The Honey Gatherers

Annawadi’s largely Tamil demographic was altered by an influx of Marathi migrants, and is being reshaped again by a wave of North Indians. MANOJ PATIL / PENGUIN BOOKS INDIA
01 February, 2012

It seems to me that if you give a writer the choice of living in heaven or hell, he chooses hell... there’s much more literary material there.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

BACK WHEN TERMS SUCH AS ‘Third World’ and ‘Non-Aligned’ were current, European and American writers and artists found Calcutta the most fascinating metropolis in India. Louis Malle, Dominique Lapierre, Gunter Grass and Roland Joffé each took his turn at interpreting that city, a byword for poverty and misery assuaged by the ministrations of Mother Theresa and her Missionaries of Charity. After 1991, Calcutta’s particular kind of suffering, having ceased to adequately reflect the new order and new chaos of the post-Soviet world, grew increasingly irrelevant to the concerns of intellectuals. Bombay, as it was then officially named, made a far better hell in the time of globalisation: gaudy, violent, innovative and atavistic, it offered a higher contrast ratio than most minds could register. Films and books set in Mumbai generally have fared better in critical estimation than Calcutta-focused efforts. Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire won awards by the bushelful, including an Academy Award for Best Picture. Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity promises to continue that trend. It is the best non-fiction narrative about contemporary India I have read, a definitive account of slum life published at a time when Mumbai looks set to hand over to Delhi the title of India’s most compelling city.

Boo locates her book in Annawadi, a settlement established by Tamil labourers near the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in 1991 when repairs were being made to a runway. The settlement’s character was altered by an influx of Marathi migrants, and is being reshaped again by a wave of North Indians. Its changing demographics and proximity to a recently privatised terminal make it an ideal site for exploring economic opportunity and gross inequality—the exacerbation as well as transcendence of social divisions that the metropolis engenders. Annawadi is hidden beyond a concrete wall painted with an advertisement for ceramic floor tiles that, if the repeated slogan is to be believed, remain “Beautiful Forever”. The effort to keep the shanties out of sight behind a high barrier is futile: once aloft, airline passengers are bound to notice slums spreading like eczema around the airport, alongside roads and railway tracks and across once-green hills. More than half the residents of Mumbai live in such settlements, which represent both the city’s capacity to offer jobs to millions of new migrants, and a catastrophic failure of urban planning.

More than half a century ago, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in his book Tristes Tropiques, “Filth, chaos, promiscuity, congestion; ruins, huts, mud, dirt; dung, urine, pus, humors, secretions and running sores: all the things against which we expect urban life to give us organized protection, all the things we hate and guard against at such great cost, all these by-products of cohabitation do not set any limitation on it in India. They are more like a natural environment which the Indian town needs in order to prosper. To every individual, any street, footpath or alley affords a home, where he can sit, sleep, and even pick up his food straight from the glutinous filth.” Affluent Indians often suggest that eliminating the grime which so disgusted Lévi-Strauss demands a kind of delete button to erase squatter colonies from existence and memory. However, NGOs like the National Slum Dwellers Federation have led a salutary reimagining of shanty towns as centres of productive labour rather than the habitat of dispensable parasites. Foreign correspondents reporting on Mumbai’s emblematic slum, Dharavi, are now more likely to focus on textile exports than on poverty.

This more sympathetic approach has been taken to an extreme by Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava, who describe themselves as urbanologists. Writing about Dharavi in The New York Times in the wake of Slumdog Millionaire’s success, Srivastava and Echanove claimed, “The urban legend of its squalor has taken root because few Mumbaikers have ever been there.” I’ve been to Dharavi, and its squalor is no myth; but it does have a complex history, containing long-established colonies of potters and fisherfolk alongside recent settlers. In that sense, ‘Asia’s largest slum’ is an outlier rather than the generic model it is often taken to be. Srivastava and Echanove, in fine social constructionist fettle, leap, in their writings, from the example of Dharavi’s koliwada (fishing colony) and kumbharwada (potter’s colony) to conclude that the very concept ‘slum’ is a falsification, and demeans “millions around the world who actually live in villages that are misrepresented as slums”. Slums are “user-generated habitats” displaying bottom-up built forms preferable to top-down government-mandated projects. The Prince of Wales, long ridiculed by architects in the UK for his conservatism and general battiness, echoed the Srivastava–Echanove thesis in his book Harmony, pointing to Dharavi as a model of sustainable development where the “absence of physical assets such as power, water and sanitation,” is less important than the presence of the “immensely important but less tangible element of community capital”. Prince Charles lauded what he saw as organic or naturally emergent order, “the rich complexity and diversity that holds the community together...”.

Having observed that slum-related issues were “over-theorized and under-reported”, Boo has produced a microscopic account that helps us assess the validity of such claims. The first character she introduces is Abdul Husain, who is probably 16 but could be as old as 19. Abdul deals in garbage, or rather recyclables extracted from it. In the trade’s hierarchy, he’s a notch above scavengers who trawl through trash looking for bits of plastic and metal, and petty thieves who raid construction sites and cargo sheds in the vicinity. In early 2008, when the story begins, the stock market is sky high, and metal prices are buoyant thanks in part to Beijing’s gargantuan Olympics-related construction projects. Abdul, who can tell good quality polyurethane by its smell, and identify the worth of a piece of metal scrap merely by tapping on it, earns R500 on a good day. Times are good for many of Annawadi’s 3000 residents, though only six of them have permanent jobs.

…almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks. Rather, the Annawadians were among roughly one hundred million Indians freed from poverty since 1991, when, around the same moment as the small slum’s founding, the central government embraced economic liberalization. The Annawadians were thus part of one of the most stirring success narratives in the modern history of global market capitalism, a narrative still unfolding.

Abdul’s neighbours now speak of better lives, “casually, as if fortune were a cousin arriving on Sunday, as if the future would look nothing like the past.” Global market capitalism, however, bowls a well-disguised googly in late 2008. After the financial meltdown, commodity prices plunge, Abdul’s profits begin to evaporate, and a number of Annawadi’s residents have to “relearn how to digest rats.”

Even when things are going well, though, Annawadi is hardly a salubrious place. It sits west of a lake of sewage, and close to a concrete plant whose emissions turn green leaves gray and lungs phthisic. Mosquitoes and vermin abound, rat-bites are frequent and maggots, worms and lice facts of everyday life. At no point does Annawadi resemble the model of organic order that Prince Charles saw in Dharavi. To Sunil and Kalu, two of the book’s youngest and most interesting characters, the slum’s lop-sided huts look like they have, “fallen out of the sky and gotten smashed upon landing.” When terrorists attack the Taj Hotel and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in late November 2008, Abdul’s younger brother is fascinated not by the commando operation being telecast, but by the red turrets of the hotel, the ornate façade of the train station and the symmetry of the precinct’s buildings. South Mumbai looks coherent, “like a single mind made the whole place”. In the minds of Annawadi’s minors, there’s a lot to be said for good urban planning.

Despite its many shortcomings, the women of Annawadi prefer it to the alternatives available. Abdul’s mother Zehrunisa is reluctant to move to a plot her husband has purchased in Vasai because it would entail a return to purdah. When Asha, a wannabe corporator, visits her village in Vidarbha, she stands like a giantess among older women bent over by farm-work and osteoporosis. Asha’s daughter Manju and her friend Meena think of village life as impossibly backward. Manju is a Kunbi and Meena a Dalit; their relationship would be impossible in a traditional community.

Boo’s focus on the lives of Annawadi’s women and youngsters is consistent with her previous journalistic work, which has focussed on the marginalised and dispossessed. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for articles published in The Washington Post on neglect and abuse in homes for the mentally challenged. In 2002, she received a MacArthur Fellowship (popularly known as a ‘genius grant’), and from 2003 was a staff writer at The New Yorker. Even in the context of a magazine renowned for scrupulous fact-checking, her writing stood out for its obsessive attention to detail. I’m tempted to label her one of the world’s leading Method Reporters; she is to journalism what Daniel Day-Lewis is to acting.

The author turned her attention to India after falling in love with the political historian Sunil Khilnani, now her husband. She first “wandered into” Annawadi in November 2007, but was uncertain if she would be able to bridge the cultural and linguistic chasm she encountered. Her doubts were unfounded. She has captured the spirit of colloquial Hindustani and Marathi without using an idiosyncratic idiom, and deftly negotiated distinctions of caste, class and religion. 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. All right, I noticed one: a barefoot walk to Siddhivinayak Temple is described as a “penitents’ pilgrimage”, which is too Christian a term for the weekly trek.

Here’s a passage that demonstrates how Boo utilises minutiae of gesture, speech, dress and furniture, and comprehends status games played out within the slum’s meagre dwellings

As Asha arrived home from her teaching job one afternoon, her step didn’t quicken when she saw supplicants lined up against the wall of her hut. From the Corporator she had learned the psychological advantage of making people wait and stew. With barely a nod to her visitors, she stepped behind a lacy curtain at the back of her hut and unraveled the deep red sari she’d worn to work.


She emerged from behind the curtain in a shapeless housedress, another strategy picked up from the Corporator. He often presided over his lavender-walled, lavender-furnished living room in an undershirt, legs barely covered by his lungi, while his petitioners flopsweated in polyester suits. He might as well have said it aloud: Your concerns are so unimportant to me that I haven’t bothered to dress.”

The peripeteia in Behind the Beautiful Forevers concerns a faked suicide attempt by Fatima Sheikh, known in Annawadi as ‘One Leg’. It happens after a fight with her neighbours, Abdul’s family, whose relative material success and stable family life she envies. The book opens on the night she sets herself alight and fails to put out the fire as quickly as she intended. It travels back in time to introduce us to the characters involved, returns to describe the burning in precise detail, and then moves forward to botched treatment of Fatima’s burn wounds and false allegations that lead the Husains to imprisonment and penury. To get at the truth of what happened the day Fatima Sheikh poured kerosene on herself, Boo interviewed 168 people and used Right to Information requests to access records from the police, public hospital, morgue and court.

This depth of research allows her to carry off an omniscient narrator’s perspective, going against the grain of contemporary literary nonfiction which tends to favour bringing the writer’s subjectivity into the telling, an approach backed by the truism that perfect objectivity is impossible to achieve. Boo’s decision to be a fly on the wall in Annawadi must have been rather difficult to accomplish. It probably took months before residents began to accept the White woman, her interpreters and her recorder as a part of the landscape. That they did is evident from the secrets they ended up divulging. It’s one thing to learn that Inspector Thokale of Sahar Police Station takes bribes; that special executive officer Poornima Paikrao extorts money from poor supplicants and threatens those who don’t pay; that doctors at Cooper Hospital change medical reports after patients die to cover up botched treatment; or, more surprisingly, that Sister Paulette of the Handmaids of the Blessed Trinity orphanage, a former aide of Mother Teresa, resells food donated by large companies. It’s quite another to have the book’s major characters incriminate themselves. Asha and her daughter Manju (who must by now be the first Annawadian to gain a graduate degree) are accomplices in a fraud concocted by Bhimrao Gaikwad of the Maharashtra Department of Education. They are paid to run kindergartens existing only on paper, and route some of the funds back to Gaikwad. We also learn painful details about relationships the married Asha maintains with powerful men in her quest to become one of the city’s “first-class people”.

The author’s note at the end of the volume states, “The events recounted in the preceding pages are real, as are all the names.” This is worrisome at one level, for there will doubtless be consequences, potentially very unpleasant ones, for many of the characters once the book is published. But it’s also tremendously reassuring because, in Indian journalism, the line, “Names have been changed to protect identities”, is translatable all too often as, “Names have been made up to disguise invented quotes”. Suketu Mehta adopted a mixed approach in Maximum City, naming public figures like Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Amitabh Bachchan and Justice Srikrishna, while employing the aliases ‘Ajay Lal’ and ‘Monalisa’ respectively for two of the book’s central figures, an honest cop and a bar dancer. Powerful though those sections of Maximum City were, their power would have deepened had Mehta been able to write ‘Rakesh Maria’ instead of ‘Ajay Lal’. It is critically important that I could walk into Annawadi tomorrow, ask for Abdul Husain, and be directed to his hut, but Boo goes far beyond simply naming names. She inhabits each character so completely that we begin to see through their eyes as she has. We almost sympathise even with Asha, the most ambitious, manipulative and untrustworthy person in the book’s cast.

In scripting Peter Brook’s Mahabharata two and a half decades ago, Jean-Claude Carriére reduced to a single allegory the long (perhaps ‘interminable’ is a better word) disquisition delivered by the dying Bhishma in the canonical text. Asked by Yudhisthira about the cause of the world’s savagery, Carriére’s Bhishma raises his head briefly from a cradle of arrows to say, “A man is walking in a dark, dangerous forest, filled with wild beasts… He falls into a pitch-black hole. By a miracle, he is caught in some twisted roots. He feels the hot breath of an enormous snake, its jaws wide open, lying in the bottom of the pit. He is about to fall into these jaws. On the edge of the hole, a huge elephant is preparing to crush him. Black and white mice gnaw the roots from which the man is hanging. Dangerous bees fly over the hole letting fall drops of honey. Then, the man holds out his finger—slowly, cautiously—he holds out his finger to catch the drops of honey. Threatened by so many dangers, with hardly a breath between him and so many deaths, he still isn’t free from desire. The thought of honey holds him to life.” Bhishma and Yudhisthira view the man’s reaching out for honey as a great defeat, but for those like myself who see only oblivion beyond the earthly life, the protagonist embodies a resilient, even heroic, human spirit in his refusal to let wretched circumstances overwhelm him. The people of Annawadi lead lives so precarious, so circumscribed and powerless, their situation appears analogous to that of the man in the pit. Some, like Kalu, are trampled by the elephant. Others like Meena let themselves fall into the snake’s jaws. But many like Abdul and Sunil stay resolute, clinging to what support they can find, and stretching out to catch a few drops of honey.