Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity288
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity288
“Inspiring . . . extraordinary . . . [Katherine Boo] shows us how people in the most desperate circumstances can find the resilience to hang on to their humanity. Just as important, she makes us care.”—People
“A tour de force of social justice reportage and a literary masterpiece.”—Judges, PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award
ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times • The Washington Post • O: The Oprah Magazine • USA Today • New York • The Miami Herald • San Francisco Chronicle • Newsday
In this breathtaking book by Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo, a bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human through the dramatic story of families striving toward a better life in Annawadi, a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport.
As India starts to prosper, the residents of Annawadi are electric with hope. Abdul, an enterprising teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting” in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Meanwhile Asha, a woman of formidable ambition, has identified a shadier route to the middle class. With a little luck, her beautiful daughter, Annawadi’s “most-everything girl,” might become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest children, like the young thief Kalu, feel themselves inching closer to their dreams. But then Abdul is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power, and economic envy turn brutal.
With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects people to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, based on years of uncompromising reporting, carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds—and into the hearts of families impossible to forget.
WINNER OF: The PEN Nonfiction Award • The Los Angeles Times Book Prize • The American Academy of Arts and Letters Award • The New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New Yorker • People • Entertainment Weekly • The Wall Street Journal • The Boston Globe • The Economist • Financial Times • Foreign Policy • The Seattle Times • The Nation • St. Louis Post-Dispatch • The Denver Post • Minneapolis Star Tribune • The Week • Kansas City Star • Slate • Publishers Weekly
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
LET IT KEEP, the moment when Officer Fish Lips met Abdul in the police station. Rewind, see Abdul running backward, away from the station and the airport, shirt buttons opening as he flies back toward his home. See the flames engulfing a disabled woman in a pink- flowered tunic shrink to nothing but a matchbook on the floor. See Fatima minutes earlier, dancing on crutches to a raucous love song, her delicate features unscathed. Keep rewinding, back seven more months, and stop at an ordinary day in January 2008. It was about as hopeful a season as there had ever been in the years since a bitty slum popped up in the biggest city of a country that holds one-third of the planet's poor. A country dizzy now with development and circulating money.
Dawn came gusty, as it often did in January, the month of treed kites and head colds. Because his family lacked the floor space for all of its members to lie down, Abdul was asleep on the gritty maidan, which for years had passed as his bed. His mother stepped carefully over one of his younger brothers, and then another, bending low to Abdul's ear. "Wake up, fool!" she said exuberantly. "You think your work is dreaming?"
Superstitious, Zehrunisa had noticed that some of the family's most profitable days occurred after she had showered abuses on her eldest son. January's income being pivotal to the family's latest plan of escape from Annawadi, she had decided to make the curses routine.
Abdul rose with minimal whining, since the only whining his mother tolerated was her own. Besides, this was the gentle-going hour in which he hated Annawadi least. The pale sun lent the sewage lake a sparkling silver cast, and the parrots nesting at the far side of the lake could still be heard over the jets. Outside his neighbors' huts, some held together by duct tape and rope, damp rags were discreetly freshening bodies. Children in school-uniform neckties were hauling pots of water from the public taps. A languid line extended from an orange concrete block of public toilets. Even goats' eyes were heavy with sleep. It was the moment of the intimate and the familial, before the great pursuit of the small market niche got under way.
One by one, construction workers departed for a crowded intersection where site supervisors chose day laborers. Young girls began threading marigolds into garlands, to be hawked in Airport Road traffic. Older women sewed patches onto pink-and-blue cotton quilts for a company that paid by the piece. In a tiny, sweltering plastic- molding factory, bare-chested men cranked gears that would turn colored beads into ornaments to be hung from rearview mirrors-smiling ducks and pink cats with jewels around their necks that they couldn't imagine anyone, anywhere, buying. And Abdul crouched on the maidan, beginning to sort two weeks' worth of purchased trash, a stained shirt hitching up his knobby spine.
His general approach toward his neighbors was this: "The better I know you, the more I will dislike you, and the more you will dislike me. So let us keep to ourselves." But deep in his own work, as he would be this morning, he could imagine his fellow Annawadians laboring companionably alongside him.
ANNAWADI SAT TWO hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road, a stretch where new India collided with old India and made new India late. Chauffeurs in SUVs honked furiously at the bicycle delivery boys peeling off from a slum chicken shop, each carrying a rack of three hundred eggs. Annawadi itself was nothing special, in the context of the slums of Mumbai. Every house was off-kilter, so less off-kilter looked like straight. Sewage and sickness looked like life.
The slum had been settled in 1991 by a band of laborers trucked in from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to repair a runway at the international airport. When the runway work was complete, they decided to stay near the airport and its tantalizing construction possibilities. In an area with little unclaimed space, a sodden, snake-filled bit of brushland across the street from the international terminal seemed the least-bad place to live.
Other poor people considered the spot too wet to be habitable, but the Tamils set to work, hacking down the brush that harbored the snakes, digging up dirt in drier places and packing it into the mud. After a month, their bamboo poles stopped flopping over when they were stuck in the ground. Draping empty cement sacks over the poles for cover, they had a settlement. Residents of neighboring slums provided its name: Annawadi-the land of annas, a respectful Tamil word for older brothers. Less respectful terms for Tamil migrants were in wider currency. But other poor citizens had seen the Tamils sweat to summon solid land from a bog, and that labor had earned a certain deference.
Seventeen years later, 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.
True, only six of the slum's three thousand residents had permanent jobs. (The rest, like 85 percent of Indian workers, were part of the informal, unorganized economy.) 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. And these individuals, miserable souls, thereby made an inestimable contribution to their neighbors. They gave those slumdwellers who didn't fry rats and eat weeds, like Abdul, a felt sense of their upward mobility.
The airport district was spewing waste that winter, the peak season for tourism, business travel, and society weddings, whose lack of restraint in 2008 reflected a stock market at an all-time high. Better still for Abdul, a frenzy of Chinese construction in advance of the summer's Beijing Olympics had inflated the price of scrap metal worldwide. It was a fine time to be a Mumbai garbage-trader, not that that was the term passersby used for Abdul. Some called him garbage, and left it at that.
This morning, culling screws and hobnails from his pile, he tried to keep an eye on Annawadi's goats, who liked the smell of the dregs in his bottles and the taste of the paste beneath the labels. Abdul didn't ordinarily mind them nosing around, but these days they were fonts of liquid shit-a menace.
The goats belonged to a Muslim man who ran a brothel from his hut and considered his whores a pack of malingerers. In an attempt to diversify, he had been raising the animals to sell for sacrifice at Eid, the festival marking the end of Ramadan. The goats had proved as troublesome as the girls, though. Twelve of the herd of twenty-two had died, and the survivors were in intestinal distress. The brothelkeeper blamed black magic on the part of the Tamils who ran the local liquor still. Others suspected the goats' drinking source, the sewage lake.
Late at night, the contractors modernizing the airport dumped things in the lake. Annawadians also dumped things there: most recently, the decomposing carcasses of twelve goats. Whatever was in that soup, the pigs and dogs that slept in its shallows emerged with bellies stained blue. Some creatures survived the lake, though, and not only the malarial mosquitoes. As the morning went on, a fisherman waded through the water, one hand pushing aside cigarette packs and blue plastic bags, the other dimpling the surface with a net. He would take his catch to the Marol market to be ground into fish oil, a health product for which demand had surged now that it was valued in the West.
Rising to shake out a cramp in his calf, Abdul was surprised to find the sky as brown as flywings, the sun signaling through the haze of pollution the arrival of afternoon. When sorting, he routinely lost track of the hour. His little sisters were playing with the One Leg's daughters on a makeshift wheelchair, a cracked plastic lawn chair flanked by rusted bicycle wheels. Mirchi, already home from ninth grade, was sprawled in the doorway of the family hut, an unread math book on his lap.
Mirchi was impatiently awaiting his best friend, Rahul, a Hindu boy who lived a few huts away, and who had become an Annawadi celebrity. This month, Rahul had done what Mirchi dreamed of: broken the barrier between the slum world and the rich world.
Rahul's mother, Asha, a kindergarten teacher with mysterious connections to local politicians and the police, had managed to secure him several nights of temp work at the Intercontinental Hotel, across the sewage lake. Rahul-a pie-faced, snaggle-toothed ninth grader-had seen the overcity opulence firsthand.
And here he came, wearing an ensemble purchased from the profits of this stroke of fortune: cargo shorts that rode low on his hips, a shiny oval belt buckle of promising recyclable weight, a black knit cap pulled down to his eyes. "Hip-hop style," Rahul termed it. The previous day had been the sixtieth anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, a national holiday on which elite Indians once considered it poor taste to throw an extravagant party. But Rahul had worked a manic event at the Intercontinental, and knew Mirchi would appreciate the details.
"Mirchi, I cannot lie to you," Rahul said, grinning. "On my side of the hall there were five hundred women in only half-clothes-like they forgot to put on the bottom half before they left the house!"
"Aaagh, where was I?" said Mirchi. "Tell me. Anyone famous?"
"Everyone famous! A Bollywood party. Some of the stars were in the VIP area, behind a rope, but John Abraham came out to near where I was. He had this thick black coat, and he was smoking cigarettes right in front of me. And Bipasha Basu was supposedly there, but I couldn't be sure it was really her or just some other item girl, because if the manager sees you looking at the guests, he'll fire you, take your whole pay-they told us that twenty times before the party started, like we were weak in the head. You have to focus on the tables and the rug. Then when you see a dirty plate or a napkin you have to snatch it and take it to the trash bin in the back. Oh, that room was looking nice. First we laid this thick white carpet-you stood on it and sank right down. Then they lit white candles and made it dark like a disco, and on this one table the chef put two huge dolphins made out of flavored ice. One dolphin had cherries for eyes-"
"Bastard, forget the fish, tell me about the girls," Mirchi protested. "They want you to look when they dress like that."
"Seriously, you can't look. Not even at the rich people's toilets. Security will chuck you out. The toilets for the workers were nice, though. You have a choice between Indian- or American-style." Rahul, who had a patriotic streak, had peed in the Indian one, an open drain in the floor.
Other boys joined Rahul outside the Husains' hut. Annawadians liked to talk about the hotels and the depraved things that likely went on inside. One drug-addled scavenger talked to the hotels: "I know you're trying to kill me, you sisterfucking Hyatt!" But Rahul's accounts had special value, since he didn't lie, or at least not more than one sentence out of twenty. This, along with a cheerful disposition, made him a boy whose privileges other boys did not resent.
Rahul gamely conceded he was a nothing compared with the Intercontinental's regular workers. Many of the waiters were college-
educated, tall, and light-skinned, with cellphones so shiny their owners could fix their hair in the reflections. Some of the waiters had mocked Rahul's long, blue-painted thumbnail, which was high masculine style at Annawadi. When he cut the nail off, they'd teased him about how he talked. The Annawadians' deferential term for a rich man, sa'ab, was not the proper term in the city's moneyed quarters, he reported to his friends. "The waiters say it makes you sound D- class-like a thug, a tapori," he said. "The right word is sir."
"Sirrrrrrr," someone said, rolling the r's, then everyone started saying it, laughing.
The boys stood close together, though there was plenty of space in the maidan. For people who slept in close quarters, his foot in my mouth, my foot in hers, the feel of skin against skin got to be a habit. Abdul stepped around them, upending an armful of torn paper luggage tags on the maidan and scrambling after the tags that blew away. The other boys paid him no notice. Abdul didn't talk much, and when he did, it was as if he'd spent weeks privately working over some little idea. He might have had a friend or two if he'd known how to tell a good story.
Once, working on this shortcoming, he'd floated a tale about having been inside the Intercontinental himself-how a Bollywood movie called Welcome had been filming there, and how he'd seen Katrina Kaif dressed all in white. It had been a feeble fiction. Rahul had seen through it immediately. But Rahul's latest report would allow Abdul's future lies to be better informed.
A Nepali boy asked Rahul about the women in the hotels. Through slats in the hotel fences, he had seen some of them smoking-"not one cigarette, but many"-while they waited for their drivers to pull up to the entrance. "Which village do they come from, these women?"
"Listen, idiot," Rahul said affectionately. "The white people come from all different countries. You're a real hick if you don't know this basic thing."
"Which countries? America?"
Rahul couldn't say. "But there are so many Indian guests in the hotels, too, I guarantee you." Indians who were "healthy-sized"-big and fat, as opposed to stunted, like the Nepali boy and many other children here.
Rahul's first job had been the Intercontinental's New Year's Eve party. The New Year's bashes at Mumbai's luxury hotels were renowned, and scavengers had often returned to Annawadi bearing discarded brochures. Celebrate 2008 in high style at Le Royal Meridien Hotel! Take a stroll down the streets of Paris splurging with art, music & food. Get scintillated with live performances. Book your boarding passes and Bon Voyage! 12,000 rupees per couple, with champagne. The advertisements were printed on glossy paper, for which recyclers paid two rupees, or four U.S. cents, per kilo.
Rahul had been underwhelmed by the New Year's rituals of the rich. "Moronic," he had concluded. "Just people drinking and dancing and standing around acting stupid, like people here do every night."
"The hotel people get strange when they drink," he told his friends. "Last night at the end of the party, there was one hero-
good-looking, stripes on his suit, expensive cloth. He was drunk, full tight, and he started stuffing bread into his pants pockets, jacket pockets. Then he put more rolls straight into his pants! Rolls fell on the floor and he was crawling under the table to get them. This one waiter was saying the guy must have been hungry, earlier- that whiskey brought back the memory. But when I get rich enough to be a guest at a big hotel, I'm not going to act like such a loser."
Table of Contents
Prologue: between roses ix
Part 1 undercitizens
1 Annawadi 3
2 Asha 17
3 Sunil 31
4 Manju 50
Part 2 the business of burning
5 Ghost House 71
6 The Hole She Called a Window 84
7 The Come-Apart 99
8 The Master 117
Part 3 a little wildness
9 . Marquee Effect 135
10 Parrots, Caught and Sold 152
11 Proper Sleep 166
Part 4 up and out
12 Nine Nights of Dance 177
13 Something Shining 190
14 The Trial 200
15 Ice 213
16 Black and White 221
17 A School, a Hospital, a Cricket Field 233
Author's Note 247
What People are Saying About This
“[An] exquisitely accomplished first book. Novelists dream of defining characters this swiftly and beautifully, but Ms. Boo is not a novelist. She is one of those rare, deep-digging journalists who can make truth surpass fiction, a documentarian with a superb sense of human drama. She makes it very easy to forget that this book is the work of a reporter. …. Comparison to Dickens is not unwarranted.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“A jaw-dropping achievement, an instant classic of narrative nonfiction…With a cinematic intensity…Boo transcends and subverts every cliché, cynical or earnest, that we harbor about Indian destitution and gazes directly into the hearts, hopes, and human promise of vibrant people whom you’ll not soon forget.”
“Riveting, fearlessly reported….[Beautiful Forevers] plays out like a swift, richly plotted novel. That's partly because Boo writes so damn well. But it's also because over the course of three years in India she got extraordinary access to the lives and minds of the Annawadi slum, a settlement nestled jarringly close to a shiny international airport and a row of luxury hotels. Grade: A.”
“A tough-minded, inspiring, and irresistible book … Boo's extraordinary achievement is twofold. She shows us how people in the most desperate circumstances can find the resilience to hang on to their humanity. Just as importantly, she makes us care."
—People (four stars)
The New York Times Book Review
“A shocking—and riveting—portrait of life in modern India. … This is one stunning piece of narrative nonfiction … Boo’s prose is electric.”
—O, The Oprah Magazine
“Gripping…A brilliant novelistic narration.”
–Wall Street Journal
“Moving…. a humane, powerful and insightful book….A book of nonfiction so stellar it puts most novels to shame.”
“A mind-blowing read.”
“An unforgettable true story, meticulously researched with unblinking honesty….Pure, astonishing reportage with as unbiased a lens as possible.”
—Christian Science Monitor
“The most riveting Indian story since Slumdog Millionaire—except hers is true.”
“Seamless and intimate….A scrupulously true story….It’s tempting to compare [Behind the Beautiful Forevers] to a novel, but…that would hardly do it justice.”
“Extraordinary….moving….Like the best journeys, Boo’s book cracks open our preconceptions and constructs an abiding bridge—at once daunting and inspiring—to a world we would never otherwise recognize as our own.”
National Geographic Traveler
“An unforgettable true story, meticulously researched with unblinking honesty….Pure, astonishing reportage with as unbiased a lens as possible.”
—Christian Science Monitor
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers offers a rebuke to official reports and dry statistics on the global poor...Boo is one of few chroniclers providing this picture. She’s a moral force and…an artist of reverberating power.”
The American Prospect
“Kate Boo’s reporting is a form of kinship. Abdul and Manju and Kalu of Annawadi will not be forgotten. She leads us through their unknown world, her gift of language rising up like a delicate string of necessary lights. There are books that change the way you feel and see; this is one of them. If we receive the fiery spirit from which it was written, it ought to change much more than that.”
—Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family
“I couldn’t put Behind the Beautiful Forevers down even when I wanted to—when the misery, abuse and filth that Boo so elegantly and understatedly describes became almost overwhelming. Her book, situated in a slum on the edge of Mumbai’s international airport, is one of the most powerful indictments of economic inequality I’ve ever read. If Bollywood ever decides to do its own version of The Wire, this would be it.”
—Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed
“A beautiful account, told through real-life stories, of the sorrows and joys, the anxieties and stamina, in the lives of the precarious and powerless in urban India whom a booming country has failed to absorb and integrate. A brilliant book that simultaneously informs, agitates, angers, inspires, and instigates.”
—Amartya Sen, Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics
“Without question the best book yet written on contemporary India. Also, the best work of narrative nonfiction I’ve read in twenty-five years.”
—Ramachandra Guha, author of India After Gandhi
“There is a lot to like about this book: the prodigious research that it is built on, distilled so expertly that we hardly notice how much we are being taught; the graceful and vivid prose that never calls attention to itself; and above all, the true and moving renderings of the people of the Mumbai slum called Annawadi. Garbage pickers and petty thieves, victims of gruesome injustice—Ms. Boo draws us into their lives, and they do not let us go. This is a superb book.”
—Tracy Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains and Strength in What Remains
"It might surprise you how completely enjoyable this book is, as rich and beautifully written as a novel. In the hierarchy of long form reporting, Katherine Boo is right up there.”
Reading Group Guide
1. Barbara Ehrenreich calls Behind the Beautiful Forevers “one of the most powerful indictments of economic inequality I’ve ever read.” Yet the book shows the world of the Indian rich–lavish Bollywood parties, an increasingly glamorous new airport–almost exclusively through the eyes of the Annawadians. Are they resentful? Are they envious? How does the wealth that surrounds the slumdwellers shape their own expectations and hopes?
2. As Abdul works day and night with garbage, keeping his head down, trying to support his large family, some other citydwellers think of him as garbage, too. How does Abdul react to how other people view him? How would you react? How do Abdul and his sort-of friend, Sunil, try to protect themselves and sustain self-esteem in the face of other people’s contempt?
3. The lives of ordinary women– their working lives, domestic lives, and inner lives–are an important part of Behind the Beautiful Forevers. The author has noted elsewhere that she’d felt a shortage of such accounts in nonfiction about urban India. Do women like Zehrunisa and Asha have more freedom in an urban slum than they would have had in the villages where they were born? What is Meena, a Dalit, spared by living in the city? What freedoms do Meena, Asha, and Zehrunisa still lack, in your view?
4. Asha grew up in rural poverty, and the teenaged marriage arranged by her family was to a man who drank more than he worked. In Annawadi, she takes a series of calculated risks to give her daughter Manju a life far more hopeful than that of other young women such as Meena. What does Asha lose by her efforts to improve her daughter’s life chances? What does she gain? Were Asha’s choices understandable to you, in the end?
5. The author has said elsewhere that while the book brings to light serious injustices, she believes there is also hope on almost every single page: in the imaginations, intelligence and courage of the people she writes about. What are the qualities of a child like Sunil that might flourish in a society that did a better job of recognizing his capacities?
6. When we think of corruption, the examples tend to be drawn from big business or top levels of government. The kind of corruption Behind the Beautiful Forevers show us is often described as “petty”. Do you agree with that characterization of the corruption Annawadians encounter in their daily lives? Why might such corrruption be on the increase as India grows wealthier as a nation?
7. Does Asha have a point when she argues that something isn’t wrong if the powerful people say that it’s right? How does constant exposure to corruption change a person’s internal understanding of right and wrong?
8. Shortly before Abdul is sent to juvenile jail, a major newspaper runs a story about the facility headlined: “Dongri Home is a Living Hell.” Abdul’s experience of Dongri is more complex, though. How does being wrenched away from his work responsibilities at Annawadi change his understandings of the hardships of other people? Are terms like liberty and freedom understood differently by people who live in different conditions?
9. Fatima’s neighbors view her whorling rages, like her bright lipsticks, as free comic entertainments. How has her personality been shaped by the fact that she has been defined since birth by her disability–very literally named by it? Zehrunusa waivers between sympathy for and disapproval of her difficult neighbor. In the end, did you?
10. Zehrunisa remembers a time when every slumdweller was roughly equal in his or her misery, and competition between neighbors didn’t get so out of hand. Abdul doesn’t know whether or not to believe her account of a gentler past. Do you believe it? Might increased hopes for a better life have a dark as well as a bright side?
11. Many Annawadians–Hindu, Muslim, and Christian– spend less time in religious observance than they did when they were younger, and a pink temple on the edge of the sewage lake goes largely unused. In a time of relative hope and constant improvisation for the slumdwellers, why might religious practice be diminishing? What role does religious faith still play in the slumdwellers’ lives?
12. Who do you think had the best life in the book, and why?
13. In the Author’s Note Katherine Boo emphasizes the volatility of an age in which capital moves quickly around the planet, government supports decline, and temporary work proliferates. Had the author followed the families of Annawadi for only a few weeks or months, would you have come away with a different understanding of the effects of that volatility? Does uncertainty about their homes and incomes change how Annawadians view their neighbors? Does economic uncertainty affect relationships where you live?
14. At one point in the book, Abdul takes to heart the moral of a Hindu myth related by The Master: Allow your flesh to be eaten by the eagles of the world. Suffer nobly, and you’ll be rewarded in the end. What is the connection between suffering and redemption in this book? What connections between suffering and redemption do you see in your own life? Are the sufferers ennobled? Are the good rewarded in the end?
A Conversation with Katherine Boo
For two decades, and currently at The New Yorker, you've written about the distribution of opportunity, and the means by which people might get out of poverty, in America. What inspired you to start asking the same kinds of questions in India?
My husband is an Indian citizen, and since we met in 2001, I've been watching the landscape of his country transform as its economy grows. Some of the change is staggeringly obvious, like the skyscraping luxury condominiums with stirring views of other skyscraping luxury condominiums. But I couldn't quite make out what had and hadn't changed in historically poor communities. I generally find issues of poverty, opportunity, and global development to be over-theorized and under-reported.
When you started your reporting in a slum by the Mumbai international airport, how did you choose which people to write about?
When I begin reporting, I try to follow as many people as I can-go where they go, do what they do, whether they're stealing or teaching kindergarten or running a household. The more people I get to know, the better I can distinguish between anomalous experiences and shared ones. I'm not looking for the wildest, most flamboyant stories. I'm looking for resonant storiesstories that might illuminate something about the structure of a society. And you can't predict which individuals' experiences, months or years later, will come to shed that light.
For instance, when I first began hanging out with a diffident teenaged garbage sorter named Abdul, I had no idea that his story would have anything to do with questions of criminality or justice. I was simply intrigued that the excesses of the city and a surging global demand for recyclables had helped turn his stigmatized work profitable. It was something I didn't know, hadn't read about. I was also struck by his watchful silence. I often find, in my reporting life and outside it, that the people most worth knowing are hard work to know.
Did Abdul and the other Annawadians want to know about you, too?
They were more curious about my Indian husband. In the months before they got to know him, they were whispering about how he must not love me, since he was permitting me to hang out alone in a slum in the middle of the night.
The book contains remarkable juxtapositions of hope, insight, and desperation. Were some moments particularly painful to witness?
Many moments, but there were elating moments too. Had I written a book that was just some dolorous registry of terrible things that happened in Annawadi slum, it wouldn't have done justice to what Annawadi felt like, day to day. Annawadi life was also about flagpole ring-toss and tell-all sessions with a best friend at the toilet and parents comforting and delighting in their children. It was about Sunil and Sonu, young scavengers who are applying their rich imaginations to gathering trash and figuring out their place in the world.
Sunil and Sonu have tough, tough lives but if a reader comes away from this book thinking of them only as pathetic socioeconomic specimens I'll have failed as a writer. They're cool, interesting kids, and their partnership was an inspiring thing to be around. I want the reader to sense that, too. Because we can talk all we want about how corruption or indifference robs people of opportunity-of the immense talent our societies squander-but if we don't really grasp the intelligences of those who are being denied, we're not going to grasp the potential that's being lost.
Who have you discovered lately?
One recent discovery for me has been Aman Sethi, a courageous Indian journalist lately working in one of India's poorest states. He's also an original thinker and writer, and gets that journalism about the lives of low-income people doesn't have to be stiff and humorless to matter. Sethi's first book, A Free Man, came out in India last year to great admiration, and it will be published in the U.S. this fall.
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