I long resisted reading this book. I knew the volume chronicled the much too real squalor and marginalized population that Mumbai lives with, with alarming peace and regularity. On one side, there is this seemingly globalized progressive glossy world of Lakme Fashion Week and on the other is this world of cheap labor that performs countless menial works to keep the richer rich by moving and inhabiting the marginalized population in squalid conditions. I have had my ruthless share of V. S. Naipaul’s trilogy on India.
But after multiple references, I gave up and made my way to Boo’s pages.
Boo has restricted her book entirely to a suburban slum that adjoins the ever-expanding Mumbai International Airport, Annawadi. Annawadi is a community that started settling circa 1990 and now faces threat from enterprising ‘shining India’ that needs luxury hotels and world-class airport. But what is ambitious as development means displacement for the residents of Annawadi, for where will they really go when their land is taken in by an expanding airport and its luxurious expectations? Katherine Boo focuses her ethnographic study on this single urban slum, which she calls ‘undercity’ – undercity that is discretely placed as a bitter side dish under the complicated layers of urbanization and this world that cannot be taken along with forward-marching India. And hence as she puts the matter in her words: “In every community, the details differ, and matter.” Certainly. So yes, her book is a detailed one, tirelessly descriptive but not pioneering one so to speak. But Boo is not claiming it to be that, only the media is.
The book portrays closely-observed inhabitants of Annawadi, which range from garbage-pickers, garbage-sorters, and garbage-stealers, primarily scavengers of the city. With that Boo weaves this intricate story of envy-driven Fatima Shaikh who somehow manages a vengeance plot against a young boy named Abdul, a rag picker, who she has accused of a gruesome crime. The story does not end with anything definitive except for this complex multi-layered tale, rich with detailed portrayals.
This is perhaps the most striking feature, where Boo never gets pedantic offering sympathy and pity and most importantly any good-intentioned patronizing solutions. Her strength lies in honest penetrative invisible eyes, which are grasping every detail of events and texture of Annawadi. Presenting the larger issue of organic urban settlements and exclusion perils that it comes with for those who miss hopping the development train. One may call it heartless and cruel but Boo doesn’t do that. She is busy describing endlessly the layers of this complex settlement, which is a microcosm of change, through urbanization that is looming large on Mumbai’s head.
There are difficult issues with extremely uncomfortable questions to be raised. Perhaps it’s not about poverty-surviving martyrs anymore but a collective failure of policies that were ineffective or more importantly which never existed.
Katherine’s painstaking portrayal of lives of Annawadians shatters the myth of upward progressing financial capital of India and it hints unglamorously at what lays in its broken system. Corrupt system, which somehow fails only the poor and their poverty. Their lives are an embarrassment to this modernizing City of Mumbai. Will they be left behind and crushed to anonymity or confined and hidden accurately behind the walls away like the trash they collect and sort for this other India?