Poverty as Destiny

February 11, 2012

The New Republic:

Early in Katherine Boo’s unforgettable book, a boy from Annawadi, a Mumbai slum, rushes into his makeshift school, bleeding. The classroom is nothing more than a single room in a neighbor’s hut, but it is the only place he can go for medical attention after being hit by a car. No sooner has the teacher begun treating his wound than his mother surges into the hut, wielding a large piece of scrap metal and screaming: “No car will kill you! No god will save you! You went in the road, roaming loose like that, and now you will die at my hands!” After receiving a beating, the boy is rescued by his teacher. Prior to departing, his mother threatens to “break his legs and pour kerosene on his face.” For this boy, an injury could mean financial catastrophe. “If the driver had hurt you worse, how would I have paid the doctor?” the mother asks her son while striking him. “Do I have one rupee to spend to save your life?”

More than one hundred pages later, a Mumbai garbage-sorter takes the witness stand to defend the honor of his dead wife. A trial is being held to determine whether the defendant beat, and drove to suicide by self-immolation, the woman everyone in Annawadi calls The One Leg. After an argument with her neighbors, she poured cooking fuel over her head and lit a match; her face and hair exploded in flames. The reader has long since known that the deceased—a vindictive woman whose life was full of pathos and bitterness—performed this act for other reasons. But her widowed husband is desperate to deny the idea that his wife had been depressed, let alone suicidal. As proof, he offers up the observation that when their two-year-old daughter drowned in a pail, her death did nothing to shake his wife’s composure.

Boo’s book, which traces the lives of a dozen or so characters in Annawadi between 2007 and 2010, so accustoms the reader to scenes such as this that the widower’s testimony does not quite register, at least initially. None of the witnesses at the trial are reported as reacting to what would generally be considered a damning appraisal of a dead woman’s character. (Unlike those in the court, we have reason to suspect that The One Leg killed her own daughter.) But what does it mean for a husband to state proudly that his wife had not been affected by the death of their child? What does it mean, in a separate incident, for a boy to lose his hand in a plastic shredder and shed tears not from the pain but from the fear of losing his job?

As these unspeakable incidents pile up and feed off one another, Boo, who spent significant time in Annawadi, makes no effort to assist her readers in making judgments. Characters drift in and out of the book, only gradually revealing themselves. Their actions, however vicious or shortsighted, are rendered comprehensible by the wellsprings of motivation to be found within their own words, and by the depth of Boo’s descriptions. Although she never precisely explains how people could reach a state where the death of a child is neither noteworthy nor tragic, her reporting allows for us to reach our own conclusions. Boo’s presence is skillfully invisible, so that the reader recalls her only when wondering, admiringly, how she was able to document the extraordinary story that she tells.

That story is cinematic in its scope, and in the manner by which it builds to several hinge moments while moving back and forward in time. But that is where any similarity between Beyond the Beautiful Forevers and Slumdog Millionaire, the most famous depiction of Indian slum existence, ends. Danny Boyle’s movie extravagantly presented the “slumdog” life of its central character as frequently horrific but ultimately (and literally) rewarding: his terrible experiences allowed him to prosper on a game show. It was a kind of television theodicy. Despite its subtitle, by contrast, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers is not a hopeful book, and its despair is anything but cathartic. “Among the poor, there was no doubt that instability fostered ingenuity,” Boo writes, “but over time the lack of a link between effort and result could become debilitating. ‘We try so many things,’ as one Annawadian girl put it, ‘but the world doesn’t move in our favor.’”

The fates of the Annawadians are shaped by their relationships and ambition and fortitude; but these people have no prospects, and only the most narrow and local and difficult horizons. They cannot, in the girl’s words, make the world move. The independence of their actions and the sharpness of their personalities do not amount to anything like historical agency. And their vitality never distracts the reader from the crushing sense that poverty has prevented them from becoming independent actors.

IN THE IDEA OF POVERTY, Gertrude Himmelfarb divided writing about her subject into two categories. There were works about “solutions”: “policies, reforms, laws, institutions, administrative agencies”; and works about “problems.” “The emphasis here,” Himmelfarb wrote, “is on the economic, technological, social, demographic, urban, and other conditions which helped determine the nature and incidence of poverty at any particular time and place.” Himmelfarb’s sections on Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham highlighted ameliorative measures and institutional reform. But she also spent considerable time exploring writers such as Charles Booth and Henry Mayhew, who wrote about English poverty with a focus on the realities of an impoverished existence.

Booth began his seventeen-volume effort, Life and Labour of the People in London, in 1889. His work is studded with facts and figures—some of them controversial and disputed—that aimed to identify and to classify those living in poverty. Booth’s account suffered from a particularly Victorian condescension, but his aim was noble: he wanted to focus attention on the needy, the helpless, those who required assistance, and he was an inspiration to, among others, Clement Attlee, the British prime minister most responsible for implementing a welfare state after World War II. Mayhew’s book, London Labour and the London Poor, was written several decades before Booth’s study; it is teeming with categorizations and lists (on the first page, street people are placed into one of six groups), and there is an almost scientific focus on the details of daily life. Mayhew charts the different ways thieves break into houses, and he provides a glossary of terms used by “costermongers” (fruit-sellers). No tidbit is too small or uninteresting.

Indian depictions of poverty (at least those available in English) tend to conform to Himmelfarb’s paradigm. On the problem side, Arundhati Roy and P. Sainath are more concerned with who is to blame for poverty or how existing power structures cause or entrench misery. Both are opinionated and sometimes angry, and both tend to focus more on rural areas, where most Indians live, which is generally the norm in Indian studies. Sainath’s ire rarely obscures his reporting, but it is difficult to ignore his presence.

The exception is Amartya Sen, who has broken new ground in the analysis of poverty, and in lucid social-scientific prose. His writing on famines, for example, demonstrated how institutional mechanisms can distort the distribution of food supplies. At the same time, his analysis of welfare and poverty has combined economics and philosophy in the service of evaluating the individual “capabilities” of human beings. It is largely due to his efforts, to his “capabilities approach,” that we now have the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which carries the measure of human “development” beyond simple utilitarian calculations and into the realm of the freedom to function in society. In his work with Jean Drèze, Sen has stressed the importance of education and health outcomes—rather than simply GDP—in the evaluation of a country’s progress.

Katherine Boo departs from these forebears. Her book certainly belongs in the “problems” literature—solutions are not really canvassed. But this is not a book about what causes poverty or social ruin; it is a book about poverty and social ruin. Boo wants to know, and to convey, how poverty is lived. She uses almost no statistics; nor are there lists or categorizations. The history of Mumbai is barely sketched at all. Where Mayhew would frequently define things as odd or disturbing, Boo rarely makes judgments about her characters. Years ago she did distinguished work at The Washington Post, where she expertly detailed the frightening conditions in the capital’s group homes for the mentally ill. But in that series, and in other recent American works on poverty (Jason DeParle’s splendid book on welfare reform, for example), statistics tend to mix with observation and reportage, and history and politics and social policy tend to play a role in the story. The great American exception to these trends was certainly James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which might be the closest comparison to what Boo is attempting, although Agee inserted himself into the book and showed an interest in classification.

Boo’s crucial strength is an empathetic imagination. Her book has the closely observed and artfully constructed quality of high fiction and film. (There were pages that reminded me of Satyajit Ray.) It is worth recalling that Mayhew wrote many scenes that mirrored Dickens’s stories, and showed an interest in character that would not have embarrassed Thackeray or George Eliot. In this way he was Boo’s precursor in the “problems” tradition: sometimes journalism succeeds by reading like a novel…

Read it all.

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