I think I have read my Book of the Year. A random pick-up from the library the other day yielded a read so powerful, so moving, so poignant and yet so entertaining that I am humbly in awe.
Katherine Boo is an investigative journalist who spent years recording the lives of people existing at the edges of society in one of Mumbai’s largest slums, Annawadi. For Indians like me, who had grown up staring poverty in the face every single day without ever having to live through it, this book is a jolt from an uncomfortable part of our past. Written as thoroughly engaging narrative non-fiction, the book weaves through the lives of 3 main characters — waste trader Abdul, trash scavenger Sunil, first girl college graduate Manju — and their families, as they barely survive within a subculture of abject neglect and lack. More than once, I had to lay down the book to literally stare at where I am and how a 100th of it would look to the eyes of an Annawadian. A 60 sq. ft. living space shared by 11 people? Unimaginable. Bathing in a sewage lake because that’s the only water available? How? Passing a dying man on the street and leaving him there because of mortal danger to your own life by proxy? Unbearable truth.
A non-Indian reading this book may not be as affected by the truth in its pages because, honestly, the rot in the Indian system is so fantastical that it would be unimaginably alien to someone who hasn’t lived through it. One can expect to be shocked, dismayed, infuriated, exasperated at the seemingly mythical proportions of injustice that a majority of Indians have to endure on a daily basis, but no one can nonchalantly walk away from it. I read the whole book with a sickening pit in my belly, the pain of which wasn’t enough for me to be able to put this one down. Read at your own risk.
There were a few lines in the book that I’m reproducing here because I just can’t not. These tore me up.
“Some called him garbage, and left it at that.”
“…with gunny sacks of garbage on their backs, like a procession of broken-toothed, profit-minded Santas.”
“Scavengers slept on top of their garbage bags to prevent other scavengers from stealing them.”
Boo has won a Pulitzer for her work. I’m thinking she deserved it.