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A brief introduction to Boo-lean algebra and ideology

DNMUM243750 | 5/5/2012 | Author : G Sampath | WC :921

Third Degree

Let me say this upfront: Katharine Boo's Behind The Beautiful Forevers is an excellent work of reportage (narrowly conceived); the language is beautiful (it's beauty all the more striking given the ugliness of the language's referents); and it's heart is in the right place — Boo's sincerity and concern for the people she writes about are not in question. Having said that, Behind The… is also a seriously flawed book.
Boo's ideological baggage, and her seeming obliviousness to it, restricts her to a symptomatic understanding of poverty. It is this superficial understanding that informs her approach to her subject — the human beings who live in Annawadi, a Mumbai slum.
What do I mean by 'ideological baggage'? In sociological terms, it refers to one's beliefs about the nature of the world which we take to be the truth, forgetting (or not realising) that it is merely one narrative about the nature of the world, but a narrative that has been elevated to the status of truth by powerful institutions. It also means that there can be no 'reportage', no 'facts' and no writing as such, that is 'outside of ideology' or 'ideologically neutral'.
I don't have access to Boo's mind beyond the evidence of her writing. But such evidence as exists points to complete ignorance (or is it indifference?) about the nature of her book considered as an ideological project. In her author's note, Boo states that she wrote the book to answer the following questions: 'What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government's economic and social policy? Whose capabilities are squandered? By what means might that ribby child grow up to be less poor?'
The book's foundational questions reveal, in stark terms, the intellectual bad faith of Boo's endeavour. For example: how did she arrive at the conclusion that poverty is caused by, as opposed to being the effect of, a lack of opportunity? She didn't: it is merely an assumption that allows her to hold on to the ideological fiction that creating an 'infrastructure of opportunity' is the best way to combat poverty. And this logical inversion in her thinking is the ideological filter which ensures that her narrative will never interrogate either the western, scientific, modern values and the contractual relations that they legitimise, or the global institutions and practices they gave rise to, and at whose mercy every Annawadian lives and dies.
As a result, Boo takes the poverty of the Annawadians as a given. In her book, poverty is an effect of nature, like sunlight or gravity. She notes that all the families in Annawadi are migrants. But does she ask what forces drove them to become migrants? Surely that's a fundamental question you need to ask if you're planning a 'deeply reported account' of the people you're studying? But no, Boo doesn't name the forces that made Karam Husain leave Siddharthnagar, 'the impoverished Uttar Pradesh district where Karam had been raised,' and choose a miserable existence in Mumbai. Was it even a choice? How did people in Siddharthnagar live before it became 'impoverished'? Or was it always already an 'impoverished Uttar Pradesh district'?
The closest Boo comes to asking such questions is in the case of Asha, a wannabe slum lord. Boo follows Asha to her village in Vidharbha where, faced with the reality of farmer suicides, she gets a big opportunity to connect the dots — between rural distress and urban migration and destitution. But all she has to offer is this: 'Ashamed and in debt, some farmers (italics mine) killed themselves — an old story, one of the Marathi-movie staples.'
It is an accepted sociological fact proven by innumerable studies and research projects that poverty is caused by disempowerment. The less control a people or a community have over their lives and resources, the more they are likely to slip into poverty. Economic development in independent India, and especially the accelerated phase of development that has generated the new-found 'prosperity' that Boo is so dazzled by, has been predicated on a systematic dispossession and disempowerment of large masses of people who, though they may never have been wealthy in monetary terms, were by no means living in want.
By not identifying the disempowering processes for what they are, Boo presents a misleading picture of what she calls 'the infrastructure of opportunity.' Of course, there will always be some space for a few individuals to come and take a bigger bite of the crumbs that drop off the high table. It is these crumbs that Abdul and Asha fight for, and hope will lead them to middle-class respectability. But Boo doesn't ask why they are only ever in a position to seek crumbs and not sit at the high table themselves. Instead, her exclusive focus on the immediate reality of poverty leads her to magnify how the poor screw the happiness of other poor. As you read again and again how the poor f**k the poor, the fact that the rich have already f**ked the poor by rigging things in such a way that the only way the poor can survive is by f**king other poor doesn't seem so noteworthy anymore.
In other words, the question to ask in a book like this is not about 'the infrastructure of opportunity' but the 'infrastructure of empowerment/disempowerment.' Sadly, Boo doesn't want to go there, and her book stands diminished by this refusal.
For a longer version of this column, visit G Sampath is an independent writer based in Delhi

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