:: Rich Writing For the Poor: On Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers

“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.”

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations 

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I.

Mumbai is Janus-faced. It is a city that Aravind Adiga describes in The White Tiger (a novel that I read not too long ago) as “two Indias”—a place that is structurally and socially antipodal, to which most of Adiga’s impecunious characters emerge from “the Darkness.” Likewise, in Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which won the National Book Award three weeks ago, the players—her sources of information—live in the dark side, in an undercity, “a sodden, snake-filled bit of brushland” called the Annawadi, a word whose etymology is shaped by its relationships, ambition, and fortitude; connotations that are implied in the tagline on an advertisement for Italian tiles that reads “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” The wall on which the ad appears creates an ironic bifurcation between Annawadi and the glamorous, towering gaudy hotels of the other Mumbai—the overcity. Contradictions like this are littered across the landscape and throughout the book. Indeed, even Boo, who is at once a reporter and storyteller, recognizes the paradoxical divide as something that doesn’t require her own creative and authorial influence; that she doesn’t have to augment the reality when it comes to writing about the impoverished. For Boo is an ardent believer that “statistics about the poor sometimes have a tenuous relationship to lived experience,” as she writes at the end of the book, adding, “I just believe that better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about ordinary lives.”

II.

To anyone who is familiar with Boo’s journalism, particularly during her stints at the Washington City Paper, the Washington Monthly, and the Washington Post (in that order), the dispatches she penned are often themetized around the city’s underclass: deprived single mothers, drug suppliers, disfranchised asylum denizens—“archetypes” whose situations were less misunderstood than unknown. In “The Marriage Cure,” for example, which appeared on the New Yorker in 2003, Boo, at an Oklahoma housing project, follows two women enrolled in a federally funded initiative to promote marriage among the poor after a group of academics and policy-type personnel had suggested that rampant bachelorhood in poor neighborhoods is most likely a root cause for poverty.

Boo, however, perhaps after recognizing a potential banality, decided not to write about the proposal itself or allowed it to dictate her narrative around (she didn’t interview a bunch of opinionated people and lawmakers nor had she singled out a subject and zoomed in close.) Instead, she wrote about female friendship. The piece starts like this:

One July morning last year in Oklahoma City, in a public housing project named Sooner Haven, twenty-two-year-old Kim Henderson pulled a pair of low-rider jeans over a high-rising gold lamé thong and declared herself ready for church. Her best friend in the project, Corean Brothers, was already in the parking lot, fanning away her hot flashes behind the wheel of a smoke-belching Dodge Shadow. “Car’s raggedy, but it’ll get us from pillar to post,” Corean said when Kim climbed in…

It’s quite telling that Boo sees the meaningfulness of stories concerning human relationships (an aspect that is quite evident in the Behind the Beautiful Forevers.) She writes about Kim and Corean and the people in their lives as if she has known them for ages, and has only now, finally, gotten around to writing about them. Not to mention the fact that both characters seem to converse and banter with each other with easy abandon (as though no one is there listening.) Thus, not only that we, the readers, get intimately close to the article’s central characters, but also acknowledge the state of disillusionment that many of the single women living in the projects have toward the male sex; we learn that most of them had grown up without fathers, or been left or beaten (Kim and Corean, for one, had lived with violent criminals.) Boo writes, “Relationships with men were often what stopped an ambitious woman from escaping.” (Translation: it’s complicated.)

And yet, the piece seldom alights explicitly to one side or the other. That’s a sign of Boo’s clear-headed ambition: She tells the story with no identifiable motive other than to make the story known. “One unacknowledged consolation of struggling in the inner city is the lack of time one has to indulge romantic discontent,” Boo writes.

“The Marriage Cure” garnered Boo the “Best Feature Magazine Writing” award by the American Society of Magazine Editors back in 2004.

III.

According to the interview posted on the book’s official website and the Guardian book review penned by Amit Chaudhuri, Boo arrived in Annawadi in November 2007 when she was sightseeing Mumbai with a government official and a social worker who were transporting her from one location to another. At each stop, groups of women had been assembled to attest to the utility of government-run social programs. Last on this arranged tour was Annawadi, where Boo surveyed the crowd and noticed one woman, in particular, clearly uninterested in the proceedings: She saw Asha, one of the book’s central characters, utterly detached, as though she was privately securitizing the absurdity of if all, while standing next to a beautiful, younger woman—her daughter, Manju. Boo was immediately struck by the pair and “sensed there was another story there.”

For the next three and a half years, Boo reported in Annawadi. She lingered, from the early hours of day until the lateness of night, mostly around the Annawadians, conversing with them, listening intently to their pleas and chitchats, taking notes and pictures, making audio and video recordings, etc. In the epilogue, Boo writes that she and her translator, Unnati Tripathi, constantly, “wrestled with the question of whether days in rat-filled Annawadi garbage sheds and late-night expeditions with thieves at a glamorous new airport had anything to contribute to an understanding of the pursuit of opportunity in an unequal, globalized world.” And as direct upshot from this moral ambivalence, we witness Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ most brilliant feat: Its suppression of theatrics, a writing that is neither cold nor judgmentally penetrating. “…a vivid account of a self-contained but fragile universe tossed about by the storms of the outside world,” writes Karan Mahjan for the Wall Street Journal, as well as “pure, astonishing reportage with as un-biased a lens as possible trained on specific individuals,” courtesy of Christian Science Monitor’s Terry Hong.

IV.

In the same vein of Charles Dickens’s tomes—the inventor of the social realist narrative—Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a story about corruption (with a capital C) and poverty. And like Dickens, Boo is searchingly particular in her themes. By studying a single slum and focusing on a single group of people over an extended period of time, she is able to bring the world of the extremely poor to life with a sharp distinctness and insight. This monomaniacal focus also imparts Boo the opportunity to depict the capriciousness and frequent corruption of the legal system–bribes are demanded and exchanged everywhere –but also its random victories, as a lawyer (on whom the family spends all its savings) manages to get an acquittal from a less than careful judge. Meanwhile Abdul, the young collector of scrap who is in many aspects the Pip in Boo’s story, is interned in a juvenile detention center, grim but not awful, where he encounters a moralistic guru who inspires him to become a better person. “I’m just becoming dirty water, like everyone else. I tell Allah I love Him immensely, immensely. But I tell Him I cannot be better, because of how the world is”.

Boo’s other central narrative concerns is Manju, a bright and intrepid young woman who runs a private school teaching children to read, and at the same time studies for her BA in literature in a second-rate “college.” Meanwhile, her mother, Asha, is a kindergarten teacher in a government school who seldom shows up for class, rather spending the majority of her time serving in a female-reserved seat in the panchayat (local council), where she becomes a minor functionary of the Hindu extremist party Shiv Sena, as well as mistress of a series of politicians and businessmen. This narrative line gives Boo an opportunity to expose the hideous corruption of government schools and the ridiculous rote learning that is the prevailing norm in both slum schools and colleges. As the book ends, Asha becomes the organizer of a fake charity that takes government education money under false pretenses, and Manju signs up as one of its non-teaching teachers, closing the little school where she has actually done some real teaching.

It’s quite remarkable how Boo manages to lace those narratives together without sensational embellishment (i.e. the underlying allure of “poverty tourism.”) If this emotional understatement feels self-aware is because it is. When Boo went to New Orleans to cover Katrina’s aftermath for The New Yorker, a woman working at an evacuation center accosted Boo and told her, “Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t? That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.” Boo, just like any conscientious journalist, has always recognized this plot-hole—“the moral dilemma that reporting on poverty raises.” Her solution is surprisingly simple: to always emphasize the basic goal of journalism—to trust in the inherit value of the story—as she passionately attests in her interview with Emily Brennan at Guernica:

We take stories and purvey them to people with money. And in the conventions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, we can’t pay people for stories . . . But if writing about people who are not yourself is illegitimate, then the only legitimate work is autobiography; and as a reader and a citizen, I don’t want to live in that world. Because if you take a kid like Sunil, who’s been denied the possibility of an education that allows him to write his own story, and all of the people who lack the means and access to do so, they go down the memory hole. They’re lost. What it comes down to is, the only thing worse than being a poverty reporter is if no one ever wrote about it at all. My work, I hope, helps people understand how much gets lost between the intellection of how to get people out of poverty and how it’s actually experienced (Text bolded for emphasis.)

And in Annawadi, the experience is convoluted, thanks to the abhorrent duality of poverty and corruption, in which almost every single commodity or privilege falls under the law of the free market, the “if you want it, you have to pay for it” principle. Water? There are six public water faucets, but a Shiv Sena gang has appropriated them and charges usage fees. An education? The free municipal school near the airport stops at the eighth grade, and the teachers are often absent anyway; if you want to attend the ninth grade, you have to pay for a private school. A new heart valve? The public hospitals are supposed to perform these kinds of operations for very little money, but the heart surgeon at Sion Hospital thinks it’s worth 60,000 rupees. If this sounds like perverse economic Darwinism, that’s because it is. The anti-poverty agendas, for one, appear to be failures—the benefits are basically auctioned off to the highest bidder. For instance, Asha and some of her friends benefited from a program that “was supposed to encourage financially vulnerable women to pool their savings and make low-interest loans to one another in times of need. But Asha’s support group preferred to lend the pooled money at high interest to poorer women whom they’d excluded from the collective.” Religious charities don’t fare much better either. Sister Paulette, who runs the Catholic orphanage, routinely sells expired food donated by airline-catering companies to poor people in Annawadi, who in turn try to resell it in order to derive a small profit.

(No wonder the Indian economy grew at such a stupendous rate!)

V.

Theoretically, there are two kinds of poverty literature available for the masses to gorge on: problems narratives and solutions narratives. Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers undeniably belongs in the “problems” section where solutions are not quite readily campaigned or formulated. Still, it would be a naive mistake to casually read it as a book about what causes poverty or social ruin; rather it is a book about poverty and social ruin. Boo wants to know, and to convey, how poverty is lived. She uses almost no statistics, lists, or categorizations. The history of Mumbai is barely sketched at all (perhaps this is the book’s most damaging flaw because by omitting history, Boo’s narrative does not permit us even to ask what part of this misery might possibly be the effect of recent market liberalization and what part, by contrast, has been there for a very long time.) And through the course of the book, Boo rarely makes personal judgments about her character, which is characteristic of her. Years ago, she produced a distinguished narrative journalism at The Washington Post, where she masterfully described the insufferable conditions in the capital’s group homes for the mentally ill. But in that series, statistics tend to mix with observation and reportage, and history and politics and social policy tend to play a role in the story, which means the tools of journalism, no matter how faintly they appear to the reader, are continuously out in the open, as though Boo is tacitly emphasizing to that she is writing a news article. The great American exception to these trends was most likely James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which might be the closest comparison to what Boo is attempting here (although Agee inserted himself into the book and showed an interest in classification.)

“She has captured the spirit of colloquial Hindustani and Marathi without using an idiosyncratic idiom, and deftly negotiated distinctions of caste, class and religion,” wrote an Indian reviewer. “I am used to hearing false notes in depictions of Mumbai life; when they occur repeatedly, they undermine the authorial voice. The 250 plus pages of Behind the Beautiful Forevers contain no false notes.” Wherein one Indian interviewer, Anjali Puri, wrote, “All manner of ‘India specialists’—journalists, sociologists, poverty-theorists, middle-class anti-corruption crusaders—may find themselves feeling inadequate by the time they have reached the end of” Boo’s book.

In other words, Boo’s crucial strength as a reporter resides in her empathetic imagination. Her book has the closely observed and artfully constructed quality of high fiction and art film (Satyajit Ray, anyone?) She wrote many scenes with Dickensian focus as much as showing genuine interest in her characters, without contradictions, without equivocations. It ultimately doesn’t matter that Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a “problem” book, for its success as a meticulous work of journalism is that it reads like a novel without sacrificing its truthfulness.

One thought on “:: Rich Writing For the Poor: On Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers

  1. Mo,

    Another excellent take. Thank you for the rich context and analysis of Boo’s technique, style and subject. I especially like your thoughts on The Marriage Cure. I have not read it, but I now plan on assigning it in Magazine Writing this spring.

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