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Katherine Boo talks economic corruption and immersion reporting in India and America 

Undercity insider

London may be home right now for Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Katherine Boo, but she's often on the move. On the day of the Indy's phone interview with her a week and a half ago, she'd just given a lecture at Seattle University and would make a few more stops around the States before arriving in Colorado Springs for a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded reading and lecture Thursday, Feb. 27.

Boo explains that through events like these, she's able to pass along money earned to help the urban poor in the Indian slum of Annawadi, the focus of her book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, which was widely praised and won the 2012 National Book Award.

"I don't kid myself. I'm not able to transform [the situation]," she says. "I'm just able to make a little difference around the edges, I think."

The Independent spoke with Boo about her reporting, her 3½ years of reporting on the streets of Mumbai, and what she has learned from the families with whom she was immersed.

One of the strengths of the book, I think, and what a lot of reviewers have commented on, is that it reads like a novel. You know you're reading about economic inequality and government corruption, but it's digestible, if that makes sense, through the connections that the reader makes with the individuals. Could you talk about your process in reporting for this book?

My journalism in general, whether it's for The New Yorker or in the book, is a combination of immersion journalism. Really, really being very patient and listening to people. Watching what they do. Because that's often a way to understand [how] to ask the right questions. For people who are too busy to be sitting back and reflecting on their lives, it's often the only way to get at the complexity of their feelings.

But the other thing that I do that is really, really important to me, is I do investigative work, often based on Freedom of Information Act requests of documentation. ... That's a way to understand not just what people say about their lives, but to really follow, for instance, what happens to government money, approved by the national government, before it reaches the ends of the street, where it's supposed to be helping lots of people.

In the United States and India, you often find that that aid never gets there. Or it gets there in such a skewed way that it doesn't do what it's supposed to do.

It's very important not to just be in communities on foot, but also to look closely, take a rigorous look at the broader context. ... I did a lot of ancillary investigative work to try to understand whether what I'm seeing is an anomaly or a true social problem. And the reader doesn't necessarily have to see all that investigation, but the investigation helps me write what I do write with a conviction I wouldn't otherwise have.

Your work in the U.S. has also focused on disadvantaged communities. How has this experience in India changed how you work here in the States?

Well, I think that it's changed both my appreciation and my impatience. For one thing, I have more of an appreciation for the functioning of the judicial system in the United States. Because in the United States, people even in very poor communities, if your life is in danger, you call 9-1-1, and you don't always get help, but the presumption that most people make is that you will get help.

In [Indian] communities where the very poor are just sort of discounted by the police, going to the police can even complicate your life. There's a moment that I'll never forget, of this young boy who died, and his death was covered up. His father had heard over time, he heard that the story that he was told about his son's death was not the truth. And then he says, "But I couldn't go in and ask at the police station because I didn't have the money they would want." ...

There are tremendous problems of justice in the United States for people without money, but relative to my experience in Indian cities, it's a far stronger institution. And I appreciate that more than I did.

And on the other hand, in Indian slums, to date, fewer people have guns, and so kids are playing, in a sense, without the threat of explosives or related violence, and that changes the nature of play. In these communities, kids have so much more freedom. And there's not the psychological trauma that a kid has in some of the toughest communities in the United States. ...

And that's a tragedy that's a particularly American tragedy.

What do you — and I know that this is a really big question — but what do you think is the answer to the widespread corruption in India?

I think that there are in India very brave individuals working, using [India's Right to Information Act] to fight corruption. And I think that increases transparency and more people who recognize the extent of the problem and are brave enough to do something about it. ...

It's a very difficult thing to stop from the outside. And so, in my own charitable giving, those are the kinds of causes I try to support, citizens who are working in their own countries for more accountability. But it's a long, difficult process.

At the end of your book, in the author's note, you pose the question, "If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?" Have you come to answer that question yourself?

I think that it is extremely, extremely hard to behave generously, thoughtfully and morally, in a context of intense corruption, in a context in which all these public services, from health care to education, have become mini-markets. And so it is possible to be good, but to do that in that context, it's almost heroic.

I have one more question. You're a journalist. What would you ask you if you were interviewing you? Or in other words, what haven't I asked you that you'd like to mention?

One of the things that always makes me sort of laugh is when people comment, "Oh gosh, your work is so hard." And for me, like, my work is so easy compared to the work of the people that I'm writing about.

For me, it's you just cannot think, "Oh, what a difficult day I've had" in the context of the people that you're meeting. And their humor, and their sense of perspective, and their sense of inner steel, really sustains me.

And I don't mean that in a sentimental way. It absolutely does. It makes you pull up your socks and when you have bad days, just recognize the immense privilege that you have to be able to be spending your days with people who inspire you.

scene@csindy.com

  • Undercity insider

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