It took me awhile to get round to reading this book as when it first came out I was suffering from Slum Fiction Fatigue…I called it the Slumdog Millionaire Effect whereby suddenly every book, every documentary, every travel show seemed to zone in on the slums of Mumbai as though this were the only story worth telling about India.
More to the point, they are all told the same
way. Privileged western wades into slum, hanky to nose, to witness the sorry state of the lives of the poor, emerging tearful and humble having discovered how jolly nice they all are. This is where Katherine Boo’s book is truly unique. Based on years of living (sort of) in Mumbai's Annawadi slum, what makes it such compelling reading is the way she has chosen to tell the story, through the eyes of half a dozen slum dwellers, alternating their points of view. The effect is one of strange balance that could not, to be honest, be achieved with straight reportage.
By writing about events from the point of view of each character, Boo has managed to tell the story from within. In doing so she humanises and normalise the residents of Annawadi, showing their struggles, fears and problems are not a million miles away from anyone else's.
There are no violins grinding away in the background as we gaze benevolently on the noble poor. Instead we are offered the individual stories of real people, warts and all. We are offered understanding. By the end you feel you know the people in the book, can identify with them. You do not think of them as slum dwellers. They could be anyone. They are anyone.
What I also liked about this book is how well it illuminates the inequities of an economic system that sees fantastic wealth existing alongside absolute poverty, how it is seen as completely acceptable --and how systems are built to maintain it. It shows how the powerful exploit the weak, the impossibility of escape and how shameful the whole thing is. It is not just about Annawadi --it is about the whole world.
At the end of the book, Boo explains her methodology and claims to have only represented thoughts and feelings that were reported to her. An extraordinary achievement.
Final point on the bookcover design: Dynamic, colourful shot of boy shooting through alleyways. Now where have I seen that before...