I just rated this a five on Goodreads, but I almost couldn’t read it. Katherine Boo is an investigative reporter, and spent three years immersed in the life of a Mumbai slum. If it were not a choice of my book group, I would have given up reading a description of a life so hard, and the possibilities so limited, and the people so hard working and desperate.
I know in my head that the world is that way for an enormous number of people, and it is hard even to keep aware and caring by reading novels- but this is a stage further, as all the characters are real people, and the description of events was written immediately after they happened and involved research as well as witness accounts. Manju, one of the main characters, now 25 and a good English speaker says: “I have read the book, and I liked it even though it made me cry,” The children, Boo says, were the best sources, as they were pretty much ignorant of adult religious, political and administrative slants. They do know, though, how little they are worth to the people of the over city. “But the fog of shock and grief didn’t fully obscure his understanding of the social hierarchy in which he lived. To Annawadi boys, Kalu had been a star. To the authorities of the over city, he was a nuisance case to be dispensed with.”
It does seem to me that one of the gifts of Christianity is its insistence that every individual is important, unique and precious because we are all brothers and sisters. We have never really lived as if this is true in all our history, and we are amazed when odd people here and there actually try. But it is our faith. Mother Teresa, who is in fact not one of my great heroes, was acting in this light in just being with poor people dying.
When my book group has been talking about this book, we are aware of this (we are heavily ministers’ spouses, missionaries, social workers etc!) but living it out is not black and white. Several of the group have lived in desperately poor countries, countries with endemic corruption, without concern for the living conditions or health of working people. (We are aware that our own countries can be labelled that way too.) And yet, having a servant (or several) is a necessary way of spreading “rich” people’s wealth to the village or city people in some places. Working in a sweat shop/factory is working for pennies under terrible conditions- but it is clearly better than the villages that the workers come from. Life is bad when suicide, in villages, slums or factories, is a not uncommon way out of the unbearable. Even the aid we provide can fuel corruption or destabilize the subsistence economy. There is no way to live with clean hands.
In the end though, the book is about real people. Not about us. Some real people died. Some real people were ruined. Some real people survived and did better than I dared hope- Manju did. As Katherine Boo said “It was about real, complicated people sometimes doing better, sometimes doing a little worse. The heroism in it is that the people there keep trying.”