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Slums, schools and neocolonialism

January 04, 2013

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.