In a 2009 New Yorker piece, Boo very subtly compared the poverty of the airport slums with the world of Slumdog Millionaire, a film in which a poor Indian boy uses lessons learned from his childhood to win big on a game show. Here, as in that article, Boo demonstrates that the slumdwellers’ victories are quieter. I nearly cheered aloud when I read of Abdul’s father defying a bribe-seeking official. He knows that she is lying about how the legal process works—because he has been reading Urdu newspapers. (Go, journalism!) Still, the lessons the Annawadians learn aren’t neatly instructive, and their stories never quite resolve.
Boo’s willingness to acknowledge complication and contradiction is only one strategy she deploys to resist reducing the slum’s inhabitants to representatives for Our World’s Problems. Most notably, she gives us access to the slumdwellers’ consciousnesses, and deeper still, their imaginations. These are among the book’s most moving passages, and finest feats of reportorial self-effacement. The depth of Boo’s reporting enables her to achieve the close point of view usually reserved for fiction. (Disclosure: Like Boo, I am published by Random House, but as a novelist.)
We have what feels like almost total access to Abdul’s point of view, and his observations serve as an arc in which his concern for his own heart and humanity evolves and changes. Abdul begins by wanting little and having hardly any time in which to think. Imprisonment, oddly, gives him time to develop theories more complex than his original assessment “that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they avoided. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.” Boo charts an emotional and moral journey that heartens, surprises, and saddens.
Although the story begins—and, indeed, ends—with Abdul, a constellation of friends and fellows shines around him: the youth of Annawadi, with their dreams of varying heights. In addition to Abdul, for instance, we meet 12-year-old scavenger Sunil, who looks after a younger sister, only to be troubled by her outgrowing him; recruited to join a band of thieves, he balks, fearful that he won’t like himself as a robber. Later, when he does become a thief, he regrets the way his face has changed.
Despite some of their parents’ efforts to teach them that self-interest is the only survival skill that matters in Annawadi, the children form friendships and alliances. Boo gives us a window into their willingness to be kind to each other through difficult circumstances. In several instances, older boys attempt to look after and counsel younger ones. Two girls, of different castes and with differently oppressive mothers, cultivate a friendship based on regular escapes to the public toilet. Not all of these friendships end smoothly or well, but their threads form a spider web of care that catches what the future could be.
Spending much of her time with Annawadi’s women and children, Boo captures their complex interior lives. These characters, too, are many-sided. Ash, the aspiring Annawadi slumlord and Shiv Sena politician, justifies her Machiavellian schemes by considering how they might profit her daughter, Manju, who runs a school more diligently than the authorities require, and who hopes to be a college graduate and teacher someday. (Much of Manju’s education consists of memorizing summaries of books she hasn’t read.) In one of the most breathtaking sequences, two families fight, but when tradition dictates that common religious background means helping with a funeral, Boo shows the bereaved’s opponent aiding with no hesitation. This is the pleasure of Boo’s storytelling; everyone is capable of both righteousness and its opposite.