What is the Shiv Sena Effect

Part of a temporary Indian slum

Poverty and misery not only shimmer in repulsive colors. It is precisely the most unworthy living conditions that sometimes involuntarily attract curiosity. With the relief of having been spared the worst yourself. With the promise of a more elementary way of being. Or in the form of compassion, which above all serves moral self-satisfaction. Looking and looking the other way come down to the same thing, especially when, like Katherine Boo in the form of Annawadi, an Indian slum at the gates of Mumbai, you are dealing with a doubly foreign world. What does a white American reporter, who can at best claim to have married an Indian man, understand of the tensions between Hindus and Muslims? And what could give her the right to discover moments of happiness in the midst of the general desolation?

For almost four years, between November 2007 and March 2011, Katherine Boo observed, questioned and lived with the residents of the 3,000-person settlement. Your book "Annawadi or the Dream of Another Life" is what the US calls "immersion journalism": a form of journalism that thrives on the reporter becoming part of the world he is writing about for a while. But journalism is a more than inadequate term for what the author achieves - and even the genre designation literary reportage only suggests what she is trying to do. Written consistently in the imperfect tense, "Annawadi" externally follows the conventions of a novel and develops a complex structure through its interlocking narrative strands.

Katherine Boo essentially follows the fate of two families of amazingly assertive women. Asha, a supporter of the nationalist Hindu party Shiv Sena, becomes the first female slum lord. And her daughter Manju is about to become Annawadi's first college graduate. A victory over circumstances that the mother sees with divided feelings. Because who will want to marry such a clever woman?

Zehrunisa, on the other hand, is a Muslim. As a rubbish sorter, her eldest son Abdul is one step above the mere collectors who find fertile hunting grounds around Annawadi, in the immediate vicinity of the airport and in the shadow of luxury hotels. And then one-legged Fatima also lives in Annawadi, who is looking for confirmation in well-known sex affairs, but also has a bad repute because she once drowned her two-year-old tuberculosis daughter in a bucket out of sheer fear of infection. Fatima finally set himself on fire, and Abdul is suspected of having instigated her to do so: an allegation that temporarily brings him to the youth prison in Mumbai - and into legal mills that continue to grind without result to this day.

Around this figure core, other residents of the settlement built by Tamils ​​in the marshland in 1991 are grouped around a Maidan where people meet, a hopelessly infectious clearing pond and a sea of ​​wooden huts, which is also home to a one-room pouf with goats. As inescapable as this place is for most people - only six Annawadians have permanent jobs - its internal social gradient is so finely graduated. Envy and resentment flourish without turning against the rich outside. You define yourself within your immediate surroundings.

Eerie Katherine Boo's talent for psychological penetration. How, one wonders, can she shine so deep into the souls of her characters? And how can she, who never once loses the word I after the epilogue, omit her own point of view as an observer so consistently? "Annawadi" gives convincing answers to all of these questions. The full narrative liveliness of this book, obsessed with details, coincides with a reflection that penetrates the material down to the last detail. Everything that Boo found out with the help of translators and put in the mouths or in the consciousness of her protagonists, all of whom appear under their real names, is recorded on video, tape or in notes. "Annawadi" conducts its literary processes with a journalistic ethos that cannot be praised highly enough in view of all the terribly sensitive biographers who think they know exactly what their heroes felt at a given moment.

But the real strength of this book is its poise. "Annawadi" combines the thrilling of a documentary novel with the analytical of a field study. "Some people consider it a moral problem that wealth and poverty coexist so closely," writes Katherine Boo in the epilogue. "On the other hand, I find it fascinating how rarely this coexistence is perceived as a practical problem." With all her sense of the personal drama of her characters and amazement at their courage to face life, she is concerned with the fatefulness of the structures in which they live.

It is the bitter realization of the book that ambition, talent and hard work do not guarantee social advancement in the least. Even more bitter, however, is the experience that every political impulse to narrow the gap between rich and poor ends in corruption. This is shown most drastically in the government's well-meaning attempt to dissolve the airport slums, and with them Annawadi. In return for voluntarily moving away, the families are promised a 25-square-meter apartment with running water. But either many have not lived in Annawadi long enough - or speculators from Mumbai have forged documents issued to identify them as slum dwellers.

Anyone who tries honestly has no chance in the India that Katherine Boo writes about. And although the poorest are at the same time the most corruptible and the distinction between good and bad, legal and illegal, is often not at all clear to them, at every higher level of the wealth ladder it is also about direct self-interest. The thief is just a different profiteer than the security officer at the airport who allows him entry in exchange for cleaning services.

This systemic approach makes "Annawadi" a classic of our time: exemplary for the understanding of contemporary India - and groundbreaking for a literary genre between the fictional and the factual. The novel-like illusion of encountering autonomously acting characters is kept in check by the knowledge that they all only act on a very limited field of possibilities. A realization that may remind the reader that he, too, is far less in control of his life than he may imagine. Not least because of this, he cannot and should not read "Annawadi" without comparing himself with the slum dwellers. In the US, where Katherine Boo won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in the Nonfiction category for "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity," it has opened the eyes of some. In this country there is now the opportunity to do so.

Katherine Boo: "Annawadi or the dream of another life", from the American by Pieke Biermann, Droemer, Munich 2012, 335 pages, 19.99 euros.