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Review: ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ by Katherine Boo

April 8, 2012

Guest post by MITU SENGUPTA

In a remarkable book about slumdwellers in Mumbai, Katherine Boo brings to light an India of “profound and juxtaposed inequality” – a country where more than a decade of steady economic growth has delivered shamefully little to the poorest and most vulnerable.  But though indeed a thoroughgoing and perceptive indictment of post-liberalization India, the book fits into a troubling narrative about the roots of India’s poverty and squandered economic potential.

This is a beautifully written book.  Through tight but supple prose, Boo offers an unsettling account of life in Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai’s international airport.  In Boo’s words, this “single, unexceptional slum” sits beside a “sewage lake” so polluted that pigs and dogs resting in its shallows have “bellies stained in blue.” It is hidden by a wall that sports an advertisement for elegant floor tiles (“Beautiful Forevers” – and hence the title).  There are heartrending accounts of rat-filled garbage sheds, impoverished migrants forced to eat rats, a girl covered by worm-filled boils (from rat bites), and a “vibrant teenager,” who kills herself (by drinking rat poison) when she can no longer bear what life has to offer.

Though the book reads like fiction, it is not.  As Boo explains, in the author’s note towards the end, everything is real, down to all the names.  Boo’s inimitable novelesque work of non-fiction is the product of years of methodical observation and research, a journey that began ten years ago, when she “fell in love with an Indian man and gained a country” (the man in question is Sunil Khilnani, a well-known academic and author of The Idea of India).  Boo has chronicled the lives of Annawadians, with photographs, video recordings, audiotapes, written notes and interviews, with several of the children pitching in, upon “mastering [Boo’s] Flip Video Camera.”

This intimate view of life in Annawadi is embedded within a larger concern, about the government’s role in “the distribution of opportunity in a fast-changing country.” In these uncertain times – an “ad hoc, temp-job, fiercely competitive age” – has the government made things better or worse?  In a bid to answer this question, Boo has consulted more than three thousand public records, obtained through the Right to Information Act, from government agencies such as the Mumbai police, the state public health department, public hospitals, the state and central education bureaucracies, electoral offices, city ward offices, morgues, and the courts.

The verdict, chilling in its details, is that there is a deep rot at the heart of the Indian state.  The utter callousness of government officials is matched only by the utter vulnerability of the poor, who must daily navigate “the great web of corruption.”  Police officers batter a child, aiming for his hands, the body part on which his tenuous livelihood depends. Doctors, at a government hospital, alter a burned woman’s records to absolve themselves of blame for her gruesome death.  A school, meant for the poor, is closed as “soon as the leader of the nonprofit has taken enough photos of children studying to secure the government funds” (in contrast, a school funded by a Catholic charity, “takes it obligation to poor students more seriously”).

Unlike her husband, Sunil Khilnani, who reserves a measure of affection for the Nehruvian project of state-led development, Boo keeps none. In Boo’s rendering, the state is not only incompetent – failing to provide the basics of a decent life to vast numbers of citizens – it is wholly predatory.  As people learn to survive the blows and betrayals of this rapacious state, their expectations as well as “innate capacities for moral action,” are altered.  Boo tells us that in Mumbai, a “hive of hope and ambition,” there is no dearth of young people who believe in “New Indian miracles” – that they can go from “zero to hero fast.” In Annawadi, however, a series of encounters with greedy, ruthless government officials ensures that such dreams are crushed, even the modest one of “becoming something different.”  A boy, wrongfully accused of murder, is reconciled that the Indian criminal justice is a “market like garbage,” where “innocence and guilt [can] be bought and sold like a kilo of polyutherane bags.”  His mother, exhausted by her tussle with a “justice system so malign,” is one of the many adults who keep walking “as a bleeding waste-picker slowly dies on the roadside.”

If Boo’s aim is to shatter the smugness of those who still believe that India is “shining,” she succeeds (as she should).  But in a country where corruption, poverty and inequality are the subjects of heated and continuous debate, what are the politics of this powerfully written and slickly produced book?  Where does it fit, in the larger conversation?  Surely, the question is a fair one of a book that makes such a strong claim to rigorously documenting the lives of the poor?

An evening with a family friend served up a clue.  In the midst of complaining about the government’s flagging commitment to reforms and our waiter’s lazy ways, this friend, an ex IMF official based in Washington, delivered a rave review of Boo’s book. I was taken aback, as much as I would be if Mamata Didi suddenly declared a love of Prada shoes.   I pushed him on why he had liked it.  His answer, quite simply, was that it was beautifully written (which it is), and that he had learned a lot about Annawadi from the book.  It was tempting to take these words at face value.  It was perhaps wrong of me to expect purism.  In the face of brilliant writing, surely even a doctrinaire IMFer could make peace with what the book makes obvious: that “trickle down” has not worked.  Yet the incident opened a window to what I has sensed as troubling about the book, and my nagging discomfort with the near-unanimous praise it has elicited, especially for its its courage.

The truth is that it is no longer terribly risky to challenge the idea of a “shining” India.  When my late father, Arjun Sengupta, released a report suggesting that 77 percent of Indians live on less than Rs. 20 a day, he was duly punished, albeit relatively mild Government of India style.  The commission he chaired was not extended for a second term, his phone calls were not returned, and he spent the last months of his life distressed that his work was being ignored, even by the press.  But the country’s mood has changed considerably since then.  After more than three years of sagging growth, massive corruption, shrinking investment, and shockingly poor records on health and education, only a handful of ideologues will insist that India is still doing brilliantly (and my father’s report – once dismissed by Mr. Chidambaram as a “myth” – is back in circulation, even within the government).  For the garden variety neoliberal, the argument has shifted quite noticeably, from celebrating India’s “shining,” to cataloguing the causes of its all-too-palpable dulling.  The lead story in a recent issue of The Economist, titled “How India is Losing its Magic,” is but one indicator.

In fact, the major disagreements today are not over whether something has gone wrong, but about why it has gone wrong.  Of course, neoliberals have a ready diagnosis: “governance failures” are destroying the effects of sound economic policy and youthful, entrepreneurial drive.  (The Economist  makes this point with characteristic self-assurance.  India is “losing its magic” because of  “the country’s desperate politics,” and “the state, still huge and crazy after all these years.”)  Examples abound of floundering government-funded social programs and botched anti-poverty schemes.  Even corruption, now undeniable in its mammoth presence and disastrous effects, is seen as a vestige of the old state, a stubborn ancien regime that has refused to keep pace with the liberalizing economy.  The attendant prescriptions are to be easily deduced: scale back the state as much as possible, dismantle its unworkable social programs, and slap on an Ombudsman to keep wayward civil servants in line.

To be fair, Boo offers no “solutions.”  A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist knows better than to swat the reader with an overt “message.”  Yet with its exclusive preoccupation with government failure – Boo does not sift through the public records of international organizations or large corporations, after all – the book’s subtle alignment with the neoliberal narrative is unmistakable.  For a globally feted work that does in fact offer a sensitive portrayal of the aspirations, disappointments, and “deep, idiosyncratic intelligences of the poor,” this is most worrying.  Some of the most pressing struggles today, for the poor, and more importantly, by the poor, are to increase public funding for health and education, to universalize the reach of social security measures, and to expand the ambit of the legal system in order to secure recognition and entitlements from the state.

One can understand why Boo is eluded by this.  Given her preoccupation with documenting “poor on poor crime” – the reasons why, in these competitive times, the poor work against each other and have little capacity for collective action – she overlooks the many empowering instances where they do successfully organize, and even win.  One may argue, of course, that a single book (or film or documentary) can never do everything, and that the scale of responsibility of an individual author should always be viewed as limited.  Yet I find it astonishing that in the 250-odd pages of this otherwise insightful book, there are no examples of sustainable and constructive political relationships, among the residents of Annawadi, or between the residents of Annawadi and the outside world.  How odd, for this is Mumbai, a city famous for its vigorous housing rights movements, sex workers’ unions, and small vendors’ associations.  For a “single, unexceptional slum,” Annawadi seems exceptional indeed.

This brings me to my final concern about the book.  Boo’s work is part of a larger genre, of films and writings on the urban poor, that has exploded in popularity in the last decade.  While the reasons for the proliferation of such works are many, the chief one, surely, is their relative ease of production.  It is not difficult or expensive to obtain access to the poor.  There are no razor-wired fences and gun-toting guards to contend with, and one need not bother with bribing maids or hacking laptops.  In contrast, how much do we know about the bed-hopping, drug-snorting, verbally abusive ways of the rich?  And what do we know – Shobha De’s Socialite Evenings comes to mind – is not the stuff of assiduous videotaping, interviewing, and rummaging through public records, but of semi-autobiographical observations that can rarely lay much claim to authenticity.  Aren’t the lives of the poor already an open story? When does a work that scrutinizes the lives of the poor so unsparingly become exploitative? And doesn’t the ease of access to the marginalized enlarge the author’s scale of responsibility, to leave absolutely no stone unturned?

Again, to be fair to Boo, her book is a cut above the standard fare on the subject.  If turned into a film, it will most likely be superior to the heavy-handed Slumdog Millionaire, or even the more nuanced Salaam Bombay.  There is a good deal to be learned from the book.  “Ribby children with flies in their eyes” may never be seen in the same light again, and one may be pushed to care more about a waiter’s meager wages than whether he dished up our soup on time.  These are certainly possibilities. But there is another one, not so laudable: that the neoliberal establishment will find substance, in Boo’s book, for their wider narrative of why the government can only ever fail, and why retracting the already-thin cover of publicly funded programs remains the best bet for getting India back on track.

Mitu Sengupta teaches political science in Canada, and is currently in Delhi, with the Centre for Development and Human Rights.

65 Comments leave one →
  1. Inasu/poet-writer/Paris permalink
    April 9, 2012 3:53 AM

    excellent! thank you.

    Rightly. how much do we know about the real mindset of the rich and shining indians?
    I feel it is time that serious studies be undertaken about the iIndian society in the light of
    our religious and cultural legacies. And there, the poor are not homogenous. Many layers of
    distinctions and differences exist amongst them. In other words, the system of caste is an
    unchnaging paradigm of social mobility, advancement and ‘merit-recognition’ even today,
    after all the grandiloquent slogans bandied around for more than six decades! Evidently
    Madame Boo is not the person well placed to do that delicate and detail-oriented research.The system of caste is the clue and the culprit,but most of our analysts dare not
    name it.

  2. Naresh Fernandes permalink
    April 9, 2012 9:15 AM

    I’m not sure how Mitu Sengupta comes to this conclusion that the book’s “subtle alignment with the neoliberal narrative is unmistakable”. In addition to demonstrating how the state has failed to help Annawadi, Boo shows emphatically that the new economy of unorganised labour isn’t any more effective. Her book explores how the temporary jobs to which Annawadi’s residents have access (such as in the neighbouring hotels) don’t change their lives dramatically. Neither do the self-employment schemes they conjure up for themselves, such as rag picking.
    Sengupta also find it odd that Boo finds “no examples of sustainable and constructive political relationships, among the residents of Annawadi, or between the residents of Annawadi and the outside world”. If Sengupta had examined the situation on the ground as closely as Boo has, she’d have known that the “city famous for its vigorous housing rights movements, sex workers’ unions, and small vendors’ associations” is living off a memory of its progressive past. If the social movements Sengupta mentions were indeed as energetic as she imagines them to be, Mumbai wouldn’t find itself in the middle of a giant land grab under the guise of the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme. I’m not sure what sex workers’ unions she’s speaking off but the shuttering of the city’s dance bars in 2005 contradicts this claim.
    Boo’s book is as damning an indictment of neo-liberalism as any polemic, only much better written and much more subtle.

    • Indulekha D. permalink
      April 9, 2012 11:37 AM

      I had some reservations about Sengupta’s review, but your comment confirms for me that she is bang on target. As someone who’s had some involvement with Mumbai’s housing and sex workers struggles and also the monstrous Dharavi Redevelopment Scheme, I find it objectionable that you see them as “living off a memory” of some “progressive past.” Certainly, they haven’t scored the victories that people have expected, but to dismiss them as irrelevant and impotent as you (and Boo) do, is very unfortunate. This is the sort of act of erasure that Sengupta is obviously speaking against.

  3. April 9, 2012 9:33 AM

    It’s sad, but perhaps not surprising, that Metu Sengupta cannot conceptualize working class relationships beyond a nostalgic desire for solidarity and unions.

    As someone who has read the book – I’m surprised that she is unable to appreciate the relationship between annawadi’s residents and Asha – the ambitious woman who seeks to become annawadi’s slumlord. The relationship like all relationships is riven with internal contradictions, exploitation and in rare instances, solidarity and assistance. The same can be said of Asha’s engagement with the police, the MCD Corporator and her many lovers.

    Similarly, Sengupta fails to spot webs of companionship between Manju and the young girl (i forget her name) who contemplates suicide on a routine basis, as she fails to spot the dynamics of the trial and witness statements. I could go on at length. But obviously, these relationships are not of the “Awaaz do/ Hum Ek Hain” [Give Voice/ We are One] aesthetic in which Sengupta likes her politics. Perhaps she fails to realize that relationships of power have a role beyond the solely performative.

    It is illustrative that Sengupta’s lurking suspicions about the book at confirmed when a friend who works for the IMF likes the book. She is right in pointing out that critiquing the India Shining story is no longer risky or brave; yet, the fact that an ‘IMFer’ likes the book is sufficient cause for Sengupta to assume that it feeds into a larger neoliberal project. It is not surprising at a time where ideas are judged by their points of origin rather than their content.

    Sengupta is terrified by the possibility that Neoliberals will find substance/evidence of state failure. So of course the solution is to simply suppress any evidence that can ever be used by those who do not share Sengupta’s politics. Perhaps we should also be wary of books that can be used by “fundamentalists” to attack the “secular fabric” of our nation, and other such subversive media.

    For Sengupta, attacking the state is tantamount to calling for its dissolution and furthering the neoliberal agenda. It is amazing that she speaks for the “poor” with complete ease and an utter absence of self-reflexivity when she states – without any supporting evidence whatsoever that
    ” Some of the most pressing struggles today, for the poor, and more importantly, by the poor, are to increase public funding for health and education, to universalize the reach of social security measures, and to expand the ambit of the legal system in order to secure recognition and entitlements from the state.”

    Note the difference between struggles “for the poor” and “by the poor” – why does Sengupta draw this distinction? Possibly because there is an entire industry [populated by representatives of the left, right and centre] that struggles on behalf of the poor. How Sengupta has decided that “the poor” are lobbying for an increase in public funding of health and education is beyond me.

    Then there is the tired formulation of “When does writing about the poor become exploitative?” Perhaps when it is used to speak on their behalf and push an agenda – much like Sengupta is doing in her review.

    Sengupta’s final brilliant conclusion on how we need more reporting on the “drug-snorting, bed-hopping verbally abusive rich” is just laughable, as is her condescension when she asks “Aren’t the lives of the poor already an open story?”.

    I have no problems with writing about the rich, if only to allow Sengupta to sit higher on her moral horse and ensure that her father’s report continues to remain in circulation. In the end, Sengupta reveals the complete extinguishing of a certain kind of leftist politics that, after a glorious tradition of seeking other worlds, is reduced to a project of state-preservation. That is a sad and sobering thought.

    • Mitu Sengupta permalink
      April 9, 2012 1:24 PM

      Why is it that the most venomous comments are always signed off with an “X”? To answer some of the points made by “X”, yes, of course I appreciate the relationships between the different characters in the book, but this is not the same thing as political engagement and resistance. I had trouble identifying what I found troubling about the book precisely because I was so impressed by Boo’s insights and writing, which I have duly praised. I am not at all “terrified” that neoliberals will “find evidence of state failure.” I am alarmed only when that is all that they find.

      You are correct, however, when you imply that the sentence, “some of the most pressing struggles today, for the poor, and by the poor,” is too broad, clumsy and not sufficiently self-reflexive. Nonetheless, I did not pull that observation out of thin air or my father’s report, but from sources (including) the clearly articulated demands of slumdwellers’ organizations in Mumbai. I personally feel that it’s important to recognize their voice and contribution, even if they have lost energy in recent years, as Mr. Fernandes says. [Also to Mr. Fernandes: while Ms. Boo’s extensive “on the ground” reportage is tremendous, it doesn’t make her accounting of events incontrovertible. And surely you cannot know, with the certainty you express, how much “on the ground” time I or any sources I might have consulted have spent in Mumbai... because I don’t believe I’ve ever met you.]

      I acknowledge that the view of the state (and what it should do) presented in my critique is but one in a whole universe of views, and that I have privileged this view over others, including compelling Maoist critiques of the state. And to the extent that this reflects an agenda or point of view, yes, of course it does. Does anyone write anything on a site like Kafila without an agenda, or for that matter, about a place like Annawadi? I’ve critiqued Boo’s work from my understanding of the world – which is all any one of us can do – and I’ve tried to be fair.

    • Opal permalink
      April 11, 2012 11:16 PM

      A fantastic critique of this silly review typical of the loony left mindset who has no real concern for the poor or whether they actual get benefits. For them what matters is the STATE should be providing everything, whether its competent to do so or not. God forbid if the private sector is able to do a better job of providing a certain good…their solution is let’s kill the private sector, not that let’s learn efficiency and try to replicate that in government systems. I am sick and tired of these ideologically brain dead people who are ruining this country with their insistence on unworkable “socialist” policies.

      • Indulekha D. permalink
        April 12, 2012 10:39 AM

        Like your comment is totally non-ideological, right? I’m sick and tired of ideologically brain dead neoliberals calling everyone who disagrees with them ideologically brain dead.

  4. Indulekha D. permalink
    April 9, 2012 9:55 AM

    A very intelligent and beautifully written review. It makes suggestions — barbed suggestions, haha — but not statements. Some of those suggestions I have trouble with. For instance, I think Boo is more critical of liberalization (and privatization) than you give her credit for. But then again, you do say it is only a “subtle alignment.” Very, very clever! I hope that this reaches a far and wide audience!

  5. atreyee permalink
    April 9, 2012 1:13 PM

    I agree with Sengupta that the poor, or anyone who can easily be seen in victim-or-struggle-mode become delightful ethnographic fodder for writers and researchers. Although i don’t agree that Boo is always looking to shame the Indian state, and she does mention that the book is likely to have this reaction among the intellectual elite of India, I do agree with Sengupta that a tremendously seductive power is unleashed in the narrative sleight of hand – where cute small voices of history and heroic struggles against the neoliberal establishment – make for great publishing material. The really powerful agents of capital and state (unlike Arindam Chaudhuri) would not open their stories out for video camera of the researcher gaze as easily. The whole establishment of intellectual and narrative production (universities, research centres, publishing houses) around the small voice of history has a neoliberal alignment, not just Boo who is to be blamed. I wrote about the book here – http://www.mylaw.net/Article/Narrating_the_real_world/

    • Mitu Sengupta permalink
      April 10, 2012 11:48 PM

      Thanks! I wish I’d read that earlier!

  6. April 9, 2012 3:15 PM

    I completely disagree that Boo has rejected or dismissed progressive struggles. Is it not possible that in a small slum near the airport, she found no such progressive politics? If she did not find them there, then why are they dismissed? To not refer to existing movements ELSEWHERE in the city seems perfectly justified. The slum was removed. Most people weren’t resettled. People there did no invest hope that a union, NGO, or movement would come along. There wasn’t one, and this is true in most places. Even when there is one, how often is such a group centrally important in the lives of residents?

    • M. Banerjee permalink
      April 9, 2012 7:39 PM

      Anything is possible… just not probable.

      • April 10, 2012 1:04 PM

        I think it’s extremely naive to think that every slum has a progressive political organization, that it is somehow linked to tenure or labour struggles elsewhere in the city, or that it has some benevolent NGO/donor that warrants attention. I find it even more naive to think that, even if such organizations/connections/support do exist, they are necessarily a central part of the political and everyday life of a slum. To critique Boo for not emphasizing groups/movements that don’t exist (Annawadi had a very small population, remember–certainly not a SPARC/etc settlement) means you are imposing a vision of what slum politics is before you go there to even investigate them–what some might call vanguardism.

  7. Naresh Fernandes permalink
    April 9, 2012 3:23 PM

    Dear Mitu Sengupta,
    Point taken: that was an unfair remark.

    Best,
    Naresh

  8. Nitpicker permalink
    April 9, 2012 5:13 PM

    If one were to write a book on the lives of the rich, people like this reviewer would crib about giving importance to the self-absorbed Indian elite, about ignoring the poor. Now here’s a book is about the poor, so we are saying why not write about the rich, why barge into the houses of the poor? Heads I win, tails you lose. Knee-jerk self-righteous leftist outrage zindabad.

  9. April 9, 2012 6:50 PM

    Reblogged this on menkris and commented:
    I’ve made a pit-stop at the Prologue. Its narrative style could well be the notes of a Director. Scene and frame recreated in prose. It read like a movie shot by both Shyam Benegal and Danny Boyle. No, really.
    But, this is not what forced the pause. The detailing of a stark and savage poverty in a lyrically descriptive style was unsetlling. ‘Yellowing cotton buds’ and ‘bellies stained in blue’. For those of us that live with the helpless sadness of this divide, that use carefully created karmic-dharmic constructs to live with this and to continue on with our own struggles; to us, it feels like as if only an outsider to whom this experience has an other-worldly unrealness, could write this way. The detached ever-observing eye of the interloper stares with transparent lucidity, through the beautiful prose. A subject like this, requires a book to translate a greater sense of empathy for it to be warmly welcomed into and as our own.

    • Mitu Sengupta permalink
      April 10, 2012 11:43 PM

      Very interesting. Hadn’t thought about that angle — thanks!

  10. M. Banerjee permalink
    April 9, 2012 7:37 PM

    Good grief. Why this intolerance of criticism, especially from anonymous internet trollers? How refreshing to *finally* read a critical review of this highly overrated book! My complaint with Mitu Sengupta’s review is that it is too kind and too subtle (not “kneejerk” at all). She, like everyone else, has been seduced by Katherine Boo’s beautiful writing. Yes, Boo writes well, but so *** what? By Boo’s own account, this is not a work of art, it is *non-fiction*! I’ll come out and call a spade a spade. Yes, the book is exploitative. Yes, it’s voyeuristic. The woman has made children in the slum videotape their own lives for the purposes of her best-selling book; for a primarily Western readership! Does no one see any problem with that? Let’s just hope they’ve been compensated, for their time, if not for their dignity. Finally, her conclusions are *totally* aligned with the neo-liberal view of the state, and her understanding of human relationships are *extraordinarily* disempowering, for reasons hinted at by Sengupta. Why are people rushing to defend the accuracy of a book written by an American journalist, who did not even learn the language, after merely four years of “on the ground” research? Is that how long it takes to know Mumbai’s slumdwellers? How insulting!

    • April 10, 2012 1:15 PM

      Have you ever read non-fiction? Non-fiction does not equal a documentary account. I also wonder how this frail woman, with no language ability or persuasive power “made children in the slum videotape their lives.” Imagine the idea that a 15-year-old boy who nobody cares about would be thrilled to have somebody listen to his story, give him a technology to share his experience, and offer to tell that story to others. You are right, that sounds like gross manipulation, something far worse than getting thrown in a jail, beaten up, and kicked out of the city.

      • M. Banerjee permalink
        April 10, 2012 5:49 PM

        Seriously, “Michel Foucault,” it’s time you were true to your screen name. Ever heard of “power relationships”? An award winning white American journalist has power that a slum child simply does not have. Since I don’t have time for a full-fledged lecture, I’ll pose a question. What if a slum child were curious about the life of Ms. Boo — her affluent life in the United States with her celebrity-academic husband? You know, because he thought that people should know more about how award-winning journalists live their lives; what they eat, what they wear, their intimate thoughts, whom they are secretly attracted to, whom they sleep with, if they’ve ever tried to kill themselves. What if this child offered Ms. Boo a cheap camera so she could videotape her life and then hand it all over to him? (a) Do you think this occurring is even in the realm of possibility? Why/why not?, and (b) What do you think Ms. Boo’s answer would be?
        Also, what makes you think that “nobody cares” about all these slum children? Oh, wait, it’s Ms. Boo… and herein lies the problem! Well, maybe you need to know that slum kids have families and communities too, and they aren’t lining up for the Katherine Boos and Angelina Jolies of the world to rescue them.

      • April 11, 2012 2:55 AM

        M. Banerjee- I don’t quite understand your substantive critique of the book. Of course there are power relationships (a term that does not require quotes) in any and all situations. But if we can’t go beyond the inherent baggage that we all carry, then is any form of inter-subjective dialogue possible? I suppose the solution is to let “insiders” speak for themselves. But, who is an insider? Who speaks for Annawadians? Asha? Abdul? Perhaps Boo could have done more to position herself in the narrative (although the author’s note does admirably discuss the expressive (in)capacity of overworked, uneducated youth), but there comes a point when SOMETHING has to be said, and the identify politics of it all (“who is she to describe them?”) can become debilitating in the face of crushing repression (is there a better account of urban poverty a random browser in a bookstore might be willing to pick up?). Of course a rich person would be less forthcoming in videotaping their persona life, but that a 15-year-old’s willingness to participate in such a project is a condition of his broader voicelessness (at least as much as Boo’s particular power over him) cannot be denied. Your critique of Boo’s book seems to rest on 1) the fact that she is not from and does not have a history in the place she studies, and 2) that she does not acknowledge or refer to political processes and debates that others have written about in Bombay (although not in Annawadi). If Boo’s whiteness and class background mean we can never take her account of a poor, Bombay slum seriously, than I’m sorry you took the time to read the book, as I’d guess that in your mind it was a failure from page 1. On my reading, she has done a remarkable job expressing the views (necessarily filtered through her own lens, which any trained reader can transparently identify) of a group of highly vulnerable people. Will her book change the power dynamics between a rich foreign woman and a rag picker? No. But, her text points to other power dynamics that are often concealed in both domestic and foreign accounts of current economic conditions (poverty in Bombay is less than 20%, anyone?). Sengupta’s critique is that the primary dynamic Boo emphasizes is one of state failure–which many people here are calling a neoliberal argument (as if a critique of the state never existed before Milton Friedman came along). I find the book a far more potent critique of ‘shining India’ as a whole, in which a highly neoliberalized state of course plays an important part. The place of the five-star hotels and the “new India”, as Boo calls it, could not be clearer in her narrative (Naresh makes this point well), unless she wanted the book to be published by LeftPress and not Random House.

        On point 2, nobody has yet expressed a reason for us to believe that progressive political organizations/movements/processes were ignored or missed by Boo (how were they ‘dismissed’?). How many unorganized waste collectors are actually a part of such groups (this is not to say such groups have no effect; they are of course hugely important)? This critique, it seems to me, says much more about the political presumptions of the critics of the book than the selective analysis offered by Boo.

        The label ‘poverty porn,’ finally (whoever used it, I can’t now recall), is highly problematic. Some people have here said she is telling us what we already know. Others (Varun below) say it demonizes India. Others say it aestheticizes poverty. Slumdog Millionaire comparisons fit in here. Slumdog is a story of bootstrap capitalism and entrepreneurial innovation (the vernacular catch phrase is now ‘jugaad’). This book is a resounding critique of entrepreneurialism. Work hard, watch your back, save up… get fucked. The market did not work for Annawadians.

  11. April 9, 2012 8:31 PM

    This review is hilarious. The true genius of Boo’s book, it appears, is to reveal the nature of the Indian elite. Some will see it as about the persistence of desperate poverty, and thereby an insult to Shining India/ a much-needed corrective to Shining India, both of which are apparently in continuing short supply. Some see the failure of the state. Some see the failure of the poor. Some see the failure of neoliberalism. Some see the failure of Boo.

    The tragedy for Ms Sengupta is that she was unable to actually think for herself until someone from the IMF helpfully told her what he thought. She then assumed, naturally, that she should think the opposite. There’s an intellectual bankruptcy in that process that’s quite revealing.

    • M. Banerjee permalink
      April 9, 2012 10:22 PM

      See Ms. Sengupta, all your subtlety is lost on an uncritical person such as “MS” who doesn’t seem to know the difference between intellectual honesty and intellectual bankruptcy. You should have gone for the jugular, exposing Boo for what she’s really doing: providing poverty porn entertainment to an intellectually bankrupt Western readership.

      • khushnoodnaqvi permalink
        April 20, 2012 6:50 PM

        M. Banerjee, I agree with you. I didn’t read the book, precisely for this reason. It was unlikely, I would have been able to take any action, to affect the lives of the people discussed.

        Also just like Mitu Sengupta, too it negatively when an IMF’er friend liked it. I was discouraged, by a friend’s remark on a social network, where he seemed to be quite pleased to announce the arrival of the book, from an online portal.

        ‘Weekend entertainment’ for him, I thought.

        On a related note, I think, Internet has made us hungry for data. We are overfed on it. We are addicted to it, and dependent on it. I think, at a very cynical level, the market for this kind of book, is in our ever evolving need for ‘complex’ kind of entertainment. ‘IPL and Salman Khan is for the low brows, we need such kind of books, to be entertained’.

        I would go ahead to say, that such kinds of books should be more valued, if they are autobiographical. Where people are just describing what they did – think Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa (she did not write any book, however).

  12. Martin Vogel permalink
    April 10, 2012 6:16 AM

    What a refreshingly insightful, nuanced and intelligent review. As for good writing, this review surely serves as an example of precisely that! Reading the various reader comments was also interesting, especially since many of them were reminiscent of some of the commentary on Sengupta’s Slumdog Millionaire essay. It is quite disheartening, and somewhat scary that there is such an “intolerance of criticism” as one reviewer so correctly described. When Sengupta’s piece on Slumdog came out, there were some reviewers who were put off by her dissecting and intelligently analyzing a movie which so many praised (all too easily) without thinking about its wider message and subtleties. I think the same is happening here. Thank goodness that there are reviewers like Sengupta who can offer critique of those who offer some (broadly speaking) critical view of certain issues (in this case Mumbai slums, poverty in India and the broad politics of this poverty, etc). This is all the more important in a world where critical views increasingly become easy to produce and disseminate as Sengupta most correctly (and importantly!) alludes to. I think if there is anything “knee-jerk”, it is surely some of the comments about this review. As for the “moral high ground” one reviewer mentioned, I find this a classically cheap and bitter way of dismissing something one disagrees with. I most certainly agree with one reviewer who hoped that Sengupta’s review reaches a wider audience. We need more critical minds and writing like Sengupta’s and fewer attempts to stifle them. Great review (and interesting discussion from all subsequent review reviewers – pun intended!)! Thanks, and keep it up Mitu Sengupta!!

    • M. Banerjee permalink
      April 10, 2012 5:58 PM

      I am aware of Ms. Sengupta’s critique of Slumdog Millionaire, which appeared in Counterpunch. It was a far more withering critique than the hesitant one she gives Boo. That surprises me, because the two works are exactly the same. Same motivation, same audience, same slickness. We just think it’s more high-brow, more intellectual, because it is a well-written book, when in fact it appeals to the same instinct as Slumdog — of condescending pity towards the hapless dark “other.”

  13. Varun Shekhar permalink
    April 10, 2012 8:27 PM

    Rats, rat poison, filth, slums… yes, it’s a poverty porn book geared toward international, particularly American, audiences, who want to feel good about America. And also to puncture any pride or feel good sentiment that Indians themselves feel about the country. No one who comes to India can miss the vibrancy and dynamism of the world’s most populous democracy, while of course acknowledging the negatives. This book is all hiss and boo, doom and gloom. Awful.

  14. April 10, 2012 10:45 PM

    This is obviously a considered and nuanced review, for the most part, which is great given the absence of dissent in the views published about the book so far. (I personally found it to be surpassingly admirable). A lot of this conversation, though, has strayed from the actual book (Is Mitu Sengupta alleging that Boo must have sidestepped evidence of constructive political relationships? If not, and she accepts that Boo did not encounter them, why is this point attached to a review of the book? The very implication that a “politics of the book” should have preceded its reporting effort is a disservice to — and a failure to understand — what Boo was tring to do.)
    The place I thought Sengupta’s critique became bizarre was the suggestion that “it is not difficult or expensive to obtain access to the poor”. It’s hard to imagine a substantive idea of “access” where this is true, and to make this comment in the context of Boo’s effort just seems malicious. The tone of disdain that continues from that point — “If turned into a film, it will most likely be superior to… Slumdog Millionaire”… seriously? — is completely out of proportion. I don’t say this as an expert in any relevant field, only as a journalist who felt like he learned a much from the book about the lived experience of impoverished Indians (and not neoliberal dogma, either). Also I respond as a person who knows that practically any journalist would consider it far greater hardship to access the poor (to “do a Boo”, sweating it out in the slum) than to access the rich.
    Because the rich: do they live behind razor-wired fences that need jumping? I hadn’t realised. Do we need to hack their laptops to expose their drug-snorting ways? I didn’t think so. I thought we lived among them, and were invited into their parties, and were them — thus the better angels of our nature drive us to learn about the poor.
    Of course there are unbelievably debauched lifestyles in the Indian upper-class, but they’re hyperbole too, and we hear about them, all the time. In any case, how does this excitable fantasy of a hacker-investigative scoop on superelite bad behaviour have anything to do with the book Boo wrote?
    The typos in the copy suggest that little time passed between the drafting of this review and its posting, and I can’t help thinking that that’s the reason a delicate critique of the alternative possibilities of Boo’s book (to highlight successful political efforts, important state supports, etc.) comes across as spiteful and confusing.

    • Mitu Sengupta permalink
      April 10, 2012 11:03 PM

      Which typos?

      • April 11, 2012 10:43 AM

        “What I has sensed as troubling about the book”, and I think I saw others.

    • Mahima Banerjee permalink
      April 11, 2012 2:40 PM

      Good Lord! Do you really see no problem with a phrase like “to do a Boo” that’s circulating among journalists writing on slums or poverty? It reeks of class privilege and white privilege. Gross! (I’ll brace myself now, because I’m sure you’ll call me “spiteful” or “malicious” because I happen to have a more critical mind than yours).

      • April 12, 2012 1:15 AM

        No, I don’t understand the exact connection you mean between “doing a Boo” — there, it’s lost its assonance — and class and race privilege. (Nor have I heard the phrase circulating among journalists; I was hoping I’d coined it.) Those privileges do exist in her and many other journalists, with all kinds of different outcomes: neglecting poor subjects, insulting them, exotifying them, or engaging them in the way K Boo did. I’m curious, so do explain. I’m talking about a journalistic practice and ethic, and everyone knows what Boo did to write this story. What are you talking about?

      • Mahima Banerjee permalink
        June 5, 2012 1:01 AM

        Read this again for a reference, and realized I hadn’t responded to your very pointed question. What I am talking about (among other things) is the total unawareness and sense of entitlement with which you talk about journalists having access to the rich, and being one among them. Really? Perhaps you are speaking for yourself, or the club of elite journalists who party with industrialists and kingmakers. If you’re one of them, good for you, and I guess it’s understandable why you and others of your ilk consider accessing the poor such a “hardship.”

  15. Mitu Sengupta permalink
    April 10, 2012 11:21 PM

    To: M. Banerjee: I appreciate the general direction of many of your (witty) comments, but I think the book was a very different entity than Slumdog. I could go on at length, but that would mean writing another review. I’ll make one point, though: Slumdog made no attempt to seriously engage with Mumbai’s “on the ground” reality. Boo does, and should be given due credit. It’s not an accident that Slumdog received a “withering critique” from me while Boo did not. There’s a sincerity and integrity about her book that I like, and that matter as much as any complaint I have with it.

  16. M. Banerjee permalink
    April 11, 2012 2:29 PM

    Ms. Sengupta, that’s very generous of you. I will beg to differ. As for “Michel Foucault,” I have two things to say. One, you raise a valid point, in that should we simply reject the work of “outsiders,” especially when done on marginal communities that are already so open to exploitation? My answer is absolutely not. However, to win the acceptance of a critical readership, the author must display a sensitivity and self-reflexiveness that Katherine Boo does not. This is evident from the author’s note at the end of the book, where she is entirely focused on proving the accuracy of the events portrayed by her book. There is little or nothing on Boo’s own positioning in Annawadi, very little self-consciousness, and little or nothing on what she might have left out of the story. This goes to another point that you make, about how it is possible that there were NO solidarity networks present in Annawadi. I find it doubtful, but even if this were the case, Boo should have spoken to the point. But she is more intent on insisting how “unexceptional” the slum is. I feel this is incredibly arrogant, but Boo has obviously done a great job of selling herself as an empathetic author. So much so that you, “Michel Foucault,” even refer to her as a “frail woman” (which is actually sexist, sorry)! On your final point that the book is an indictment of the market I WHOLEHEARTEDLY disagree. In the book, the market is what works. It creates opportunities and fresh hope. But the government is what comes along and crushes it all. Totally neoliberal!

    • April 11, 2012 6:56 PM

      She is frail, as the NYT writes: “Since her late teens Ms. Boo, who is now 47, has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and several related immunological disorders. She walks a little slowly and sometimes has trouble with her eyes. Her fingers are gnarled and bent. That she is still able to type is owing in large part to a 2002 MacArthur grant, which helped pay for surgery on her right hand. For someone in her condition the best treatment is drugs that suppress the immune system, and these do not make such a person an ideal candidate for spending time in a slum where tuberculosis is practically epidemic. But one night Ms. Boo tripped over an unabridged dictionary in her own apartment, puncturing a lung and breaking three ribs, and decided home wasn’t much safer.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/09/books/katherine-boo-on-her-book-behind-the-beautiful-forevers.html?pagewanted=all)

      I’m curious where in the book you see the market work for Annawadians? How could somebody possibly read this book and say, yes, there needs to be less social support and more market promotion for the people Boo describes? Abdul is an archetypical ‘heroic entrepreneur’, the kind de Soto and the like praise left and right. Where did the market get him? Where did it get Manju, the BA pass who couldn’t find a job? To say that any critique of the state is neoliberal leaves you with 0 room for manoeuvre. Any basic political science text would point out that state capacity and democratic representativeness can be weakened by excessive market influence/promotion. Boo makes a mockery of the ‘big people’ in the 5-stars and consistently shows how what looks like the ‘unreason’ of the poor is no different from what the rich do… I think she also conveys a far more subtle understanding of the relationship between state and market than you give her credit for, as well.

      On your ‘doubt’ about solidarity networks, why should somebody mention something that doesn’t exist? It’s the same point I made above, a type of vanguardism that presumes that we know what politics looks like before examining people’s experiences, and that we know what ‘should’ exist, even if it doesn’t. The absence of solidarity networks couldn’t be more explicit in her book. You say she should have mentioned this absence. She doesn’t mention it because she shows it so clearly! It’s so obvious. In every crisis, individuals had no formal support system to find a way through. To say that Boo ‘dismissed’ progressive networks is to call her reporting a lie. I have yet to hear a compelling reason for why she is wrong here.

      On your point that there is no sense of what she’s left out of the story, I agree she could have been more explicit, but I personally don’t think the book would have been as effective.(this is why academic writing doesn’t work for wider readers). For the ‘critical reader,’ you can read about her entry point in her interviews and other statements (same NYT one quoted here). Also, note the critique she herself has written of Slumdog Millionaire. To conflate the two is an utter disservice to anybody who has done sustained fieldwork in a place:

      “At first it was a circus act,” she said in New York the other day. “It was, ‘Look at that crazy white woman!’ ” But she spent so much time in Annawadi, reporting almost daily for four- or five-month stints over a span of four years, that eventually she became a fixture and was taken for granted. “The people got bored with me,” she said, “and they started laughing when others thought I was interesting. I think some of them even felt sorry for me.”

      In 2009 Ms. Boo wrote an article for The New Yorker, where she has been a staff writer since 2003, describing the Mumbai premiere of “Slumdog Millionaire” and contrasting its lavishness with the lives of some of her slum dwellers. The story was picked up and translated by a Marathi-language newspaper. This got her in hot water with the local police, who were irritated by her suggestion that they had covered up a murder of a young slum dweller, but also gave her credibility with the Annawadians. “They saw that I was really doing what I said I was doing,” she said. “They saw that I even got the jokes.”

  17. Varun Shekhar permalink
    April 12, 2012 3:46 AM

    Has anyone noticed that these types of books/films, whether of poverty of the Mumbai slums or the Kolkata slums, are by Americans, Britishers, and in one case, a Frenchman(Louis Malle). Though Americans and Britishers dominate. Which itself makes one question the products, and the motives behind them right at the outset.

    Why, for instance, are there no works in this genre by Cambodians, Vietnamese, Cubans,
    Peruvians, Mongolians and Iranians? Surely, they are all aware of the poverty and seemy underside of Indian development. Let me answer the question: because all these people share something with India that cold, stand-offish, arrogant, supercilious Britishers and brash, arrogant, aggressive Americans do not: empathy.

    Identification with a country that was essentially made poor by the policies of imperial powers. Similar to their own situations.

    • April 12, 2012 11:56 AM

      Nice job answering a question for people you’ve never met (obviously more Brits/Americans have the luxury of conducting long-term, funded reporting; does this mean that all such reporting is a simple product of continuing imperial interests?). Nice job imputing base motives for entire national literary and journalistic traditions (which you mis-characterise in the first place). Nice job assuming that every Cambodian or American’s personality is somehow imprinted with the motives and geostrategic imperatives of the state they live under.

      As for empathy: Find a more empathetic reading of the hopes, fears and aspirations of slum dwellers in India than Boo’s. You won’t find one. If you don’t like hearing about the urban crisis in India, don’t read about it; mainstream media offers plenty of blinders to what is happening…

      • Mahima Banerjee permalink
        April 12, 2012 2:37 PM

        I have replied to you below with my full name. This is a serious and civil conversation, and one that merits the revelation of true names.

  18. Indulekha D. permalink
    April 12, 2012 12:00 PM

    @Varun Shekhar: Well said. However, I hope you are not arguing that we shouldn’t be talking about India’s poverty, and only about the good things. Because poverty and inequality are very much a part of our reality in India.

  19. April 12, 2012 1:07 PM

    I think Katherine Boo, like Arundhati Roy, is doing a great service, not to Capitalism in India, but to certain well known already overvalued Robber baron scrip- what I mean is that reading Boo or Roy encourages on to think that Robber Baron Capitalism can always outperform the index, regardless of its own inefficiency, grandiosity and criminality, simply because resources, including labour power, can be grabbed at lower and lower cost.
    The problem with Roy and Boo is that if we buy into their narratives and put our pension pot into Robber Baron scrip, there’s a good chance we might end up in Annawadi ourselves.

    I think both Roy and Boo are great writers- Boo must be a person of extraordinary courage and empathy to have accomplished so much despite her frail health- but it would be a mistake to trust their judgement.

    I am not saying that it is not possible to get increasing returns from exploiting the proletariat- it just can’t be done at all efficiently without dis-intermediating the Police (notoriously lethargic and unhealthily obsessed with inserting chilis in rectal cavities) and the Courts (who could use a chili or two up their own rectal cavities) and Civil Society (which is totally into any kinky scenario) and so on.

    The dream of ‘India Shining’- viz F.D.I to finance hypertrophied rent-seeking- requires low wages for the vast mass of the people. Any comparative advantage can quickly be lost because of rent-seeking so only absolute advantage counts- and that means people living more and more cheaply, close to where they can be most productive such that a surplus is extracted.

    Will this dream be realized? I wish I could say yea, verily, into that Paradise shall our country awake. The problem is them slum dwellers are awfully shifty. Never trust the poor. What if they all just die or emigrate or get guns or become Anthropologists or something?

  20. Mahima Banerjee permalink
    April 12, 2012 2:29 PM

    RK, what I meant is “doing a Boo” focuses solely on the journalist’s perspective and experience, not that of her subject. You dispute the reviewer’s assessment that the lives of the poor are easier to access by arguing that, no, journalists actually find it hard to sweat it out in the slums, and ergo, it is harder. I don’t believe that was the reviewer’s point. You keep seeing things from the journalist’s perspective: that is what reeks of class and (possibly also) white privilege.

    “Michel Foucault” is unfortunately doing the same thing. Consider his sentence — “As for empathy: Find a more empathetic reading of the hopes, fears and aspirations of slum dwellers in India than Boo’s.” His primary concern is Boo’s “reading” of the slum-dwellers, and how it is empathetic, accurate, and so on. She is a “frail woman,” a person with integrity, an award-winning reporter, a person with heart in the right place, etc., and so her reading must be correct! “Foucault” (what a tragically inappropriate screen name) seems so shocked that anyone would criticize this well-meaning woman and/or her endeavours. After all, she is just trying to help these poor, voiceless, brown people! Give me a break!

    • April 12, 2012 3:22 PM

      I’m sorry; I think you misunderstood what I was saying. I’m perfectly happy with criticism of what she’s written (I have nothing wrong with the original review, although I disagree with some of the points–especially on neoliberalism). I just find YOUR particular criticism baseless. Your only real critique (same for Varun) is that she’s from a different background than the Annawadians about whom she wrote, and so must have a hidden agenda or inability to understand what the people there “really” think/feel/experience. I question her ability to know what Annawadians thought and felt, but on the basis of language and method, not country of origin or race (I made the empathy point in response to Varun saying that as an American she can’t empathize with Annawadians). You have a very essentialist reading of these things (there’s the Foucault point, if you want it).

      You say I am only concerned with Boo’s ‘reading’ of the slum-dwellers. But, isn’t ‘her reading’ precisely what your problem is? You asked for more self-reflexivity, more acknowledgement of how the experiences of the people she describes fit into the bigger Bombay picture, and a different framing of the issues. These are questions of interpretation and reading. How do you convey the hopes and fears of an exhausted, malnourished waste picker who fears for his life every day? Boo went and spent a ton of time speaking with Abdul and other boys and offered an answer. This is what Aman Sethi does with laborers in Delhi in his excellent book A Free Man.

      Your argument about the book being completely neoliberal is premised on a false dichotomy between state and market, and a fear that saying anything bad about the Indian state equals a complete submission to IMF orthodoxy. This is a severely deficient understanding of neoliberalism. Needless to say, you haven’t mentioned a single substantive thing about what is written in the book that you find problematic (besides the fact that she does not mention solidarity networks, which you believe MUST be there since YOU know so well about politics in a place you’ve never been (unless you’re trying to say all slums are the same)).

      • Indulekha D. permalink
        April 13, 2012 2:08 AM

        Michel Foucault, could you define ‘neoliberalism’ then? To be honest, I too have struggled with that part of Sengupta’s critique. But may the problem is that Boo isn’t saying one or two negative things about the state. She is portraying it as something that can never work, and as a *source* of every other problem. That does seem neoliberal.
        p.s. I agree with you that Banerjee and Shekhar have an essentialist reading of things.

      • April 13, 2012 9:30 AM

        Neoliberalism is generally taken to be a) a theory of market efficiency and rationality, b) a set of concrete policies for putting in place that theory, or c) a form of bourgeois class politics that uses that theory to ‘conceal’ its true interests.

        Two prominent approaches to it are offered by Foucault and Harvey.

        Foucault distinguishes his position from three approaches to neo-liberalism, namely, the economic point of view that it is ‘no more than the reactivation of old, secondhand economic theories’ (Birth of Biopolitics: 130), the sociological point of view that ‘it is just a way of establishing strictly market relations in society’, and the political point of view which claims neo-liberalism to be ‘no more than a cover for a generalized administrative intervention by the state.’ For him ‘The problem of neo-liberalism is rather how the overall exercise of political power can be modelled on the principles of a market economy … to discover how far and to what extent the formal principles of a market economy can index a general art of government’ (BB: 131). Interesting here is that the market becomes the model for political power. The state, in other words, not only promotes the market, shaping its rules and organizing what market exchange looks like, but itself becomes marketized by administering on the basis of principles of competition, profitability, economic worth. Much more could be said, but Foucauldian approaches to neoliberalism generally emphasize neoliberalism’s celebration of entrepreneurship and the way that subjects are trained to think of themselves and act as entrepreneurs, taking risks and improving themselves for the purposes of increasing competitiveness. Abdul and Sunil, in Boo’s book, could be read very much in this vein. I think the book should be seen as a critique of neoliberalism (although I think it is much more than that, too) on this basis: the risks Abdul had to take were too great for any individual alone to bear; you need collectivities and social support.

        David Harvey defines neoliberalism very simply: “a politi­cal project to re-establish the conditions for capital accu­mulation and to restore the power of the economic elites.” Notable for Harvey is that neoliberal policies are often put in place by authoritarian states (he begins with Pinochet in Chile and Deng in China–interesting that neoliberalism as a politics didnt start in the West, but as experiments in new capitalist countries), and that neoliberalism (contra it’s own explanation of itself as building a ‘free’ market) often goes hand in hand with increased authoritarianism and restrictions on protest, freedom of speech, etc to ensure market discipline.

        I emphasize this to say the state, for both F and Harvey, plays a central role in the neoliberalization of society. If you don’t have a critique of the state, you have very little artillery for critiquing neoliberalism.
        Harvey writes in his Brief History of Neolbieralism: “Faced with social movements that seek collective interventions, therefore, the neoliberal state is itself forced to intervene, sometimes repressively, thus denying the very freedoms it is supposed to uphold.(69)” Further, and this is a response to those who have said that criticisms of inequality and the Indian state are affronts to “the nation” and ignore all the good in India: “One of the most disturbing trends and contradictions of neoliberalism is its turn toward authoritarian morality based on supposed national “values.” This can be seen in the theocratic tendencies in the U.S., in China’s emphasis on “personal responsibility,” in Putin’s Russia. Nationalism and “national values,” though in direct competition with neoliberalism’s globalizing tendencies, often provides governments with tools to appeal to populist sentiment.”

      • Indulekha D. permalink
        April 16, 2012 12:02 AM

        You say a lot about what neoliberalism is and how it works (the stuff of people like Harvey), but not what neoliberals prescribe as a matter of policy, which is really the question at hand, isn’t it?

      • June 15, 2012 5:56 PM

        Indulekha, one of the critique’s of Boo listed here is that her argument supports ‘neoliberalism’, taken to mean a critique of the state and all that it stands for. I’m saying that if we have a proper conception of what neoliberalism actually aims to do, then she should be seen as a staunch critic of it! As for particular neoliberal policies, I don’t see how anyone could read this book and think she is promoting more market mechanisms (as I’ve suggested in numerous comments above). There aren’t really any self-described ‘neoliberals,’ at least not in government, so I don’t really understand your question. I’m pretty sure your so-called ‘neoliberals’ would have been in favor or removing Annawadi and expanding the fancy hotels, which Boo was clearly against on every page of the book.

  21. Varun Shekhar permalink
    April 12, 2012 7:02 PM

    Michael Foucault: There are certainly individual Americans and Britishers who have empathy with India and its history. It seems strange that just about all the books and/or films dealing with the ‘poverty and degradation bit’( starvation, slums, prostitution, sewage water, rats, rat poison etc..) are by them. Surely, a Cambodian or Peruvian would have noticed the poverty and ‘dirty underbelly’ of modern India by now. Yet, they choose either not to comment/write on it, or they emphasise other features of modern India- namely the dynamism, pluralism, democracy, economic self reliance, relative technological sophistication, educational achievements etc.

    And can anyone deny that American and British news agencies like Associated Press( by far, the worst culprit) and Reuters always, without fail, highlight the strange, the quirky, the funny, the brutal and the very big i.e calamities, when it comes to reporting on India? Why would the Mongolian, Cambodian or Mozambiquan news outlets not do the same? Empathy and respect, that’s why.

  22. Zulema DaMata permalink
    April 12, 2012 9:29 PM

    Hello, I’ve almost finished the book, and can only give you my opinion as American, pretty sure for some an indictment to my intelectual abilities, neverthelss..

    I found myself troubled by learning all about these people, who do not know me.All these intimate secrets made me feel uneasy, is that why they call it poverty porn? But, as a reader,I was humbled and my attention concentrated on how suffering is the same, in a slum in India, favela en Brazil, inner city USA etc.Is the author so terrible to make us see this? Is just a book, not a thesis on how to solve misery.

    • Indulekha D. permalink
      April 13, 2012 2:11 AM

      Yeah, but she (Boo) doesn’t see it as just a simple book. She is pretty insistent that it is *truth*.

  23. April 16, 2012 3:41 AM

    I have read Dr. Sengupta’s articles earlier (in the context of the IAC movement last year), and found them interesting, so I decided to read this review.

    If the central thesis of the book is that the lives of India’s urban poor havent really changed in a positive way in the last twenty years, I am not sure if that should really surprise most people. But it seems that the book does bring out the role of state failure in making it difficult for India’s poor to change their circumstances.

    This would align with the only other portrayal of the urban/semi-urban poor I have read, ‘A Life Less Ordinary’, the autobiography of Baby Haldar. But of course, thats only one account.

  24. john pope permalink
    April 26, 2012 1:19 PM

    It seems that Dr Sengupta’s review of a very ordinary if not banal book has stirred up a particularly testy and occasionally nasty debate about the political and economic future of India. It is extremely fashionable at the moment to say that there is no role for the State in the economy except for passing the legislation to allow the implementation of the neo-liberal agenda, it is nothing short of ignorance or perhaps worse either stupidity or naivety to imagine that doing this will improve the lives and lot of those who live in the slums. It has failed to improve the living standards of the working classes let alone the poor in any country where these policies have been implemented. A quick look around the world will show you that the only developed countries which haven’t slipped into an economic crises are those that maintained a strong welfare state and government intervention in the economy. john Pope

    • Naresh Fernandes permalink
      April 30, 2012 2:57 PM

      Meanwhile, to add a footnote to this long discussion, the Wall Street Journal blog today isn’t completely impressed by the book, because, among other reasons “the broadest brush is saved for the two greatest villains of all, for whom the hotels and the new airport are merely the shock troops: “Globalization” and the “free-market economy.”
      http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2012/04/30/the-letdown-of-behind-the-beautiful-forevers/?mod=wsj_share_twitter

      • Booster permalink
        April 30, 2012 3:59 PM

        That’s one unhappy IMFer! Perhaps Mitu Sengupta will go back to liking the book now…

      • Mitu Sengupta permalink
        May 1, 2012 1:05 AM

        Incredible! Thanks for sharing, Naresh Fernandes. Of course, I think he’s totally wrong, but I’m sure he’d think the same of me :)

        Perhaps we’re on our way to an anthology of writings on Katherine Boo (there are a few out on Slumdog Millionaire already). And as for “Booster” (sigh, another anonymous troll), sorry to disappoint you, but I already “liked” the book.

      • Indulekha D. permalink
        May 4, 2012 12:59 PM

        I can see how the book would be read in that way by somewhat crass right-wingers. But I think you are right that the book’s chief villains are the state’s agents, and it is because of their interventions (or mis-interventions) that the opportunities and hope offered by the market (which are never really questioned) take such a terrible turn. I think there is indeed an alignment here with contemporary “human face” neoliberal narratives, which no longer deny that things have gone wrong; that are in a rush to apportion blame to individuals (state functionaries or excessively greedy bankers) rather the policies and structures that propel such individuals into power, and, most important, that are least interested in what the organized poor frame as their own needs (in fact, the presence of the organized poor is utterly denied… how many political unions are ever “consulted” in the civil society consultations of the World Bank and IMF?).
        I am surprised you say you liked the book.

      • Mitu Sengupta permalink
        May 10, 2012 12:31 PM

        Yes, I liked the book. Just not in a devotional way as some.

  25. Indulekha D. permalink
    May 9, 2012 11:39 PM

    Here is another critique of Katherine Boo, by G. Sampath. He mentions Mitu’s article, and I suspect he was also influenced by some of the comments on this page: http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column_a-brief-introduction-to-boo-lean-algebra_1684503-2

  26. danny permalink
    May 13, 2012 11:09 AM

    I just read the book by Boo and found it very interesting. I grew up in India and lived near a small slum, but had never entered one. This book took me right into the heart of Annawadi.

    I wonder why is it that someone from India did not write such a book? And if it had been written by an Indian, published by an Indian publisher, would it have received the same attention and acclaim?

    Every review that I read of this book, showered praises on it. But why? Is it because we live in an age of conformity? Is it because the Western audience simply loves to read about poverty in India, China, Vietnam? Isn’t the book overtly negative? Is the negative characterisation deliberate or even selective?

    I am glad I found, after very careful googling, this review by Mitu Sengupta. It offers a good critical analysis. Yes, we may not agree with all that it says, but at least it offers insights that most reviews do not.

    I also agree with the issues raised by M. Banerjee in their comments. Indeed, would Boo have allowed someone to write a book about her life, complete with videos and pictures and sexual details?

    On a related note, I have often wondered: what if I were to take a camera and document poverty in America (where I currently live) and try to get the pictures published in National Geographic? Or, for that matter, in some Indian magazine? Would that be reverse voyeurism? Perhaps in India nobody would have the time to care. Poverty is ubiquitous and not exotic, and that would be another reason why nobody in India would care.

    How many educated people in India, who go to work for the IT companies in good positions, would have heard of Boo’s book and would read it?

Trackbacks

  1. Review: ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ by Katherine Boo « terraurban
  2. Things Fall Apart: A Review of Behind The Beautiful Forevers « Kafila
  3. On subversion and masala Bollywood — the case for ‘Shanghai’ « In a Brown Study
  4. The Narrative Imperative in Nonfiction Writing | theorhetorique
  5. Katherine Boo – Tourist with a Typewriter? | wily shelfy

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