A Conversation with Katherine Boo and Aman Sethi
In the past few years, some extraordinary non-fiction has been published about India, often dealing with poverty in a way that is gripping, funny, humane, and thought-provoking. These books are superbly reported but could also be read by some as if they were the best of fiction. Two of them are Aman Sethi’s A Free Man (2011) and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012).
Aman Sethi is a young journalist who befriended Ashraf, a homeless labourer, in the Sadar Bazaar area of Old Delhi. A Free Man tells the story of their friendship. Ashraf worked long hours, then spent his money on drink and smokes. He had lost touch with all of his family, even forgetting his mother’s phone number, and was eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis. In Sethi’s hands, Ashraf becomes more than simply a labourer with his array of troubles—he is charming, colourful, humorous, full of eccentric homilies, wild, maddening, and ultimately tragic. A Free Man was hugely acclaimed in India and will be published in the U.K. and North America this year.
Katherine Boo is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and a New Yorker staff writer known for her writing on American poverty. Five years ago, she began to follow the lives of people living in Annawadi, a slum nestled in the shadows of the gleaming Hyatt hotel near the Mumbai airport. Behind the Beautiful Forevers tells the story of many of the slum dwellers, centring on Abdul, a sharp young garbage picker who has almost made enough money to get his family of eleven out of the slum into a new housing development. Then the family’s fortunes are overturned. Behind the Beautiful Forevers has been one of the most acclaimed books published this year, hailed as one of the finest books written on India.
Earlier this year, I joined Katherine and Aman in conversation at the Jaipur Literary Festival.
Sarkar: I’m going to start at the beginning: What made the two of you tell these stories?
Sethi: Well, A Free Man started with a three-part series I was doing for Frontline magazine on working Delhi. In 2005 and 2006, Delhi was going through an incredible urban transformation in preparation for the Commonwealth Games. A lot of slums were being cleared, and there was a perception among some of us in the newsroom that Delhi was changing from a city that did nuts-and-bolts manufacturing, getting-your-hands-dirty kind of work—there used to be factories in 2000/2001 before they were pushed out by a Supreme Court order—and was slowly trying to become a modern city with a financial- or services-driven industry. So we wanted to try to capture this kind of gritty everyday work, and the first part of the series happened to be on construction work. That took me to a site in north-central Delhi called Sadar Bazaar, where you have weekly and daily labour markets, and that’s where I met the characters that would come to inhabit my book. Soon after I finished that story, I got a six-month grant, where the idea was to try to use narrative techniques to write about labour and work. I’d been hugely influenced by writings such as Studs Terkel’s Working and Ben Hamper’s Rivethead and other such accounts. I also read a bit of Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, which is a slender book but it’s still this kind of tome. But those books were not of India, so I thought it would be interesting to have such an account here, so it started as an experiment, then gradually grew.
Sarkar: Of course, the thing that made the project was the particular magic of Ashraf, who is a man so colourful that a novelist could have made him up. Do you think that, I mean, apart from wanting to write about poverty, it was in the particularity of meeting Ashraf that you said, Yeah, great story there?
Sethi: It actually went the other way around in the sense that, when you’re trained as a beat reporter, the idea is to look for that macro story. So the project actually began as an attempt to tell this massive macro story about Delhi, where we would write about urban transformation. And then as I began researching, I started getting more and more drawn into a small group of workers, and of them the most prominent was Ashraf. After the first four or five months of reporting, I found that out of sixty, seventy, eighty, one hundred hours of recording, a good fifty, sixty hours are of just this one man talking, and I realized that he was gradually taking over my project. I wasn’t sure whether I was okay with that, but I worked with it. And I think the book talks about this tension that eventually becomes a case of Ashraf and me being partners in this project to an extent.
Sarkar: Kate, can you tell us about why you decided to write this book. The focus of your writing has been poverty, but in America and not in India.
Boo: I consider myself quite an independent woman and a feminist, so it mortifies me a little to say that I wrote this book because I fell in love—with my husband, Sunil Khilnani, who’s a writer and historian—and started spending a great deal of time here in India. At the time, people were talking constantly about how rapid economic growth had changed the lives of the poor. And after a while I came to sense that there was more talking, more theory, more assertion, more ideological point-scoring, than there was actual, rigorous reporting. But at first I thought, Well, I can’t write any such book. I don’t have the background. I’m not Indian. But over the years as I spent more time watching and listening to people, very low-income people, I started thinking, Well, maybe I can write something. What if I just stay in one place for a long period of time and ask the question I ask in my work in America? That question isn’t “What does it feel like to be in poverty?” it’s “How do you get out of poverty? What’s the infrastructure of opportunity in this society that helps people who are born with disadvantages to realize their capacities and bring their special talents to the world?” And if I could watch for a long period of time and ask those questions—“Who gets out of poverty and who doesn’t and why?”—then maybe it would be a worthwhile project.
Sarkar: When we talked yesterday, you were bristling at someone calling your book novelistic, and Aman’s book has, in fact, been reviewed as a novel, much to his displeasure. But one of the reasons someone might use that word for either of your books is the way the characters come vividly alive, as one is used to seeing in a novel. Did you feel that at a certain time you became hooked on the characters and thought, This story’s coming together, I feel I can write this book?
Boo: Exactly—I got hooked, though it took some time. It always does. One reason is that if you’re working in a very poor community and try to pull somebody aside and say, “Talk to me,” you’re intruding on the time they need to make their living, to raise their children. I’m very mindful of that as a reporter, that there’s an enormous cost that people pay to be subject to my stupid questions. So instead, those first months in Annawadi, I was running around like a fool, talking to hundreds of people on the fly, and also just observing them as they worked and went about their lives.
For me, the start of any long-term reporting project is chaotic and full of self-doubt: Will I ever be able to tell this story with any kind of nuance? Should I do something less hard—go somewhere else? But then things start happening to people I’ve come to care about—whether injustices or great acts of luck or fortune—and there’s no time for hand-wringing. I’m in it, and I can’t just walk away without knowing what happened to these people. In other words, their hopes and difficulties start to become the forcefield, pulling me along. It’s definitely not a matter of deciding in advance to spend X amount of time with Y number of people in order to tell a certain story. It’s becoming deeply invested and then thinking about how I might bring to light some of the issues and injustices that people face.
Sarkar: This very neatly segues into the idea of how you both actually caught your stories. Aman, you write about this tongue-in-cheek and with some sincerity in the book, about your many days of drinking terrible hard liquor, which probably has corroded your insides, and Kate, you’ve talked about falling in a sewage lake while reporting.
Sethi: Clearly I had more fun.
Sarkar: So, Aman, tell me a bit about what it was like to actually do the reporting. I mean, it often feels to me that reportage is like method acting; you have to throw yourself into it.
Sethi: As a man entering a predominantly masculine space like a labour market, it’s easier to slip in because you sit down, you smoke a cigarette, you smoke another cigarette, you have a glass of tea, and over a period of time, there’s only so long that people can ignore a tall, bearded man sitting in their midst. So you start talking, and then you try to build this idea of yaari, where you try to become friends and you find common things to talk about. And with me it was very clear that we would not really go into the “How much do you earn, how do you spend that money” kind of stuff early on. One of the things that I thought often when I was reading lifestyle writing about celebrities was that no one actually turns to Mukesh Ambani and says, “So tell me, Mukesh, how much do you earn every month?” So I thought, Let’s try to follow those rules to begin with. For instance, in a profile on a rich person, the question would be “So when you’re not working, how do you spend your time?” And he’d answer, “I have my private gym, where I jog backwards for my calf muscles.” So, similarly, I went in and asked, “Okay, so what do you guys do for free time?” And they said, “We drink.” So I said, “Okay, so do you want to?” and they said, “Yeah, sure, sure.” Then over a period of time, you get gradually drawn in to that space. And of course you realize that just your being there is influencing this kind of behaviour, so at some point we finally had this conversation where I asked, “Okay, so how much do you guys earn?” And they turned to me and said, “How much do you earn?” And I had just started working for this magazine and this was my first-ever job. I told them I was earning fifteen thousand rupees a month. And they said, “That’s nothing! You’ve studied so much!” And I said, “Yeah!” And they said, “That’s okay, this time we’ll buy the tea.” So then I asked, “Okay, so how much do you earn?” And they told me, “If we really wanted to work, we’d earn maybe ten thousand, but most days we’re happy with six thousand to seven thousand bucks a month.” So I think once you’ve managed to breach that, then you’re sort of in, and once you’re in, it’s important that you don’t violate the unwritten rules of that space. And once you’re confident enough, that’s when you can actually start going into difficult territory, like asking people about their personal histories, about experiences that have been painful, experiences that have been transformative, but you don’t want to push too soon too fast is my sense.
Sarkar: Katherine, do you agree? Is that your method roughly?
Boo: Well, unlike Aman, when I go into a place, I don’t fit in, so it’s not quite the same. But what I try to do very early on in a project is to respect the intelligences of the people I’m writing about and to say, “This is why I’m here and this is what I’m doing, and is it okay with you?” So there was a lot more talk, I think, about why I was doing what I was doing and whether people wanted to participate; and not everybody did, and there were some people who simply couldn’t, for their own reasons, tell the truth about their lives. But most of the people in my book thought about it and decided to participate in the project using their real names and their real circumstances and understood that I was going to be there day after day, and I was going to go where they went, including if they went to Arthur Road Jail, including if they went to the TB hospital, including if they went as some people did to the police station and got really beaten. So early on, I think that I had to have more discussion about what I was doing and why, and I think that helped.
Sarkar: But there’s a review of your book where the writer makes the point that there’s an extraordinary intimacy with which you tell the story of Annawadi and the people who live there, and I think the phrase this reviewer uses is “it’s almost as if you were inside their heads.” Something must have happened for you to be allowed that intimacy. You’re not from those worlds, everyone knows you don’t belong, you know you don’t belong. How do you get so close?
Boo: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Never trust anybody who tells you why people come to trust them. Who knows? Who am I to say? I do know that people made merciless fun of me. I have a lot of metal parts in my body, so when people would get fed up with me, they’d say, “We’re gonna chop off your arms and legs and sell the metal to the recyclers!” So people weren’t intimidated. They laughed at me and I laughed at them, and we eventually got used to each other.
Just a week ago, I was back at Annawadi giving out advance review copies of the book and showing the videos being used in the e-book, and I said, “Are you ready for this?” And Kehkashan Hussain, a young Muslim woman who’s just had her first baby, said, “We are because it’s important that people know the hardships in detail and not just in passing, but really know it, and if that’s what you’ve put in your book, I think it’s important.”
Sarkar: Aman, did you feel Ashraf eventually trusted you?
Sethi: Well, can I not really answer this question and talk about something that just struck me? I think we talk about belonging and not belonging without really thinking about what that means. When people say you come from two different worlds, actually often we don’t come from two different worlds; we inhabit a certain ecosystem and we inhabit different parts of this ecosystem. And to pretend or to think or to conceptualize this as two separate planets that happen to revolve around the sun that is central Delhi, I don’t see how that’s helpful in any way. I think in some ways it does a disservice to the fact that lives are interconnected, and I think the interconnectivity of lives is something that comes out very clearly in Kate’s writing. And that attitude about salaries, for example, was one way in which you can see that worlds and lives are very different, but at the end of every month, both Ashraf and I are trying to figure out how much money we have.
Sarkar: Aman, I’m going to get you right back to my question.What I meant to ask is, if someone says, “Let’s get drunk together,” you’ve come to some kind of rapport, some kind of connection, and what did it take for someone like Ashraf and his friends to say, “Hey man, let’s hang out and get drunk and have some smokes, and let’s stay up late into the night and talk.” It’s not the usual thing.
Boo: And I have a supplemental question. Did you buy the liquor?
Sethi: Yeah, I mean, I bought the liquor sometimes, but sometimes when they just wanted to get drunk and I didn’t want to get drunk, they’d buy their own liquor, and sometimes I’d show up and they already had bought the liquor, so they’d offer me a drink and I’d say, “Okay.”
Sarkar: If you want, should we use the word friendship? Should we use another word? But what I mean is, you’re hanging out with them and they’re hanging out with you. How does that happen? And actually it doesn’t even apply to reporting about the poor, does it? It’s a general reporter’s question.
Sethi: I don’t even know if it’s a general reporter’s question. I think it’s a general human question of living in any society, of trying to make friends, of trying to see whether a human bond that we think exists actually exists and what the strength of that bond is. In the book, Ashraf has this idea of dehaadi friendship, in contrast to the true and close friendship that you have with the people you’ve grown up with and have a shared history and a shared understanding of a life with. Because we can’t spend our entire lives with these people. Life on the street and everywhere is also about loss, and then what is the kind of friendship that we form? So Ashraf comes up with this medium-type friendship, which is based on the idea that we respect each other, we respect each other’s boundaries, and, the way he describes it, “We don’t make chootiyasout of each other”; we don’t make fools out of each other. And his idea is that a medium-type friendship is not strictly instrumental, but there is an understanding that friendship means looking out for each other. So I think that Ashraf and I at some point developed some sort of medium-type friendship. And in some ways, I would look out for him in a material sense, but it was always this conflicted relationship, where Ashraf one day just straight-out asked me, “What are you getting out of this book?” And I said, “Well, I hope to get rich.” And he said, “Great! Because one day we’ll all be rich.” And we were sort of drunkenly walking home and wishing that everyone would become rich one day. So I think that my project was always very transparent to them, that I’m writing this book and we’re hoping it will do something—though at that point I didn’t know what this book would do, and I still don’t know. But that’s how I think we came to an understanding where one day, when he was in Calcutta and ill, he sort of broke down and said, “You’re like my younger brother,” and I must confess, I didn’t know what to say because I couldn’t bring myself to say, “You’re like my elder brother,” because it wasn’t that kind of a relationship for me.
Sarkar: I think all I mean is you go in there as reporters and you get very close to these lives, and they are kind of your friends, and they’re not your friends. You feel for them, and yet your lives are very different. At what point in the reporting and in saying, “Yes, you’re my subjects, I’m writing this great book,” does something change? That’s all. Is there a shift and does that affect things? Kate, do you want to answer that?
Boo: I don’t think that anybody in Annawadi in the end would say, “Oh, she’s my friend.” I think they knew what I was doing and they participated because they felt it was worth doing. I think they liked me fine, and I wish there were some people at Annawadi who’d be my friend, but I think that people know the reason that you’re doing this work, and they don’t mistake it for real friendship. Sometimes they might like to see you. Sometimes they see your face and just wish you would go away. It’s not friendship. I think it’s a collaborative effort to bring their stories and their experiences to people who might be able to improve the experiences of other poor people if they knew what it was like.
Sethi: I’d just like to add this point—that the people in Kate’s book are actually quite different from the people in my book. They come out of the same broad demographic space, but in Kate’s book these are incredibly hard-working people who are putting in these mind-blowing hours of work in this hope of eventual upward mobility. Would that be more or less accurate?
Sethi: And the people in my book are itinerant wanderers who’ve in a sense opted out of that system. At one level they’ve lost faith in that whole idea of mindless—not mindless, extremely thoughtful, but extremely back-breaking labour, day after day, night after night, saving up the money, putting it somewhere, building these houses which then sort of crumble. The people in my book have in some ways maybe gone through that cycle once and are now no longer actually investing themselves in that space. So when Kate talks about the people in her book saying this story needs to be out there, I can understand that drive to talk. But in my case, the reportage or my eventual project was not seen as putting out a story that will in some ways effect a certain idea of change or will in some ways lay bare a certain really gruesome skein of corruption. Ashraf sometimes asked me, “Who would want to know about us?” But to me, people have different experiences and different ways of living a life. And this is one particular way of living a life that drew me because it had these resonances of asceticism, of renunciation from worldly ambition, of stepping out of a certain idea of a rat race and coolly observing it—because these are essentially people who are sitting by a pavement smoking and watching this . . . Sadar Bazaar is not a glossy market, right?
Sarkar: No, and they’re also largely getting very, very drunk.
Sethi: Not all the time.
Sarkar: Kate, what do you think was similar to your and Aman’s book?
Boo: I read Aman’s book right after finishing my own, and I loved it so much that I felt, This person is kin. Sometimes when I was reading about his reporting days, I felt like I was reading my own diary. So many of the experiences and the places that we went were the same.
But one thing I felt strongly about, before I started writing my own book, was that non-fiction about India sometimes left out ordinary women and children—in part, I thought, because mostly men were doing the writing. And in my experience in these low-income communities, the men were drunk or getting high on their pay, and the women and children were engaged in this incredible dramatic struggle, reinventing themselves every day to try to find their niche in a market economy. You know, you’ve got capital whipping all over the planet, and you’ve got the notion of permanent work almost disappearing. In Annawadi, there were six people in three-thousand who had a permanent job, and I think it’s lower now. So you had these people applying these rich imaginations to figuring out how to get out of poverty, and they were mostly women and children. I spent time with people who were getting drunk on the pavement, but I really wanted to see what the people who were still invested and still very hopeful, what they would do, whether their efforts would lead them out of poverty.
But when I read Aman’s book, I felt like it was the part of the story that I didn’t take time to get—what was going on in the minds of these men who had essentially dropped out of their families’ lives. So I feel that these are really good companion books. Also, unlike Aman I keep myself out of my story, except for at the end in a long author’s note where I explain my so-called methodology for reporting. But what I love is the way that Aman keeps, in a very honest, wry, funny way, the whole absurdity of the enterprise at the foreground—you know, the experiences we have as journalists. I talked in the earlier panel about why I choose not to do that, but as a reader I really loved his honesty.
Sarkar: Kate’s just made an interesting point that maybe the difference that you point out, that you’re basically dealing with, in the simpler sense, a bunch of bums, and Kate’s dealing with a bunch of strivers, and she’s dealing with women and children and you’re dealing with men. In fact, the only woman character in your book—maybe you should just describe her because she’s such a fantastic character—is a real striver.
Boo: She’s amazing.
Sethi: Yes, there’s one strong character called Kalyani who makes this brief appearance in my book. Kalyani is this woman who ends up running a bootleg bar that caters to pavement dwellers. They find it very hard to drink on the pavement because the police are constantly busting their operations, so Kalyani comes up with this brainwave of buying liquor and selling it inside her shack. She charges the earth for that alcohol, and at the same time she’s got this side business where she’s collecting and selling grain; she’s like this stud in the whole operation. So Ashraf talks about how it takes two kinds of personalities—that people like Ashraf probably work as hard as Kalyani, but Kalyani has a control-type personality and Ashraf has a lafaunter-type personality. And when you have a lafaunter-type personality, the first thing you do whenever you have money is you go and give it to somebody like Kalyani, who has a control-type personality. And I think the fact that when I tried to approach her later on my own, Kalyani, as a control-type personality and as someone who was very clear about what she was doing, actually didn’t have the time to sit and hang out with me because for her it was, “I’ve got work to do. I’m running an illegal operation, the police could show up. Like, just go away.” So I thought that that was the best thing to do, and I left.
Sarkar: It seems to me that at the heart of writing about—and I don’t think it’s just about the poor—but at the heart of writing about people who are not like you is to ask this question, “Are they like us or are they different?” Is that something that you at some point asked yourselves while you were writing or doing the research and asking questions and making the friendships or explaining things to yourself?
Boo: Well, to me it’s not a raging question because it’s settled in my mind: they are like us, they are like me; there are women in that slum who are very much like me. I think one of the problems that we have writing about low-income people—and I think it’s a real flaw of journalism—is that there’s a way of taking what’s aberrant and what’s different and focusing on that, when the truly remarkable thing is how much we’re all the same. And I think is that most of us who write about low-income people have in some ways succeeded to a certain extent in the meritocracy. So we basically believe that we got here because we deserved it, and that society does a pretty good job of deciding who are the winners and who are the losers. People sometimes ask me of my books, “Oh come on, can that person really have been so smart? Can that kid who buys and sells garbage all day long really have a worldview like that?” And the answer is, “Yes.” But people have trouble accepting that because it calls into question the way opportunity is distributed. Because if there can be somebody there who’s every bit as complex, and perhaps as smart and insightful, if not as articulate as we are, sitting here on the podium, then maybe our societies don’t really do a great job of picking their winners and losers.
Sethi: Growing up in India, it was always very clear that essentially you are where you are because of an accident at birth. So I actually addressed the issue of “us and them” as some sort of game of chance, where I happen to be on this side of the microphone, you happen to be on that side of the microphone, I happen to be the one writing the book, you happen to be the one written about, but this is not something that either of us worked to establish, this is something that was apparent from the moment you were born, in some senses, in India. And another life is always going to be unintelligible to you at the outset. I mean, I don’t even know about, for instance, your miseries and you don’t know about my miseries. And I think that with narratives like Kate’s and like A Free Man, the idea is to try to complicate this idea of experience, of whether certain lives are actually irrecoverably miserable and certain lives are buoyant and wonderful. Because wherever you start off, there is a way in which a world of joy, a world of sorrow, a world of misery is borne out of that space, and just because it happens to be less economically privileged doesn’t mean that you have the right to intervene very strongly on it.
Sarkar: Sure, but of course the idea that they are different also keeps those worlds apart. But I remember, Kate, in one piece you said, “Why aren’t these slums imploding? Why aren’t we seeing more riots and violence?” And actually, Aman, might it have to do with the kind of fatalism that says, “I was born poor, we’re born rich, this is our destiny”?
Sethi: No, I don’t think it’s about destiny. And a lot of stuff is imploding. I mean, I covered the Maoist insurgency so, trust me, there are riots. And I think that the urban experience in India is very different from the rural experience in India. The rural experience in India has huge amounts of violence, but urban centres are very highly policed and very highly structured, and as Katherine’s book points out, the imprint of the state is heavy and extremely spread out through the city. So, there are many reasons why there aren’t incredible amounts of urban violence, but there is a huge amount of rural violence in India right now.
Sarkar: Kate, I’m going to conclude on that, but do you agree that the reason there isn’t as much urban violence as there might be is because of the state and the police?
Boo: No, I think the main thing is that there’s this moment of incredible hope in places like Annawadi and urban spaces across India. The slum I’m writing about is surrounded by five luxury hotels, and the people there do still believe that if they work hard and they just find the key, they’re going to be able—if not to get to that hotel—then to at least get out of the slums and at least give their children a better life. I think that that’s why, particularly for me, writing the book was essentially an act of hope, because if you can really examine what the obstacles are that keep people stuck in places like Annawadi, where they’re daily victims of corruption and brutality, if you can lay that out and throw it down and put your best effort into it, then possibly there will be more of an awareness of what’s broken in this society and what needs to be fixed.
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