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.
In the long, frank author’s note, Boo reveals some things about her methods of reporting, the instances in which her presence changed the situation, and the long conversations she had with young people like Abdul about what they felt and thought. “Abdul and Sunil, for instance, had previously spoken little about their lives and feelings, even to their own families. I came to my understanding of their thoughts by pressing them in repeated (they would say endless) conversations and fact-checking interviews,” Boo writes in her author’s note. Some may doubt the authenticity of such a narrative when Boo is not Indian and had to rely on translators to do this kind of work. As for me, I hate the word authenticity. True, translations are rarely perfect. But even a story paraphrased or retold in the same language changes. Why do we pretend that languages are pure? That stories can or even should stay the same every time they’re told? Yes, things do get lost in translation, but, as Boo observes, had she only spoken to those who knew English, she would have distorted the story in another way. And to argue that this story belongs to an Indian reporter would be fundamentally small-hearted: It would suggest that we should observe rather than exceed our limits in our attempts to connect with other people.