Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Slums, schools and neocolonialism


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

Katherine Boo was an award winning journalist with the Washington Post. Katherine Boo was interested in India. Katherine Boo moved to Mumbai. In an irony whose literary potential must have been immediately visible to a Western writer in search for a vocal juxtaposition of development and depravity, Katherine Boo found Annawadi. One of Mumbai’s grimiest, dirtiest and most hapless slums, Annawadi is located in a reclaimed bog just outside the entrance to the Mumbai International Airport. With their decrepit sewage lake and suspicious community of trash sorters and prostitutes, Annawadians like hardy parasites live off the glitzy orb of the Airport. An eyesore for those arriving and departing the city, the slum remains hidden from the better off behind a line of advertising bill boards. In a homage to ironic placement, the slogan on the billboards is “Beautiful Forevers” hence the title of Boo’s book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”.

In the months since its release; Boo has been fitfully embraced by readers and reviewers alike and nearly all the praise heaped on Boo’s book about the slum dwellers of Annawadi has been well-deserved. The turn of phrase, the lack of sentimentality and the depth of characterisation of the slum dwellers deftly avoid the pitfalls of obvious orientalist reductionism. The introverted trash sorter can be resilient but also cowardly, the prostitute can be self-serving and cruel and compassionate. In so ardently representing all the multi-dimensionality of her subjects Boo humanises them, and so shores up against any jibes that would suggest a romanticised poverty, that downfall of the Western writer seeking to produce heady dregs of literature from the darker world.

If you’ve ever cursed slums, for their existence or encroachment, perhaps because one comes or came or could come close to your own hard won corner of relatively less depravity, Boo’s book would make you squirm. On the surface this is a good thing; in terms of moral awakenings and calls to compassion; the opening of eyes to expose the humanity of marginalised others, is indeed the worthiest calling for any writer and here we have one who has realised it. Sentenced to eternal competitiveness Pakistanis will readily grant that Indians, swooning in their hunger to overtake China and overcome America, need a wake-up call, a picture of the casualties of their progress and who better to provide it than a compassionate outsider who can expose what literally lies behind their billboard of success.

It is in this last point about compassion that pokes out from Boo’s smooth serving of the Indian slum. Similar to Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, a book written admittedly with far less literary prowess and pinned to a more predictable trajectory of obstacles overcome “Behind Beautiful Forevers” pads the ranks of an emerging cadre of literature that could well be called “compassionate” neocolonialism. Evading the more obvious dictums of the orientalist seeking the easy, feel good moment that can be obtained by looking in turn at the rape filled, terrorism ridden, poverty laden, non-West,  this perspective seeks to show by its embrace of marginalisation and hardship a new picture of the non-Western world as a markedly uncaring one. The better heeled Mumbai dwellers who do not need to fry rats or eat sewage watered grass for dinner, the private school attending punk band playing teenagers of Islamabad only miles away from Gilgit-Baltistan are all too wrapped up in their own lives to care about the destitution so close to them. It is not them but the Western author who chooses to take on the cause of their most marginalised. Implicitly then, is this venerated outsider’s perspective that is at the filter of the slum/school morality play; its dramatic acts unraveling with the bumbling graciousness of Mortensen or the precise prose of Boo.

There is danger of course in this critique; the interesting story and whatever moral lessons may be got from it are after all not the intellectual property of one culture, community or simply the world’s hapless against the world’s voyeurs; literary or otherwise. The indictment of local class systems, whether they exist in India or Pakistan is a necessary task and questioning who has the right to do so smacks more than a bit of the resentful Indian or Pakistani who never saw the storied potential of building schools in villages or hanging out among the slum-dwellers of Annawadi or lacks the connections to transform them into lucrative book deals.

The question of urging a more examined look at these narratives of compassion is instead motivated precisely by its deflection of critique. How different is an indictment for the lack of compassion from the colonial condescension over a lack of civilization Is Boo and Mortensen’s evasion of critique (who can criticise the humanisation of slums or the building of schools) a deft repackaging of the same linear views of history where those already having developed, already having educated everyone can look back or down and say, here is what you lack. No mention is made of course of the fact that, caring for the Westerner is always presented as a choice, and in the case of Boo and Mortensen a financially rewarding one, lauded simply because unlike the slum ignoring, illiteracy tolerating Indians and Pakistanis, the West owes the world’s hapless absolutely nothing.

The reductionism of compassionate neocolonialism exists then in its lack of examination of the “uncaring rest” - the Indians and Pakistanis that allow the slum or the school-less village to exist. All of these are presented as one vast callous monolith, their own constrictions, their lack of detachment, their insecurities of class and status in their absence invoke the thesis that it is the rural, uneducated Pakistani aching for an education or the untouchable trash sorting Indian living by a sewage lake who is the least morally culpable of these worlds, making anyone who has anything morally contemptible or at least questionable. If the crude colonialism of earlier eras or different political stripes simply demonised the darker poorer, more slum ridden world for its dirt and filth, this new one revives the trope that it takes those more schooled in eking out the interesting dimensions of failure that have the correct or at least the dominant narrative about India’s slums and Pakistan’s illiteracy.


Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times,  Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Author Image

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (20) Closed

rich Jan 04, 2013 10:02am
west loves writting about asian poverty, they derive some sort of sadastic pleasure, about writting and reading about it i have seen in bombay tourist will go arond clicking photographs of beggars and street dwellers, i have never seen them clicking phptpgraphs of people going to office or children going to school ect bec it does not make for dramatic images to show when they go home poverty is everywhere in the world a lot of people stay on the roads in USA, they live of garbage, india is a poor country as well as badly managed hence the poverty, is aggravated, but what is the excuse pf the western world, it is something to be pondered over, and written about i know about the slum mentioned above, most of those people are migrant, whoo just come from rural ares and stay where they like mostly in places close to their work place, in this slum and in most mumbai slum u will find television, with cable connection, refrigerators ect, so poverty is relative, what they lack is proper drainage, toilets ect which makes the place filthy, and the reason is since the slum is illegal on encroacched land gpvy cannot provide these amenities as it would be encourage illegal encroachment on govt land many of these people are proffesional slum dwellers, govt gives them houses in govt buildi\ colonies, these people rent it out and go and stay in some other slums Richie
Vijay K Jan 04, 2013 01:35pm
Well written. The West came up by robbing the rest of the world through colonizing and modern times slavery (as in USA). We don't have that luxury. And sure, there are growing pains. Poverty is not something to feel good or bad about. Its something we have to work to get rid of, and that wont happen overnight. Till then, let the white tourists get their joy by clicking beggars.
amit Jan 04, 2013 05:17pm
what has this got to do with pak..ever read articles in indian papers or journals comparing india with ? I mean get over your india complex. No one in India cares about pak and that is the honest truth.
Cyrus Howell Jan 04, 2013 05:03pm
In "the darker world" of everyday Forever is a long time, so people have to change their lives if they can and by any means possible as the saying goes. In the great Indian cities people fall by the wayside who are not fit for competition, the mentally and physically handicapped and the diseased. Buddha left the palace to experience the suffering of mankind, for it was written, "He who feels the suffering of every creature is the greatest of all saints". He wanted to be the greatest of all saints but he saw so much of human misery he could no longer look it in the eye. When the poor still begged him for help he took to the hills and mountains and he taught those who sought his help to endure their suffering, early death, starvation and fitful lives. I know a [Catholic] Trappist monk who worked for Mother Teresa for four years in Calcutta. She was, according to him, very depressed toward the end of her life when she like Buddha realized abject poverty has no cure. She kept her Indian mission going with a smile for the cameras but she was finally overwhelmed. I am reminded of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera's painting of a Spanish priest in robes hugging a Mexican Indian peasant with all of his heart and soul, all of his love and religious fervor. It is quite moving really, but Rivera's message is clear - when you can't help them you love them. You love them, unless you are busy with your own life and your own children and your own problems. So the Wheel of Life is spun. You pays yer money and you takes yer chances.
Pankaj Patel(USA) Jan 04, 2013 08:00pm
If west wants to enjoy writing and filming "Slum dog millionaire" why complain about it? We know it and we need not hide it under the carpet.We are poor and that is the fact.At least the author has found some common link between India and Pakistan that neither can deny.I hope we can work on this.
Vijay K Jan 07, 2013 12:31pm
Tahir, I agree with you about systematic manipulation. One good example is selling arms to both India and Pakistan and pushing us to war (any bets we will fight again to bring the West out of recession?). Only those governments get western aid/funding who kow-tow to the west and get pressurized to buy their arms. The ones that don't obey, get toppled (Libya, Iraq, Syria etc). However, I'm optimistic seeing advances in some fields like aerospace, (India launches its own satellites) stem-cell research (India ranks amongst the top in that field) and agriculture (Hissar Agri Univ). Don't forget that the West has had a 300 year head start after the industrial revolution, which we were not allowed to participate in.
Jawed Haque Jan 04, 2013 11:48am
Quote for Ms. Zakaria: If you judge someone, you cannot love them - Sister Teresa of the Calcutta slums
Rahat Jan 04, 2013 12:52pm
Sad to say this, but the poverty and squalor all over India is of chronic proportions and for the faint hearted traveller can lead to a permanent state of shock and depression. I did not notice the same while in London, NY, Lima or Seoul amongst many other cities that I travelled in the world.
raika45 Jan 04, 2013 01:31pm
All right! How many of you reading this understood what the lady is saying put up your hands.That is if you managed to reach the end.This is bombastic English for Harvard or Oxford level.
rich Jan 06, 2013 03:31pm
Tahir, u dont really know about call centre and back office, the western pop hates india and some other countries for taking away their jobs, many indian co have opened shops is the west and provide services, its is by choice, slavery is one sided the other side is forced that is the difference Richie
S Sundar Kumar Iyer Jan 05, 2013 09:39am
What you say is only partly true and hence distorts the truth. Many of the westerners are actually shocked that a supposedly progressive society will not mind so many of its fellow citizens living in such abject and shockingly pathetic condition. There may be many 'valid' reasons of why this has come about. But it is a fact that so many people live a horrible and de-humanised lives. And it is not surprising that the middle class cringes and goes on the offensive as soon as this stark truth is pointed out. One finds this tendency in all places that have failed to provide for their citizens - be it Bombay, Calcutta, Karachi or Dacca. So instead of making typical rationalisations, it might be better to accept that there is a problem and do what is within one's power to try and find a solution. Just snubbing people who talk about it is not appropriate and is in fact harmful. S.K.I. Kanpur
FJ Jan 06, 2013 04:08pm
Excellent work. The same could have been better if communicated simpler : )
Tahir Jan 05, 2013 11:15am
Don't blame the West. It is simply that we are inadequate in our intelligence and wit to let others come and dominate us. Even to this day we are slaves of the West. Look at India boasting about its boom in IT. It is an imported commodity and as an example, the call centres are simply slavery being practiced through 'distance' manipulation. The rich and West are still getting richer through systematic manipulation and we remain totally dormant. Wake up.
rich Jan 05, 2013 01:02pm
rahat saab try LA, Chicago,new orleana, in the inner cities and u will get an answers and this in a country whose defenses spending is more then the entire budget of 99% of the countries do u get the Picture let me compare india and usa per capita of india is 1500 dolars usa over 50000 area usa is almost 3times the size pop of usa is 25% of indias so get an idea of the pop density agricultural production US govt pays farmers no not cultivate the land, bec if all the farmers cultivate their land supply will far outstrip demand all over the world and prices will fall (its economic, but not humane) if usa cut just 10% of its defence budget and channel it to the homeless of usa, that problem will be solved in theory so povert is relative
SK Jan 05, 2013 06:47pm
Good business - writing books for westerners.
Vic Jan 06, 2013 07:04pm
I agree with raika45. I admit that I did not fully understand the point made by the writer. Why do the writers who are writing on a popular book use complicated language that makes things difficult for the reader? They should realise that Dawn online is not an academic journal but a public forum.
shirin Jan 06, 2013 06:51pm
As Ethan Casey, author of several books on Pakistan and India, said, and I paraphrase - while Indians get angry at any criticism of India by an outsider, Pakistanis are extremely quick to accept their faults. Despite reading numerous articles in Dawn critical of Pakistan, the one article that gets you is the one that happens to say not so great things about India. "Never put loyalty above truth. It is the root cause of evil" Prophet Mohammed (pbuh)
Mukesh Jan 06, 2013 01:26pm
If someone points out ourproblem let us not become emotional and start finding faults with others - we should accept the truth and work towards eliminating such issues.
Ajaya K Dutt Jan 05, 2013 11:03pm
Katherine Boo could have stayed home and worked on south central part of City of Angles. It is a living hell and she did not have to travel that far either.
Dev Jan 06, 2013 05:54am
Aha! Finally Pakistan and India being compared as fellow Pakistanis must be so wonder this book is making headlines in Dawn, slander sells best when people can't pay for potatoes