As she sunk in, stomach deep in sewage, a sandal lost and all sorts of fetid foulness covering her skin, she raised her hand to protect her camera. Katherine Boo stumbled into this putrid pit while investigating the death of a local boy — Kalil — which the police covered up as a tuberculosis case. A kind man helped find her shoe. A charitable woman helped clean off the nauseating slime covering her. Afterward, Boo wobbly retreated to a nearby restroom to wash off. Her day of reporting in Annawadi, a slum near India’s Mumbai airport, had ended. The camera survived.
Boo’s skin was tinged blue for several days, a memento of “the awkwardness and un-coolness and absurdity inherent” in her kind of reporting. As if that wasn’t enough, her video editor informed her that the fall was all on tape. Not that Boo has ever gone back to watch it. And though she chortled through this remembrance, she confessed to it as being a mortifying experience.
Ever the journalist, Boo began our telephone interview by interviewing me: “How are you doing? What are you up to? What are your plans after school?” and “Oh, I know what you are talking about,” referring to the struggles of international students like me. I got the “once a journalist, always one” first impression, and I had to remind myself that I owned the interview.
“Before I met him my world was small”
Prior to meeting Sunil Khilnani, her husband, Katherine covered stories of low-income communities in Washington, D.C., where she was born. Her world only expanded when she went to The New Yorker, traveling around the U.S., until Khilnani — a politics professor and a scholar of Indian history — paved the way for her to test her investigative reporting skills in India.
“When I was young, an unhappily married woman — a writer whose husband didn't respect her work — advised me to find a partner who made me laugh, accepted me as an intellectual equal and never bored me. That I found that and more in Sunil still seems a bit miraculous to me.”
Khilnani describes Katherine as “having a sharpness and ferocity of attention that can be disconcerting” with which he believes she was born. “This baby of mine is intense,” her mother wrote to her sister when Boo was 20 months old.
Her first book, 2012’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, won the National Book Award for nonfiction. The book also won nonfiction prizes from PEN, the Los Angeles Times Book Awards, the New York Public Library and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
“My mother was very poor and her experience influenced me greatly.”
Boo dislikes when low income people are marginalized in stories, denying them “dimensionality.”
She did not start out as a journalist but decided to pursue journalism in the hope that “if more people understood the level upon levels of injustice heaped onto people who lack assets and power, they might do more to redress them.”
Her hope for change is similar to that of Sunil, a subject in her book. Sunil was repeatedly beaten brutally by an officer but did not hide it in fear of reprisal, as many of the slum dwellers did. He went to Katherine with the name of the police officer so it could be part of her story. “The name of the officer was in Marathi — it wasn’t even in his own Hindi language. He knew that the beatings would keep happening if not documented. His hope was the hope that I had, that if you document it, there is no guarantee that justice will be done, but there is a better chance, a slightly better chance that people who do these things will be held accountable.” Perhaps, the hope of a beautiful forever.
Khilnani confirms that Katherine gets angry about “injustice in its immediacy” and she believes that reporting fact “is the best way to honor the people she writes about.” Boo uses the real names of the people she writes about.
“I agonized about this decision a lot. It’s been my choice over my career to use people’s real names with their permission; and one of the reasons that I choose that is that there’s been a lot of dishonest reporting in the history of journalism on low income people, and part of the problem is when you change names and details, there is no accountability for what people write.”
Boo accepts that journalists cannot control all the consequences that result from their work but suggests they remain present after reporting to make sure subjects are not the target of the police. Which is why she stayed in Annawadi after her book was published. With a shaky voice and long pauses, she recollected one of her most emotional struggles after a day of reporting at Annawadi, when the police started retaliating. Making a choice to report was one thing, but putting people in danger was another.
The self-made philosopher
The center of Katherine’s Annawadi revelation is Abdul. His philosophies, which motivated him to hustle every day, turned out to be life lessons for Katherine. In one of his moments of wisdom, Katherine introduced her readers to his wit:
“Water and ice were made of the same thing. He thought most people were made of the same thing, too. He himself was probably little different, constitutionally, from the cynical, corrupt people around him — the police officers and the special executive officer and the morgue doctor who fixed Kalu’s death. If he had to sort all humanity by its material essence, he thought he would probably end up with a single gigantic pile. But here was the interesting thing. Ice was distinct from — and in his view, better than — what it was made of.”
Abdul seldom spoke but had great insights when he did speak. Once in the book, a woman had tried to hang herself and the thinking Abdul began yet another insightful speech:
“Do you ever think, when you look at someone, when you listen to someone, does that person really have a life?” Abdul was asking the boy who was not listening ... “Like that woman who just went to hang herself, or her husband, who probably beat her before she did this? I wonder what kind of life is that,” Abdul went on. “I go through tensions just to see it. But it is a life. Even the person who lives like a dog still has a kind of life. Once when my mother was beating me, and that thought came to me. I said, ‘If what is happening now, you beating me, is to keep happening for the rest of my life, it would be a bad life, but it would be a life, too.’”
This is the kind of beauty Boo finds in communities many people think have nothing to offer. On ordinary days, Katherine says, “You get these insights to live in your own life later.” The impact of these insights is seen whenever she mentions them in her interviews.
Person in a writer
Boo is a conversationalist. She also wants to know that you are listening, that you can contribute to the gist. I cannot count how many times she mentioned my name while we talked. One such time she inquired, “I mean, how can we even understand, Rita, what our history is if we are not properly chronicling what’s happening in the lower 20 percent?” Another time she retorted, “Oh Rita, that is an intentional question.”
Happiness for Boo is when people are able to progress from bad situations. On one of her good days reporting in Annawadi, people were making more money because the global market increased the price of scrap, thanks to the Olympics in Beijing. Though not sure if writing about the lower 20 percent will bring significant change, she is certain that not writing will bring no change at all.
Boo is a night owl. After the interview, we would email each other back and forth into the night. It was 1:30 a.m. in D.C. and the dings bring email notifications from Boo answering my follow-up questions or giving me clarifications. At 1 a.m. on another day, a ding is Boo confessing to reading my digital portfolio.
It is important to Boo to not be blinded by social problems to the point of forgetting the good and beautiful things in the world. Even amongst the poor. Like the friendship between Sunil and Sonu the Blinky boy, the insights from Abdul and how the Hussein family (where Abdul is the oldest son) laughed and lived together despite their impoverished living conditions.
Her interest in people comes naturally, so who else is better fit to tell an unbiased story of low-income people and open minds up to the reasons why people like these are in such situations?
She finds pleasure in watching things grow, like seeds in dirt. She also enjoys spending time with her siblings and extended family, interactions that have helped hone her skills as a writer. But above all these is being with her husband.
“I’m not an adrenaline junky”
When people risk all to describe their lives, Boo says, the reporter must be all in. That being said, Boo also believes in taking time off from reporting before going back into the field. “Sometimes the reporting is really painful and really distressing and, after I finish a project, I don’t want just to report on something. I want to engage in something [else that’s] constructive. I’m not an adrenaline junky — I need my time away from reporting before I go back in.”
While on a project, she commits. At the end of it, she delves into something not journalism-related, like teaching kids, engaging in community work, or reading fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Boo is always seeking to hone her writing, looking at others’ works for better or different ways to express or structure her next piece of work.
Katherine is working on two long-term projects. Her primary focus for 2017 is the underground means of social mobility in low income American communities. Katherine knows that not everybody stays in poverty. She wants to know why and how people progress from it. This project involves families whose lives she has been documenting for 25 years.
Did you know?
When Katherine started reporting at Annawadi she taught some of the young people how to use her camera. She’d let them go wherever they would and record their own stories. For her, that was a way of getting to know what mattered to them. It was her way of not imposing on them what she thought should they should worry about.
One such video was made by a 15-year-old boy who was worried about the toxic nature of the water. He pretended to be a Marathi news reporter and “shot the sewage lake in forensic detail.” The teenager referred to it as “our garbage water that brings sickness and death.”
Post sewage fall
After Katherine’s fall, it became something for the people of Annawadi to laugh about, including Katherine. One Annawadian said of Katherine, “This one gets so focused on her recording that she will fall right into the shit.”