This is a book I hope a lot of people read. Katherine Boo writes about several families living in the Annawadi slum adjacent to the Mumbai airport. Thankfully, this is not the tale of a western woman’s struggles to come to grips with poverty in third world country, Boo is not part of the narrative at all. The book centers around Abdul, a 17ish garbage trader, who is doing pretty well supporting his parents and 8 siblings, until a neighbor sets herself on fire and blames his family. As we follow the story, we learn the complexity of society within the slum and the spiderweb of corruption that is woven through all aspects of life.
In this small part of Mumbai, Annawadians see affluence growing around them, particularly at the airport, and they want a piece. Unfortunately they’re willing to step all over each other to get it. They steal from one another, envies become grievances, and there is joy in other people’s losses. “Powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked.”
One myth that successful Indians believe is that “their country’s rapid rise derived in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life.” The Annawadians navigate through corrupt police, an inefficient judicial system, the complete changeability of public records and an unpredictable marketplace. “Among the poor, there was no doubt that instability fostered ingenuity, but over time the lack of a link between effort and result could become debilitating.” Thus among the hopeful who seek a better life are those that give up and eat rat poison to escape.
This is a great book, in that it is unsentimental, yet compassionate. What happens in this slum is happening in some way in every country in the world. “The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached. . . .The poor took down one another, and the world’s great unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.”