Poverty as Destiny
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.