Author: Katherine Boo
Star Rating (out of 5): ****
Reading Around the World: India
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Katherine Boo spent almost four years in India getting to know the residents of a slum settlement in the shadow of Mumbai’s most luxurious hotels. This book is their stories: Abdul, a teenage boy who spends his days sorting through garbage looking for recyclables he can sell, and who has gotten so good at it that he’s built his own business buying recyclables from other slum dwellers. Asha, a woman who schemes of rising out of poverty by becoming the slum’s first female slumlord and is willing to take sides with whoever she thinks has the power to help her rise there. Manju, Asha’s beautiful daughter, who is disturbed by her mother’s compromises and herself dreams of becoming the slum’s first college graduate.
One day the slum erupts when two neighbor women begin to argue viciously over some sand that fell into one woman’s rice. Enraged by the “good fortune” of the other family and determined to make them suffer, one of the women goes home, douses herself in kerosene, and lights herself on fire. When the police interview her, she tells them that Abdul, the young garbage sorter, did this to her. Abdul is then forced to flee for his life, and a web of corruption, lies, and bribery begins to be woven.
This has been a very difficult book to write a review of. The word that kept coming to my mind was “raw.” The author writes in a matter-of-fact, unsympathetic way, and the book, like the lives of its subjects, is full of corruption, suicide, disease, injustice, starvation. Where Boo excels is in telling their stories from the perspective of the people, rather than superimposing our Western perspectives onto their stories. Abdul, for example, talks with pride about his garbage sorting business and his family’s tiny shack beside the sewage lake—an existence that would be an unimaginable horror for most Westerners. The author never slides into sentimentality or pity, but portrays the ingenuity, aspirations, and thought processes of the slum’s residents in a matter-of-fact, almost detatched way.
Boo describes in a vivid and dispassionate way the rampant corruption that has made so many efforts to help the residents of Annawadi and other slums ultimately come to nothing. One of the most interesting and difficult things to ponder as the book goes on, is what causes people to become so detached that they will steal money intended to fund schools for their own children, or pass by a man with a broken leg, leaving him lying in the street until he dies? Boo makes the case that it is not so much that the people lack moral feeling or conviction, but that their willingness to act has been run down by a lack of justice that causes a constant disconnect between their actions (both good and bad) and their consequences. By the end of the book, most of the people who started out with strong desires and convictions have despaired in one way or another.
The most vivid example of this is Abdul, whose aspirations and moral convictions are brutally battered by corruption, lies, and the broken systems around him. As Abdul’s court case drags on, he tells the author something piercing that he has been thinking about:
“Water and ice were made of the same thing. He thought most people were made of the same thing, too. He himself was probably little different, constitutionally, from the cynical, corrupt people around him—the police officers and the special executive officer and the morgue doctor who fixed Kalu’s death. If he had to sort all humanity by its material essence, he thought he would probably end up with a single gigantic pile. But here was the interesting thing. Ice was distinct from—and in his view, better than—what it was made of.
“He wanted to be better than what he was made of. In Mumbai’s dirty water, he wanted to be ice. He wanted to have ideals. For self-interested reasons, one of the ideals he most wanted to have was a belief in the possibility of justice. It wasn’t easy to believe, just now.” P 218
By the end of the book, however, this is Abdul’s quote: “For some time I tried to keep the ice inside me from melting. But now 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.” P. 241
If a quote like that from a young boy is not enough to break your heart, I don’t know what is. In spite of its subtitle’s reference to “hope,” I found this to be one of the most depressing books I have read in quite a while. Nonetheless, I would encourage you to read it, not only to be aware of the tragedies and injustice that persist in our world, but to (hopefully) be motivated to seek change. If, like me, you find yourself overwhelmed by the apparent hopelessness, I would encourage you to read “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself,” which is a fantastic book examining why so many humanitarian efforts seem ineffective, and exploring what we can do to truly bring hope to Mumbai’s slums and beyond.