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Two journalists get up close and personal with urban poverty in India

Anthropologists and journalists, to the extent that they interact, view each other with some suspicion. They work to different time scales and target different audiences. While the former often dislike what they see as the superficiality and sensationalism of the latter, the latter presumably dislike the obscurantism of the former while sometimes wanting to use them as useful sources of quotes and ideas to lend what is known as ‘academic weight’ to their arguments. But when journalists conduct long term research using immersive techniques on contemporary issues of shared interest to anthropologists, how different are the books they produce? Might anthropologists learn something from journalists and conversely might journalists learn something from anthropology?

Two recent books on urban poverty in India prompted me to ask these questions: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, staff writer for the New Yorker and reporter and editor at the Washington Post and A Free Man by Aman Sethi, a correspondent for the Hindu. Both books have received considerable acclaim and been heralded as exceptional pieces of documentary reportage which lend unprecedented insights into the plight of poor and marginalised people in India’s expanding mega cities. Boo’s book won the National Book Award for Non Fiction in 2012 and was shortlisted for two other major prizes; Sethi’s won The Economist Crossword Book Award in the category of Indian non-fiction writing in 2011. Both are based on several years of engagement with the people whose lives they describe. In Boo’s case we are told she spent four years interviewing and interacting with families in the small and precarious slum settlement of Annawadi couched in the shadows of Mumbai’s international airport. In Sethi’s case, he hung out with homeless construction workers in Bara Tooti Chowk in Delhi’s Sadar Bazar in an attempt to reconstruct the biography and perceptions of a single and somewhat singular wage labourer named Ashraf. There can be little doubt that taken together these books make visible the harsh underside of life in India’s apparently prospering megacities. They detail tales of hard labour, crippling insecurity, lack of opportunity, pervasive corruption, extreme poverty and ill-health. Many of the people whose lives they describe are dead by the end of the books, whether through TB, self-immolation, murder, madness or suicide. My aim in this review is not to deny or belittle the horror of these things but to interrogate the nature of their story telling. I use the term story-telling advisedly for if there is one thing journalists like, it is ‘a good story.’

Boo finds her story in the sordid tale of the self-immolation of a disabled woman named Fatima, locally known as ‘the One Leg.’ Fatima’s claim that she was brutalised by her neighbours is refuted by those who say she set herself alight in a vindictive act aimed at implicating the Husains next door. By all accounts her subsequent death from infected burn wounds was unintended. In the author’s note, Boo tells us her account of the hours leading up to Fatima’s self-immolation and its aftermath  ‘derives from repeated interviews of  168 people, as well as records from the police department, the public hospital, the morgue and the courts.’ It is this ‘good story’ that provides the narrative thread of the book as Boo traces its consequences for those immediately implicated: the Husains, a family whose humble trade of waste picking, sorting and selling is destroyed by spells in prison and a long and costly court case linked to Fatima’s death; Asha, an ambitious and apparently unscrupulous woman who rises to power in the slum through a variety of exploitative and opportunistic means which are exposed in some detail; and a number of young people: Abdul (the Husain boy wrongly arrested in the Fatima case), Manju (Asha’s daughter – a hard-working student and teacher), Sonu (an honest and diligent waste picker), Sunil (a less scrupulous orphaned waste picker) and Kalu, Meena and Sanjay whose entry into the book seems designed largely to enable us to follow the brutal means by which they die: murder in the case of Kalu and suicide by rat poisoning in the cases of Meena and Sanjay.

Boo states in the author’s note (located at the back of the book, presumably so as not to disrupt the story) that she was ‘impatient with poignant snapshots of Indian squalor’ and wanted to provide something different that might detail how ordinary low-income people are negotiating global markets – something she achieves in the passages which trace the technicalities of waste picking in the hands of Abdul, Sonu and Sunil and demonstrate how their pickings are dependent on global political events and fluctuations in market prices. However, the frequent use of lurid and negatively-charged language replete with ‘rat-infested garbage sheds’, ‘sewage lakes’, ‘shit-caked pigs’, ‘scavengers’, ‘slum-dwellers’ and ‘thieves’ along with a disproportionate fascination with violent deaths results in a book which ultimately reproduces the sensationalist and stereotypical representations of poverty it purports to critique.

Boo presents her work as non-fiction and it is undoubtedly grounded in real life people and events. Mindful of her foreign status and the problem of the language barrier she tried “to compensate for these limitations by time spent, attention paid, documentation secured and accounts cross-checked.’ However, from an anthropological perspective her position as neutral and omnificent story teller is highly problematic. We get no real sense of the nature and texture of her engagement with the residents of Annawadi and no indication of when she is present or absent from the numerous conversations she takes liberty to present in such colourful detail. Rather than giving voice to local people she creates voices and, more disturbingly, thoughts, feelings, emotions and perceptions for them. Whilst such inventiveness would be appreciated and expected from a novelist, it sits uncomfortably in a work presented as fact and is often quite simply unconvincing.   When, for example Sunil finds out about Kalu’s murder, we are told ‘He felt small and sad and useless. Who had done such a thing to his friend? But the fog of shock and grief didn’t fully obscure his understanding of the social hierarchy in which he lived’ (168). Is this Sunil’s reflection or Boo’s or an uncomfortable amalgam of the two?  There is also the problem of intrusiveness familiar to anyone who has conducted immersive research, whether as a journalist or ethnographer. Whilst the author takes pains to describe how Annawadi residents suffer from a stifling and claustrophobic lack of privacy, she simultaneously devotes a lot of time to divulging their secret affairs, both sexual and financial.  I could not help feeling that anonymity might have been a welcome relief and the cloak of fiction a preferred option for many of the residents of Annawadi rather than being exposed to the reporter’s tell-tale gaze. That Boo’s book has been so widely praised both by Indian and foreign reviewers for the intimate detail it offers into the lives and minds of India’s poor without more discussion of these issues is at once curious and disturbing.

As a seasoned reporter Aman Sethi also sets out in search of a good story, but what is markedly different in his account is the transparency with which he does this. He makes no secret of the fact that he is hanging out with the elusive and flamboyant construction worker, Ashraf, because he knows he’ll make “good copy.” He reminds us that any knowledge generated about Ashraf’s life comes from Ashraf’s own idiosyncratic and chaotic rendering of events and that to try to impose order on his meandering narratives and observations would be to miss the point. Eliciting snippets of Ashraf’s life story means hanging out with his friends, participating in long drinking sessions, being woken up by late night phone calls, getting bored, frustrated and exhilarated in the process and from time to time offering companionship, advice, hospital visits, clean underwear and periodic loans. What Sethi forms is an ethnographic relationship with Ashraf that becomes a platform for the latter to express his original and insightful opinions about life and work. ‘The ideal job’ he tells Sethi, ‘has the perfect balance of kamai [work] and Azadi [freedom].’ Prompted further he describes Azadi as the ‘the freedom to tell the malik [boss] to fuck off when you want to.’ He goes on to elucidate both the hazards and benefits of being a day labour, demonstrating how self-respect can be generated through a sense of independence even in the most impoverished of circumstances. Ashraf never loses his dignity in this account even if the tales he tells of wage labour, broken family relationships, failed businesses, alcohol dependence and TB are distressing. What emerges is a unique portrait of a man who has experiences to recount and opinions worth listening to. Whilst leaving space for Ashraf’s distinctive voice, Sethi simultaneously offers context by sketching the history of Sadar Bazar, the ins and outs of the construction industry with its different categories of skilled and unskilled labour, the consequences of the government’s crackdown on unauthorised construction on the lives of casual labourers, the organisation of grain collection and sorting from Delhi’s godowns, the multiple social and economic functions of a chai-stall, the conditions on TB wards and even the frustrations of a Delhi ‘beggar-catcher.’ It is to Sethi’s credit that he never resorts to caricature or sweeping generalisation but seeks to maintain the distinctiveness of the people he meets. One figure who stands out is Bhagwan Das, ex-rickshaw driver turned barber who having survived a near fatal accident, decides to devote his life to shaving patients with TB. ‘One must accept that living is itself a risky business’ he tells the author sagely. ‘To live is to risk death.’ If Sethi encounters poverty and sickness in the process of his research he also encounters humour and wisdom which he does not hesitate to include.

In the final chapter of the book Sethi tries to sketch out the timeline of Ashraf’s life, prompting the latter to comment from his TB ridden bed, ‘That’s it, Aman bhai. Now you know everything about me – sab kuch. Like a government form: name, date of birth, mother’s name, place of residence, everything. Our facts are pasted in your note book, our voices all locked in your recorder …… Now you know everything. What will we talk about if we ever meet again? The past is done, Aman bhai. In future we will only talk about the future.’ There is a humorous and mocking tone to this commentary on the limitations of transforming lived lives into apparent facts and perhaps the difference between a good ethnography and a bad one is its recognition of these limitations.

I began by asking what anthropologists and journalists share in common and what they might learn from one another. One thing journalists excel at is attracting a wide readership through the art of story-telling. There is much that anthropologists could learn about this craft. Too often anthropological accounts are narrow and introspective and fail to engage a wider public beyond the academy. But anthropology also has many important lessons to offer about the nature of evidence, the role of ethnographic authority, the co-production of knowledge, the ethics of fieldwork and the problems of representation. Different anthropologists struggle more or less successfully with these issues including the challenge of sometimes having to show ethnographic restraint. What makes A Free Man stand out from Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the way it successfully combines the techniques and insights of both anthropology and journalism, thereby making significant contributions to both.

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