The celebrated author Katherine Boo is in town talking about her book Behind the Beautiful Forevers. It is a remarkable book based on her months and years spent watching and talking to people in a Mumbai self-built settlement and hunting up official records for background. Her book tells a tale that sings off the page, as anthropologist Erica Bornstein puts it in her recent review – a tragic elegy sprinkled lightly with hope that grips you in its plot and draws you to its characters. You learn about how people live in this particular poor nook of the city, coping with a callous market-society and an uncaring state. And though this neighborhood Annawadi, right near Mumbai’s international airport, is a cesspool of sewage and inadequate housing, its residents, she writes, are not considered “below the poverty line” – turns out in India the BPL folk are even more destitute.
By reading Boo’s book, her “literary non-fiction,” you learn about urban poverty in India. But you don’t learn by reading history or considering the statistics or what government and NGOs are doing to tackle it – you feel it. Abdul collects, sorts and sells garbage for recycling. You feel his family’s fleeting hopes of moving to a plot outside the city, on his profits. Then, you feel their panic when family members become falsely accused of murder, are thrown into prison and face court trials that takes years. Abdul’s friend Kalu is killed. Most likely it is airport security guards who kill him and then the police record of his death is dismissive and inaccurate – you feel the horror. Kalu’s friend Sanjay commits suicide; Meena commits suicide. You feel their despair and hopelessness.
Boo’s book is a bestseller. Many people (many English-speaking metropolitan people) are reading it, including all incoming students here at Cal, through the campus’s On the Same Page program. To me, this is really exciting because I believe, with Bornstein, that books like Boo’s can and do change the way we think about poverty, about what can alleviate it, and what “we” should do about it. Boo’s book is shifting the discourse about poverty and inequality for students at Cal and for her readers everywhere.
At recent campus events – her keynote at the First Congregational Church; the roundtable in Sutardja Dai Hall – I’ve heard Boo say more than once that the point is not to hatch great plans for poor people; the point is to understand the conditions of their lives and to support their particular survival strategies. And her story takes us precisely there. Because she is so skillful in her storytelling, because her story is so gripping and poignant, we become wild fans of her protagonists. Though they bribe the police and compete viciously with each other, we sympathize with their predicament, we understand their choices, we grieve with them and root for them.
For so many years now so many people and institutions have been talking about poverty and inequality. Against this poverty and inequality cacophony, Boo’s book sounds a tragic symphony, at once complex and simple. At the recent campus events, one quiet tinkle in that symphony, one brief melody stood out momentarily and resonated for me with other notes I’ve been listening for recently in the overall cacophony: Boo spoke the words “cash transfers.” She said it hesitantly and in passing. She spoke of researchers elsewhere weighing their pros and cons. It’s true, people in many places are talking of cash transfers – or the different but related idea of a “universal basic income” — putting cash directly into people’s pockets, side-stepping state welfare schemes and cushioning people against market forces.
This brief note on cash transfers was raised during the roundtable at Sutardja Dai Hall specially focused on solutions to poverty. The state/the government itself made an appearance on this roundtable, with both Boo and Professor Isha Ray (of Energy and Resources Group) noting how no poverty alleviation could happen without its active involvement.
No modern society has rid itself of modern poverty without the state stepping in to help make it so, said Dr. Ray. Fair enough. But the state in India tumbles off Boo’s pages in filthy disrepair and moral bankruptcy. In India, the state resources are there, says Dr. Ray, but in India, all pro-poor policies are dismantled and refabricated, writes Boo. For example, government monies for a school are handed to a lucky citizen in return for a kickback to the official. End result: a couple of people’s incomes raised and no school.
That people tolerate or submit to such a dissolute state apparatus raises all kinds of questions – most thoughtfully handled, I believe, by anthropologists of the state who explore past forms of authority, particular histories of political economy, and so on, to make sense of how people view their nation-states. What can be powerful about the anthropological approach are the questions it raises about mainstream liberal assumptions about people, their understandings of their citizen status, and their expectations of their nation-state. Yet, what is powerful about Boo’s book is that, with rigorous and passionate fact-checking (hers has been a long labor of love) in place of any particular conceptual scaffolding, she makes it impossible for us not to care for the people who are ferociously exploited by an uncaring state and its failure to protect against a callous market-society.
Because she makes us care, Boo is shifting the discourse on poverty. She is preparing the ground for everyday liberal support of pro-poor policies – say, for example, policies such as cash transfers or universal basic incomes – directed not only to the residents of Annawadi, of whom we are already wild fans, but to everyone else as well, including those so different we cannot root for them.
Here at Berkeley, students can reflect on that shifting ground in so many ways, as historians and philosophers, as economists and sociologists, as doctors and engineers, as poets, writers, and musicians. In college, lucky for this time between childhood and adult action, they can pause and reconsider the crowded highways of poverty alleviation. They could prepare to take exits, meet less-surveyed populations and, away from the blaring horns of the major traffic routes, they might hear different music. It could happen right next to an international airport in an emerging world city