Letter from Mumbai: Opening Night (of Slumdog Millionaire): The scene from the airport slums

Katherine Boo, Letter from Mumbai: Opening Night: The scene from the airport slums. The New Yorker, 23 February 2009. “Gautam Nagar is one of thirty-odd slums, comprising ninety thousand families, on land owned by the Airports Authority of India, in Mumbai. It is ten minutes by foot to the international terminal and is ringed by five of the city’s smartest hotels. The hotels charge two hundred to a thousand dollars a night and are enclosed by high walls and barbed-wire fences, so their interactions with Gautam Nagar are primarily airborne. Music from weddings and poolside parties drifts over. Ash from cow-dung and wood fires drifts back. And every evening at precisely six-thirty a Hyatt sign lights up red and white, its glow not quite reaching the dirty screens of two video-game consoles in a tin-roof shed.

Anna, an elderly Tamil resident of Gautam Nagar who wears his loincloths very short, opened the game parlor last year [2008]. He quickly regretted the endeavor. Profits have slipped owing to the global recession, and, like businessmen the world over, he is now repositioning: converting the front of the game room into a stall for hot fried snacks. Food hygiene is more difficult at Anna’s than it is at the Hyatt, since the air of Gautam Nagar is clotted with grit from a nearby concrete plant. So he covers his skillet with a sign, retrieved from a trash pile, that reads “Hotel InterContinental the Grand.”

Excerpts from story:

The uncertain future of the games in this evolving establishment concerns Sunil, a thirteen-year-old boy who works at the airport. He supports their survival as reliably as he is able: one rupee nightly in exchange for thirty minutes of Metal Slug 3. At dusk on January 22nd, as a parade of Mumbai women visited the hotel spas to get manicured, exfoliated, and blown out for that night’s Indian première of “Slumdog Millionaire,” Sunil was deriving a poor return on his one-rupee entertainment outlay. He was having his ass handed to him by a being even worse than the zombies and giant mutant crabs on his screen: a twelve-year-old gloater. “You’re dead now,” Sunil’s rival cried, banging the joystick, making the bombed-out virtual city shake. “Everyone, come and see!” Sunil attempted to rally his Metal Slug man, firing a rocket-propelled grenade at an abandoned tank that provided cover for his enemy, as boys pressed in to watch him fail.

He didn’t take the crowd’s interest personally. Boys always crammed into Anna’s. One reason was Anna himself: bald on top with snarls of silver hair on the rest of his body, something the children found consistently funny. More compelling, though, were the amenities: the games, two light bulbs, and a short metal bench. Sunil’s home, in one of the many sumpy lanes behind the shop, lacked lights, water, and a place to sit, and every evening was enveloped in a stink so much worse than all the usual stinks at Gautam Nagar that people doubled over when they inhaled it. The cause was a truckload of rotting hotel food, dumped daily outside his home, which sustained three hundred feral pigs. He would have paid more than one rupee to breathe elsewhere….

Reverberations of the crisis in the American economy had recently driven him from work he liked—collecting garbage and selling it to recyclers—into work he didn’t like. He had become a metal thief at the international airport, and now that he faced real daily dangers, without arms or armor, the rush of pretend dangers on video screens had diminished….

Around the hotels, stands of sleek office buildings are multiplying rapidly; one of them is named simply More. Gautam Nagar is named after the eight-year-old son of a scavenger who succumbed to pneumonia after one of the periodic slum demolitions. The community consists of approximately a thousand human residents; seventeen water buffalo; goats, dogs, and pigs; and two white horses striped to look like zebras—the handiwork of a once fearsome slumlord, now gone batty. The primary industry here is the gathering of airport garbage for recycling—work made a little less miserable by expanded global markets and India’s surging G.D.P. Over the past five years, there were enough water bottles, earbuds, Diet Coke cans, used tampon applicators, batteries, and copies of Indian Vogue to lift the majority of families over the World Bank’s poverty line, which is currently twenty-two rupees a day in India’s cities.

Jobs at the hotels would have lifted residents far higher, but management wanted people who spoke English, not just Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Nepali, or any of the six or eight other languages spoken in the airport slums. Everyone knew that management also wanted people who were light-skinned; many Gautam Nagar residents are dark from work in the sun. Still, recycling had, over time, turned most of the slum’s tarp roofs into tin ones, under which some families had laid down ceramic-tile floors. But last fall, when bank lending slowed worldwide, construction projects stalled, and the demand for recycled materials plummeted, Gautam Nagar’s link to the global markets started pushing it backward….

While both [Sunil and his younger sister Sunita]…got bitten by rats, and the rat bites sometimes turned into head boils, she’d recently become a baldie like Anna, because her boils had erupted with worms….

After lunch, [Sunil] and a younger friend visited a sewer they called a river, where at midday it was cooler than elsewhere….

One of the area’s many tangles of cranes and scaffolding sits two hundred metres from the game parlor, and promises something that prosperous Mumbaikars eagerly await: an elevated expressway to the airport. The current airport road is one of the purgatories where new India collides with old India and makes new India late: roads of missed flights, lost deals in London or Dubai, and dreams dying behind the jam of new cars and incompetent drivers and the fleet of bicycle delivery boys peeling off from the chicken shop, each carrying three hundred eggs. In another year, there would be a smooth ride over this chaos to the international-departures terminal, for those who could afford to fly away….

The residents who still collected garbage—mostly women, mostly Matang, one of the traditionally untouchable castes—were carrying gunnysacks marked “UPS.” Many of the women had started work at five that morning, with short breaks to cook food, wash dishes, shake grit out of sheets, fill water vessels from an oversubscribed tap, and rear their children….

In Gautam Nagar, there was a single boy who could reasonably pass as a scholar. His name was Prakash, and though he didn’t talk to many people, people talked about him. He’d attended a private English-language high school, then earned a bachelor’s degree, and was now cramming for a board exam that might secure him a scholarship to management school. “He went from zero to hero”—that was the line in the Hindi films about slum boys who triumphed, and Prakash went after scholarships by telling his story in this Hindi-film way. But Prakash’s father had gone to college, too, had studied science, before being injured in one of the train accidents that kill, on average, four thousand Mumbaikars a year. The father, now a curbside samosa vender, had just hobbled past Anna’s on his remaining foot. It had been a poor selling day—“Economic slowdown,” he had explained—but he wasn’t the sort to treat anxiety with a plastic bag of slum-brewed liquor on his way home. Compared with other management-school aspirants, Prakash was wildly disadvantaged. Relative to other boys in Gautam Nagar, he was privileged….

The West did seem to make a fetish of the Indian poor, even as the official poverty rate was falling: from thirty-six to twenty-seven per cent in a decade. Sunburned tourists ventured forth from five-star hotels to take eight-hundred-rupee, four-hour slum tours. Madonna took a slum tour, too, though hers was free. In every room of Mumbai’s new Four Seasons Hotel, housekeepers placed a copy of “Shantaram,” a romantic novel set in the city slums, in a bedside drawer, in lieu of a Bible. Perhaps this Western fascination had something to do with sheer numbers: India still harbors a third of the world’s poor. But Western status anxiety could not be ruled out entirely. While the great powers struggled, India, only sixty years free of colonization, continued to boom, with sufficient entrepreneurial energy and human potential to threaten the traditional global order….

Still, it wasn’t just national pride that made prosperous Indians skeptical of “Slumdog.” The film’s squalid images didn’t comport with the India they frequented. While official statistics told a story, true or not, about the dimensions of Indian poverty, it was getting harder than ever for the rich to gauge the particulars. Across the country, electrified fences, walls jagged with broken glass, security gates had gone up as inequality grew. This frenzy of fence-building was not just an Indian thing. It was as global as the crisis in garbage. And it reflected uneasiness about a time that might or might not come in which information flowed so freely that, however little the rich wished to consider the details of the poor, the poor might fully consider the details of the rich. Not the fantasy contours of wealth long available on the television and on the billboards but the precise thing happening next door. The fences insured against a time when a scavenger in Gautam Nagar might learn that a shot of rare Scotch consumed in ten minutes at the Sheraton’s ITC Maratha cost exactly as much as he earned in seven hundred fourteen-hour days picking up aluminum cans and used tampon applicators, and find that information too much to bear….

As the local newspapers gorged on “Slumdog,” a fresh statistic appeared on the inside pages: Mumbai had more reported burglaries than any other metropolitan area in the country, with the greatest concentration in Sunil’s area, the western suburbs. Perhaps these thefts were one of the city’s secret safety valves: small leaks that kept the whole contraption from exploding. To the private corporation now running the airport, or to the government running the country, the total value of the loss wasn’t just a rounding error. It was a bargain. The occasional bit of German silver kept the boys of Gautam Nagar in vada pav [spicy vegetarian fast food]. It kept one of the world’s great, unjust cities in relative peace….

A boy named Deepak had been his go-in-get-that person. Deepak’s decisions could be poor because of Erase-X, but he was four years older than Sunil and genuinely daring. Then he died of German-silver fever. Security guards in one of the compounds had gouged out his eyes, put a sickle in his asshole. Sunil didn’t like to think about what had happened to Deepak after they put the sickle in: how they ripped a cut, like a smile. The children of Gautam Nagar saw his body after it was tossed back over the wall. The police had no record of the murder….

Sunil knew nothing of the movie [Slumdog Millionnaire] that ends with an airport-slum boy finding money, love, and fame. However, he might have recognized one of that movie’s conceits: that deprivation may give a child a certain intelligence. The other conceit—that a child’s specific miserable experiences might be the things to spring him from his deprivation—was the lie. It was the movie version of the electrified fence. The women who had been manicured and exfoliated and blown out would linger at the première past 1 A.M., then head to the after party at the JW Marriott. They could relax, not just because the film about the slum boy had a happy ending but because the boy’s suffering had been part of the solution.