India is the second most populous country in the world, with around 1.2 billion people living there. Around 20% of the population live in poverty, scraping an existence well below the minimum living wage recommended by the UN. It is a country of growth too, with over 5% increase in GDP per year, which has lifted around 20% of people out of poverty. This growth is very obvious around certain cities; the skyline of Mumbai has changed dramatically over the past few years. Modern hotels and skyscrapers have pierced the skyline as the areas around the airport have increased in prosperity. The jarring juxtaposition though is the slum area that butts up against these oases of luxury, of which Annawadi is one.
To understand this place, and to try to get a handle of the vast chasm between the very poorest and richest that live alongside each other, the Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo spent three years in the slum to get the best understanding of how the people there lived. She saw how Abdul would take life-risking chances to collect the scraps of plastic in the hope that they may make a little money. She also tells the story Kalu, a fifteen-year-old who is trying to make a living stealing scrap metal and Asha who has concluded that if she cannot beat the system then she is better of joining it. She is there when a petty argument erupts into a death and a court case, when terrorists attack one of the luxury hotels, killing a number of the rich guests and of how the city suffers in the modern global economy.
Katherine Boo has written a brutally honest account of the hazards and trials of life in a Mumbai slum; she doesn’t hold back on the reporting about the squalor that the people live there suffer with whilst they look onto the rich and privileged as they live out their lives in comfort. Her prose is measured and written with a level of balance as she describes what she sees, but she is not scared to write about the reality for these people at the bottom of the caste system in India. An eye-opening book of a side of India that we know but rarely hear about and worth reading. 3.5 stars.