“One choice that I don’t agonise about is when I write, keeping myself out of it. The reporter writing about how she got her story has become de rigeur: a lot of self-mythologising bullshit.”
There is no “I” in Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, except in the Author’s Note. She spent about four years in Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai airport, trying with the help of two translators to listen to and understand the lives of the people who lived there. Across the 244 pages of the book, what you read and hear most are the voices of Asha and her aspirations to become a slum landlord; Abdul, a teenager who sorts garbage and is accused of a murder that is actually a suicide; Manju, the college girl who is bored stiff by having to read Mrs Dalloway. Boo’s opinions come in, if at all, in a low murmur.
When you read interviews by journalists just discovering this brand-new form – chiefly in the US and the UK of the 1930s and the 1950s, but often also 1990s and 2000s India, to the enduring embarrassment of those of us who were shaped by those times – the “I” is everywhere.
An early Paris Review profile of Graham Greene, conducted in 1919, has the intrusive voices of the two interviewers, with questions longer than Greene’s answers. In another few decades, the Paris Review interviews with writers had changed. The interviewer’s voice was sharp and personal, but his or her presence was increasingly obliterated.
“My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action — even an opinion is a kind of action.”
This defence of the reporter’s objectivity is made by Fowler in Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, The Quiet American. But Greene didn’t necessarily believe that reporters should be objective; Fowler’s own objectivity rests on thin ground. “‘You can rule me out,’ I said. ‘I’m not involved. Not involved,’ I repeated. It had been an article of my creed. The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved.” This, as Graham Greene knew and Boo knows, is not a stand any reporter can afford to take.
“The corpse measured 66 inches from blue toes to jutting ears.” (From Katherine Boo’s reports on the mental health care system in The Washington Post.)
Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers is already a legend, especially among journalists. It cannot be dismissed as yet another lazy excursion into slum poverty tourism, or as an outsider’s account of India. Boo’s determination to give all of the space of the book over to the people she meets, rather than to what she thinks of them or of Annawadi, is what gives the book its moral centre and force.
In her time as a New Yorker reporter, Boo often wrote just one piece a year. When Indian journalists hear this, their first reaction is often envy — the three things that have been missing from the Indian journalism landscape are a proper grounding in media ethics, column inches and time. If 2,000 words – compared to the roughly 7,000 words Boo had earned at The New Yorker – is a luxury, a year to work on a story is almost unimaginable in the Indian context.
But there is another way to be the kind of journalist Katherine Boo represents. Boo and The Washington Post team won a Pulitzer for a year’s worth of reporting – 20 stories – on the mental health care system. When you look at that line about the corpse, it speaks of careful reporting. I could think of at least a dozen Indian journalists who could also have got those details.
Then Boo continues.
“The body in plaid pajamas was that of a 57-year-old retarded ward of the District of Columbia. On the streets outside the city-funded group home where he had lived and died, kids sometimes called him Retard-O. Inside, he sweetened the hours by printing the name his mother gave him before she gave him up. Frederick Emory Brandenburg. He blanketed old telephone directories with that name, covered the TV Guides the home’s staffers tossed aside. He glutted the flyleaves of his large-print Living Bible. The immensity of the effort made his hands shake, but the habit seemed as requisite as breath. In this way Brandenburg, whose thick-tongued words were mysteries to many, impressed the fact of his existence on his world.”
It is hard to see with that paragraph, as it is with Behind the Beautiful Forevers, how much work went into it. Boo tells you some of it — a section in her book about the self-immolation of Fatima Shaikh is based on interviews with 168 people, she filed hundreds of RTI applications in order to understand the world of Annawadi. But it’s not the hours she spent interviewing the doctors she met at the group home or Brandenburg’s colleagues, or the hours she spent in Annawadi that are the point.
The point is only this: when she met the people who lived in Annawadi, Sunil and Abdul, Manju Waghekar and Zehrunisa, she listened to everything they had to say, even to everything that was hard for them to say. And that is what makes Katherine Boo’s journalism, and Behind the Beautiful Forevers, unforgettable.
The writer is at twitter.com/nilanjanaroy