The Power Of Hope To Lift Humans

Katherine Boo won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2012 for her first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. Although I’ve long subscribed to The New Yorker, where Boo has contributed several award-winning articles on poor communities in the United States, I’d never read her. That will change. Believe me, Boo is far more than a funny last name.

In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Boo writes in rich detail of Annawadi, a “sumpy plug of a slum,” housing 3,000 people in 335 huts in the “thriving western suburbs of the Indian financial capital.”

Globalization has been good to many in India, but Annawadi’s inhabitants scavenge through the garbage of globalization’s beneficiaries for recyclable materials. And almost everything is recyclable: plastic and glass bottles, foil wrappers, 60 different metals.

“Every morning, thousands of waste-pickers fanned out across the airport area in search of vendible excess – a few pounds of the eight thousand tons of garbage that Mumbai was extruding daily. These scavengers darted after crumpled cigarette packs tossed from cars with tinted windows. They dredged sewers and raided dumpsters for empty bottles of water and beer. Each evening, they returned down the slum road with gunny sacks of garbage on their backs, like a procession of broken-toothed, profit-minded Santas.”

It might be someone else’s garbage, its gathering spell a lifetime of drudgery, but as developed countries exported manufacturing jobs and call centers to India, even some of the slum dwellers of Annawadi found themselves hoping of a better life. They might buy a piece of property on the even farther edges of Mumbai, find a full-time job, arrange a daughter’s marriage to a member of the country’s growing middle class, or see one of their children graduate from college.

Globalization meant the stuff of dreams.

But the world economic crisis of 2008 dashed many of those modest hopes. Air traffic at the Annawadi slum’s nearest neighbor, Mumbai’s new international airport, slowed, and with it occupancy in the five-star hotels that served them. The economic slump turned recyclers into thieves. Garbage pickers and dumpster divers now stole from construction sites and the airport itself.

The already brutal life of Annawadi’s residents grew worse. The number of murders and suicides rose. In a culture in which corruption had always thrived, the price for paying off police and government officials went up. Fees existed for everything: to persuade the police to stop beating your son, more to gain his release, still more and the prosecutor would drop the case.

Boo asks the question why the “profound and juxtaposed inequality – the signature fact of so many modern cities” does-n’t cause these societies to implode. And she notes, alarmingly, “that scholars who map levels of disparity between wealthy and impoverished citizens consider New York and Washington, D.C., almost as unequal as Nairobi and Santiago.”

“Hope” staves off implosion, but for how long?

“In Annawandi,” Boo writes, “I was struck by commonalities with other poor communities in which I’ve spent time. In the age of globalization – ad hoc, temp-job, fiercely competitive age – hope is not a fiction. Extreme poverty is being alleviated gradually, unevenly, but nonetheless significantly. But as capital rushes around the planet and the idea of permanent work becomes anachronistic, the unpredictability of daily life has a way of grinding down individual promise.”

Don’t pass up Katherine Boo, wherever and about whomever she writes.