Random House, New York, 2012
Borrowed from my local library.
Since I have spent several months reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, I thought I should read something about present day India. Katherine Boo’s superb study of life in a Mumbai undercity, like Rushdie’s novel, took my breath away.
Following Abdul, a young garbage sorter, his family and the families and individuals that live in Annawadi, a half acre slum made up of garbage dumps, thrown together shacks and a large sewage pond, Boo spent more then three years living behind the concrete wall that hides this place and its people from the eyes of those traveling to and from the Mumbai airport. Abdul and those around him dream of better lives and, with sweat and ingenuity, begin to gain and edge, only to be thwarted by a corrupt police force and justice system.
The idea was to get terrified prisoners to pay everything they had, and everything they could secure from a moneylender, to stop a false criminal charge from being recorded. Beatings, though outlawed in the human rights code, were practical, as they increased the price that detainees would pay for their release. The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags. From page 107.
Through observation, with insight and a gentle hand, Ms. Boo brings this place and its people to life. Their desperately hard work, their desires and their failures are reported with clarity and without judgement. This is a brilliant piece of journalism.
What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too. In the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament. Poor people didn’t unite; they competed furiously among themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional. And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of society at large. The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached. The politicians held forth on the middle class. the poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace. From page 237.
There is a wonderful interview with Katherine Boo here.