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cinema verite

'I'd much rather report than give lectures'


Katherine Boo

It's hard not to come away from Katherine Boo's writing as one would from a film. Not a homochromatic documentary on the poor and disadvantaged, but cinema verite with a pounding pulse, and a full cast of operatives - scheming parents, forgotten babies, entrepreneurial youngsters, all on the wrong side of a political and civic machine. Boo, a staff writer at The New Yorker and a Pulitzer Prize winner for her work at The Washington Post, has just published her first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. It's a ground-eye view of life inside a slum called Annawadi that sits by the Mumbai airport. Boo spent four years at Annawadi. She talks to TOI-Crest about the rigours of immersive journalism.

How do you prepare yourself for the sort of immersive journalism you practise?

It's hard to prepare for a situation that you can't possibly understand until you're in it. Each community has its own rules and rhythms. So when I first begin reporting a story, whether it's a housing project in Washington DC or a trailer park in South Texas or a slum in Mumbai, I brace myself for a stressful period of adjustment. But I have learned over my career to be patient with myself. Now I accept as a given that I will be ridiculous and clueless when I start reporting in a new community. The important thing is not to be ridiculous and clueless when I finish the reporting.

You appear to be deeply entrenched in the private landscapes of your subjects. What demands does the routine of forging alliances and winning confidences make on you?

I very consciously don't go into someone's home and make some sort of charm offensive. I'm not smiling and saying, My name is Kate and I'm here to be your friend. What I say instead is the truth: I am a journalist who writes about poverty and how people get out of it, and want to know what life here is like in a deep way. I want to know what your life is like. May I talk to you? May I follow you through your day? I will do my best not to get in the way of your ability to make a living or manage your household. I find that if I respect people's intelligence and am straight with them, they're rarely hostile.
Your question about the demands that forging these relationships makes on me is really interesting. I tend to focus on the demands I make on the people whose lives I'm documenting - for instance, asking them to relive some of the worst moments of their lives. But I don't think that developing relationships is terribly demanding if you genuinely like and are interested in the people you're getting to know. And I do like most of the people I meet in the course of my work. I almost always learn from them, and of course their circumstances give me enormous perspective on whatever little troubles I've had in my own life. But the greatest difficulty by far is maintaining the detachment necessary to report honestly. I have several friends who do this kind of journalism, and that's one element of the work we all find stressful.

In what way has your investigative journalism matured over the years? Which assignment has been particularly challenging?

I think I am a little more confident in my own writing voice than I was when I was younger. And I'm definitely more interested in writing clearly and tightly - not using two words when one will do;not using a five-syllable showoff word when a short, simple one is just as good. As a reader of non-fiction I sometimes get impatient when I sense that the author feels more attached to the sound of his or her own voice than to the information he or she is trying to convey. But a more recent change in the tenor of my work probably has to do with the fact that I now use videotape as I report. I think that being able to watch footage over and over again allows me to write more cinematically.
Writing this book was the most challenging work of my career, in part because I didn't have the languages spoken in the slum. Fortunately, I worked with two amazing women. Mrinmayee Ranade was my first translator, joining me in Annawadi in January 2008. Then in April 2008, Unnati Tripathi came into my life and stuck with this project and the people of Annawadi for several years, translating and investigating with me.

What are the inner stories that you look to convey beneath the rough skin of poverty, oppression and lack of opportunity?

One thing I want readers to sense is that low-income people aren't passive and one-dimensional. They're as complex as you and I are. But the other thing I want to convey is the immense intellectual capacity I see in many low-income children, whether in India and the United States. Because until people in power really believe in the capabilities of such children, they aren't going to appreciate how much talent our societies squander.
Like the Oriental approach to anthropology, modern journalism often continues to visit issues of social and ethnic complexity, like dowry or child marriage, from a detached, critical Western vantage. When you are preconditioned against certain social practices and cultural values, when you approach them from an antithetical position, how do you balance between journalistic objectivity, and what Cynthia Gorney (who wrote on child brides for National Geographic) calls 'justified outrage' ? As a writer I'm not interested in spending paragraphs venting outrage at, say, child marriage. I'd much rather report than give lectures.

Why did you choose to tell this particular story in 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' ? And how did you come to choose the particular slum?

I focused on Annawadi in part because of the hope there: affluence surrounded the settlement from every side, and many residents believed that they would be able to cross the invisible barrier from the slum world to the rich one. I wanted to see what happened for them as they tried to put their hopes into action.
As for why I told this particular story: let me be clear. I tell many stories in my book, in part because I felt it important to break through the clichês and convey the immense diversity of lives and dreams in the slums of the 21st century city. I felt there were many tall tales in the air, but that there was still ample room for my effort, to depict real lives with investigative rigour and nuance.

What are the dangers in narrative journalism of succumbing to novelising? Were there creative licenses you took?

When I describe someone's thinking in the book, it's not an act of clairvoyance. It's because that person has articulated what they were thinking - sometimes in response to my questioning. So when you come to the moment in my book when a young garbage sorter named Abdul Husain is talking of the moral distinction between ice and water, or when a sensitive young woman named Manju imagines dragon smoke coming out of the mouth of a girlfriend who has poisoned herself, or when her mother, Asha, remembers poverty as a taste - they've expressed those thoughts to me.

How did you manage to get into the heart and hearth of a Mumbai slum? I believe you camped there for four years and recorded goings-on on video and tape?

One reason I use so many documentary tools when I report - videotape, audiotape, photographs, and official records in addition to written notes - is that I know that some readers would prefer to think the people in this book aren't real. And that some of the issues raised in the book aren't real, either. While I don't claim to be infallible as a reporter, I do think I'm a hard-working one, and I do my best to back up what I say with evidence. There's even hard evidence of me falling in the sewage lake - mortifying evidence! I was videotaping one afternoon when I fell, and the camera kept rolling. It's quite funny in retrospect - and only in retrospect!

Did you actually live in the slum itself?

I realised almost at once that I wasn't strong enough, physically, to do so. I have some medical issues and lack the arm strength to pump water at the boring well, for instance. So although I was reporting at Annawadi at all hours, and often very late at night, I always had somewhere else to live.

Did the journey change you?

Yes, this journey changed me. I sometimes think I'll never fully recover, emotionally or physically, from the reporting I did for this book. But I don't see much point of going on about how difficult it was for me, because I chose to be at Annawadi. I'd rather go on about the remarkable families I met there - families who didn't have a choice.

What deep drive steers you towards the dispossessed and disadvantaged?

I respect the people I spend my days with. They drive me.

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