Katherine Boo: Slum dweller

Katherine Boo won a Pulitzer for writing about the poor and the vulnerable. She spent three years in a Mumbai slum for her new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Why bother, if she thinks that all she can make is 'small differences'?

Reputations in journalism are not made in the reporting of ordinary lives. Even George Orwell is remembered as often for his writing on war as for The Road to Wigan Pier, his classic book about poverty in the north of England. The stars are mostly those who break the news: think Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on Watergate, Anna Politkovskaya in Putin's Russia, Nick Davies versus the News of the World.

American reporter Katherine Boo decided early on that hers would be a different route. Once and only once did she agree to write about life at the top: in 1993, as a reporter at the Washington Post, she was commissioned to write a lengthy magazine profile of the new vice-president, Al Gore.

Afterwards she felt it had been pointless. "I get tired of obsessing about characters," she says when we meet in London. "I feel like there's a lot of people who want to do that kind of work, and they're really good at it. I think social issues are kind of worthy things that people graduate from, to a large extent. In journalism, if you get to be really hot stuff, that's where you get to go – to the White House! – and that's too bad."

So Boo, then in her late 20s, returned to her vocation: writing about the lives of the poorest people in America. She spent months, and in some cases years, following and listening to them, and finding out how they lived, particularly in the wake of the Clinton administration welfare reforms.

Sometimes she delivered news: in the late 1990s her investigation into the care of learning-disabled people uncovered a large number of unexplained deaths, and won her a Pulitzer prize. But more often, the story lay in the painstaking accumulation of detail about how this or that social policy played out in the lives of ordinary people, most often women. The Marriage Cure, written for the New Yorker in 2003, is a brilliant example, brimming with insight as it details the humiliating difficulties faced by two African-American women taking part in a government-sponsored marriage programme.

Now 48, and a staff writer at the New Yorker, Boo has just written her first book. At a compact 250 pages, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a small masterpiece of documentary storytelling. In its subject matter of poverty, its meticulous research (she says the first six months of material were "absolutely worthless" – a vivid illustration of the commitment involved), and Boo's great gift for sympathy, the book seems an obvious next step in a successful career. But the setting is a dramatic departure: to write it, she moved to India, where she spent much of the years 2008-2010 in a Mumbai slum called Annawadi that sits in the shadow of the city's airport.

Boo began going to India following her 2004 marriage to the academic Sunil Khilnani, who was working in Washington when they met but is now director of the India Institute at King's College London. Initially wary about whether an American reporter from one of the world's most prestigious magazines would be regarded as an acceptable conduit for tales of developing-world poverty – the Indian sociology graduate she hired as a translator shared her doubts – Boo found herself unable to resist the challenge she had set herself, and dug in.

She didn't sleep in Annawadi, although there were drama-filled occasions when she stuck around until 4am. Her days had no particular rhythm or purpose at the beginning. She would just turn up and see what happened.

She went alone at first, taking time to find translators who could tolerate the conditions. "They didn't want to sit in the room, or would prefer to stand at the door, and people sense that and it makes them feel bad, so for a while it was trial and error," she says. "It was completely reasonable that many people wouldn't have wanted to do that work."

Was she never scared of the rats, whose bites marked the children's bodies and sometimes exploded in worms? "I'm not squeamish. Tuberculosis was a concern: there were many people I spent time with whose stories were that they got sicker and sicker and then they died. But if you're really curious, you don't dwell on it that much.

"It was not pleasant to fall in the sewage lake," she adds coolly, "but at the same time, I didn't know it was petrochemical type of stuff until I fell in, so that was something I learned."

There were times when she thought about giving up, as she had on a previous book project, particularly after the sudden deaths of several children she knew in the slum – Kalu, Sanjay, Meena – left her upset and depressed. Instead, bolstered by an ex-reporter friend who told her to pull her socks up, she carried on, harrying the authorities for an explanation of why Kalu's murder in the airport grounds wasn't properly investigated, and following the trial of Abdul and his family, accused in the book's dramatic opening pages of inciting their neighbour Fatima to kill herself.

She witnessed most of the events described in the book, though not Fatima's self-immolation, nor the horrible spectacle of an aged trash-picker hit by a car and ignored by passersby as he moaned and screamed before dying. The book is filled with violence, not least the beatings meted out by police, by parents on children, husbands on wives and brothers on sisters. It is the despair brought on by one such beating, after she refuses to cook an omelette, that leads the teenage Meena to eat rat poison and kill herself.

But Boo has no time for the cliche that life is cheap in India. Instead, she finds moral sensibilities bludgeoned by fear of corrupt authority. For Annawadians, any recourse to the police or the courts, even a doctor or local politician, ends in disaster, as Boo demonstrates through her use of thousands of public records and hours of testimony. The culture of graft is so embedded, the scruples of professionals so compromised, that there is nowhere to turn, even when help is desperately needed. Everyone is on the take.

Did she worry about offering up a counsel of despair?

"I'm sure great kindnesses are done by doctors, and it would be nice in a public hospital to have someone walk in and be beautiful and caring, but it's not fiction and you can only report what you saw. Whether it's in India or the US, all you can do is lay it out. You can't control what people will do with your material, and I don't make great claims. I think it's this congenital problem with journalism that we oversell the difference we make. We make small differences.

"But I just think that the alternative is worse. If you don't write about it, then there's no chance [of changing anything]. If you write about it, there's a small chance. I try to be optimistic that if you present some of these conundrums, then policy-makers will take notice. I do think there are smart people thinking about these things, and I don't think I'm the only person who cares."

Boo, known to her friends as Kate, lays her interest in the struggles of poor people at her parents' feet. Her mother had grown up poor in 1930s Minnesota, and had what Boo calls "terrible stories" about deciding what should go on the fire once the fuel ran out.

Boo has suffered most of her life from bad health, with a series of auto-immune illnesses that have left scars, most obvious in her arthritic hands, and it is easy to imagine that this private vulnerability may have heightened her compassion for those who, through no fault of their own, find themselves at the bottom of the heap. In the introduction to her book she makes a funny story of her frailty, telling how an accident in her Washington apartment, where she broke her ribs and punctured a lung tripping over a dictionary, led her to think she might as well take her chances in India. Does she consider herself disabled?

"I have been dealing with illness and its manifestations since I was a teenager, and I think that gives me a very healthy respect for the things in life we can't control. In the case of someone like Fatima [known in Annawadi as "the One Leg"], I could understand the logistics of the slum – pumping water, managing crutches, the difficulty of raising children in her situation. When I'm engaged in a story my health is not a big deal, but when I'm not doing anything, if you sit me down, I can get tied up in my own medical dramas. So I much prefer to work."

Boo did not have the elite education of many of her peers. She worked as a secretary for two years after high school, and went to three colleges, starting in the evenings, before transferring to Barnard. She worked as a newspaper typist, and applied for an internship after hearing an editor on the radio.

From the outset she gravitated towards social affairs. "There were definitely times when I was aware people would prefer me to do other things," she recalls. "Editors from glossy magazines would say, 'Oh you're a nice writer, why don't you do something for us? Why don't you interview this Washington luminary?'"

Her first book collapsed when some of the families on a Washington housing project she had spent seven years writing about were plucked from poverty by a combination of media and philanthropic interests. She calls this "my big fail", but says she is proud of the articles she has written since, and was in no hurry to see her name on a book jacket until she found the right subject.

She never works without a camera – video is useful for fact-checking, and an American ebook version of Behind the Beautiful Forevers features clips – but in many ways, she remains a conventional reporter. She has fought shy of direct political involvement, believing that campaigning is best left to politicians. She does not use social media, and in her writing makes herself invisible, listening and watching but never participating, and setting out clear rules ("I won't give you money, I'm not your friend").

So it is only when you read the author's note at the book's end that you suddenly picture her in the midst of it all, pestering her subjects and following ("Are you dim-witted, Katherine? I already told you three times," Abdul exclaims to her at one point). Here, too, is where she tells us what she thinks, which is that in India, as in the US, there is evidence that the global economic system we have chosen is eroding our capacity to behave in ethical ways.

"Economics changes relationships," she says. "I don't want to relate it all to work, but people are improvising, social institutions and communities are weakening, and your obligation to the person in front of you changes if that person isn't always there. If I don't have to see you tomorrow, what choice am I going to make?"

Writing the book took its toll on her emotionally. Watching would-be "slum lord" Asha leave her children at her own 40th birthday party to provide sexual services to a male patron was one low point. Another was Kalu's murder and its grim aftermath involving two more deaths (one a witness to the killing who preferred to die rather than face the police). "One of the things that was so troubling was that the road boys knew this was what would happen to them if they were murdered, that it would not matter. That affected those kids so powerfully and it's deeply distressing."

The book is dedicated to "two Sunils, and what they've taught me about not giving up" – the Sunil who is not her husband is an Annawadi scavenger who is one of the book's survivors.

And what of Abdul, still enmeshed in a Kafkaesque trial at the close of the book? I can't help asking Boo before it's time for our interview to stop (please look away now if you'd rather remain in suspense).

"He's married now. He wanted a woman who was used to people in the trash business and didn't mind how he smelled. He has found such a woman, and he's happy," she says. "I took advance copies of the book to everybody, and played the videos that were used in the ebook and they were interested and had bits translated, but he was like: 'Whatever.'"

And she waves a dismissive hand in the air, as determined as ever to be modest about the journalist's work.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is published by Portobello Books, priced £11.99 in the Guardian bookshop.

Susanna Rustin

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Melinda Gates: gods with chequebooks

She can change lives with her vast fortune. But as one half of the world's richest private foundation, just doling out the cash is not enough – empathy counts too. So what's it like being …

Ed Pilkington

17, Sep, 2010 @7:57 PM

Article image
Tourists offered night's stay in Mumbai slum
Travellers can taste life of city’s millions of slum residents – but critics call it poverty tourism

Amrit Dhillon in Delhi

29, Jan, 2018 @2:02 PM

Cameron's slum dogma | Kevin Watkins

Kevin Watkins: The Conservative plan for overseas aid treats Africa as a laboratory for free-market ideology

Kevin Watkins

12, Jan, 2010 @9:30 PM

Article image
‘This is apartheid’: Cape Town slum residents condemn forced removals
With one in three South Africans out of work, shanty towns are springing up around the city but the authorities are accused of criminalising poverty with evictions that echo apartheid laws

Sarah Johnson in Cape Town

02, Nov, 2022 @7:45 AM

Article image
Community-led upgrade to a Nairobi slum could be a model for Africa
Mukuru, one of Kenya’s largest informal settlements, has cleaned up its act with improved water, roads and sanitation

Peter Muiruri

12, Nov, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Letters: Britain, India and the arms trade

Letters: The idea that hundreds of millions of pounds from Britain's aid budget could be 'diverted to peacekeeping defence operations' is deeply concerning

21, Feb, 2013 @9:00 PM

Article image
Do you think you'd be a perfect parent if you were on the breadline? | Deborah Orr
Deborah Orr: Money doesn't transform people and make them lovely archetypes. But lack of money makes bad situations worse

Deborah Orr

22, Jun, 2012 @7:59 PM

Article image
Are we failing parents whose children are taken into care?
Social services can remove child after child from the same mother, without her being offered the help she needs to become a good-enough parent. The result is heartbreak, and very expensive – but now judges are calling for a new approach

Louise Tickle

25, Apr, 2015 @7:30 AM

Article image
Westminster's new leader hits back at 'social cleansing' accusations

Westminster residents will be hit hard by the benefits cap, but the council's new leader, Philippa Roe, says they needn't go far

Peter Hetherington

13, Mar, 2012 @1:00 PM

Article image
Drugs, developers and diplomacy: London night tsar Amy Lamé on the challenges of the job
From cabaret star to the woman tasked with turning London into a 24-hour city, Amy Lamé’s appointment by Sadiq Khan has put her under a new level of scrutiny – but she is optimistic about the future of the ‘night-time economy’

Rebecca Nicholson

10, Dec, 2016 @7:00 AM