologises to the factory owners and promises not to be any trouble. Where people die because they were ill and couldn’t make the money for treatment,because their work was lethal,because they got caught in situations larger than them,because to go on living was unbearable. Where a demented scavenger pleads to a hotel’s nonreflective glass front: “I do so much work,Hyatt,and earn so little. Will you not take care of me?”

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And yet,their ideological horizon is limited — Annawadians never seem to get angry collectively. In a rare bit of editorialising,Boo explains how,“in the age of global market capitalism,hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived” — and instead of solidarity,the poor competed ferociously for small,provisional gains,so that the gates of the rich,“occasionally rattled,remained un-breached”. And ultimately,for all their plans,there is no uplift for any of the people in this book. As Abdul’s father,Karam Husain,says: “Your little boat goes west and you congratulate yourself,‘What a navigator I am!’ And then the wind blows you east.”

First published on: 18-02-2012 at 03:36:30 am
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