Have you ever tried to prise away that little plastic lining from the inside of a metal beer-bottle cap? It is a horrible, nail-ripping task. But Abdul, one of the teenage Mumbai slum-dwellers whose life is documented in Katherine Boo’s 2012 book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, does just that – and many other tasks equally grim – for hour after hour every day, sorting rubbish until he has enough to sell on for a few rupees. He supports 11 people.

“Yes, it’s really hard to do that, with the bottle caps, isn’t it? Actually, it’s a real art,” Boo says with a laugh, as we settle in to our corner banquette at a branch of Pizza Express near Waterloo station in London. “And now, they’re doing it on the stage of the National Theatre every night!”

Boo’s work, which won the 2012 National Book Award for nonfiction, has been adapted for the stage by playwright David Hare and directed by incoming National Theatre supremo Rufus Norris. It has just opened to previews, and will be screened live in more than 550 cinemas next March.

Annawadi is an “undercity” of some 3,000 people tucked on to a reeking swampy strip beside Mumbai’s gleaming new airport, and in the shadow of a ring of towering hotels. Here, the detritus of Mumbai’s wealthy provides pickings for those living at the edge of survival. To see the people she came to know in this place brought to life on stage in London’s premier theatre has been a powerful experience for Boo.

“I feel so connected to the kids who are being represented,” she admits. “What’s happening here is happening to hundreds of millions of people negotiating this volatile age of global markets, so it is amazing to see it set slap in the middle of a stage. The play is decidedly not in my control but the sense of utter instability, the intensity of friendship, the way life is jangling with energy, not just to survive but to make something better – it’s all there.”

Typically, her response to the initial offer from Hare was to go back to Annawadi and ask its people what they thought about the idea. “They were open to it. There is a vernacular tradition of street theatre, slum theatre. Many of the people I’m writing about aren’t literate so what are books to them? But a play, they got. So I let them think about it for a while, they talked to each other about it, and agreed. Part of the arrangement was that David [Hare], Rufus [Norris] and other people go to Annawadi, meet them, talk to them, and absorb it.

“The sound designer went, the set designer went, the Sri Lankan actor who plays Sunil [one of the boys who work as scavengers] went – and the result is extraordinary. There’s a lot on stage that is taken absolutely from life – movements, gestures, details.

“I didn’t go with them. I didn’t want to be saying, ‘Here’s my slum, here are my people.’ I wanted them to have their own experience of it. But I hear about it when I go back to Annawadi.”

The waiter is hovering. It’s to be a pizza “Pollo ad Astra” for her, featuring chicken with Cajun spices, and “Rustichella” for me. The latter includes pancetta, I think, and mozzarella, and (weirdly) a Caesar salad dressing. We each ask for a Diet Coke.

“Sunil is jealous – we get pizza for lunch,” Boo laughs. This Sunil is Sunil Khilnani, Boo’s husband, a writer and historian she met when he was running the South Asia programme at Johns Hopkins international studies school in Washington, DC, the city in which she was born in 1964. Khilnani is now Avantha professor of politics and director of the India Institute at King’s College London, and they have a small house in south London as a base for their peripatetic lives. On the day we meet, Khilnani has just returned from a working month in India, while Boo has been in Washington, seeing her family.

Originally from Minnesota, the family moved to Washington where Boo’s father was a civil servant. A strong social conscience seems to motivate the whole family: both her parents, she says, were involved in the civil rights movement as early as the 1940s. One of her brothers, a doctor, worked for years on HIV in Africa; her sister works on moving severely disadvantaged children from foster care to adoptive homes.

But it was when she fell in love with her husband, Boo says, that she also discovered a new country. Her first visit to India was with him in 2002, which was about the time she and I first met. And – full disclosure here – we have been friends ever since, although it’s a friendship that has necessarily been sporadic. From late 2007 to 2011, she spent much of her time in Annawadi, discovering the lives of its inhabitants at intimately close range and finding ways to convey to the affluent world the almost unimaginable grind of daily life in such a place.

The book that emerged reads almost like a novel, a gripping and dramatic web of stories that includes brutal police, official corruption, sudden and shocking violence and always the unremitting sweat and stench of survival. Boo leaves herself out of the account, and her brilliance lies in the detail that drills into the reader’s mind: I will never again look in the same way at the aluminium trays of airline meals I now know to be trophies for which a garbage boy will risk a beating from airport guards.

If the empathetic writer in Boo transmits these characters in all their vivid humanity, the investigative journalist in her – she has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2003 – also persisted in going through a nightmarish bureaucratic system to source thousands of documents that evidence Annawadi’s countless everyday miseries and small, forgotten tragedies.

It is this combination of empathy and objectivity that garnered international praise for the book, as well as awards from PEN, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Public Library and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, besides the National Book Award.

Her string of past accolades also shows the same career-long commitment to investigating poverty, even in her own rich country. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2000 for a series of stories in the Washington Post about abuse and neglect in homes for people with learning disabilities. And in 2002 came a MacArthur Fellowship, as well as a prize for journalism that advances the cause of social justice, the Hillman Prize, for a New Yorker article entitled “After Welfare”. Then the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing in 2004, for a New Yorker article called “The Marriage Cure”, about a programme aiming to alleviate social disadvantage in an Oklahoma housing project by promoting marriage.

Like all Boo’s work, “The Marriage Cure” is a gripping read, immersing us in people’s lives without a whiff of condescension or mawkishness. It was this article, she says, that prompted her husband to observe that no one was reporting on poverty in India in the way that Boo approached the subject in the US.

By this time, the ruins of our pizzas are congealing unprettily, and we are picking at them with our fingers in a desultory way. Our fingers? It’s part of the reason why the pizza place was Boo’s choice for lunch. Since her teens she has suffered from an autoimmune condition that has dictated an ongoing struggle with multiple surgeries and increasing difficulties in her joints, now including hands that cope uneasily with cutlery – and much else. “I used to read the Lunch with the FT and think, ‘Oh I could never do that, the journalist would just say, ‘She’s dropping her food . . . ’ ”

Boo, tiny, frail, and with an immune system that is not on her side, hardly seems a person who should be in an environment like Annawadi’s, where tuberculosis is rife, and where ordinary hazards included her fall into a toxic sewage lake. But she brushes off the idea that she is unusually brave. “I’m better when I have a purpose. Though if I’d known when I started out that it would take so long, and be so anxious-making, I’m not sure I would have done it. It was hard!”

For someone whose investigative method was always, she says, “to make herself invisible”, her moon-blonde hair and china-white skin must have made her seem like a being from another planet. How did the Annawadians accept her? “Well, everyone had their lives to get on with and my entertainment value wore off after a couple of months. I just wasn’t that interesting. I had a long period when I had no translator – it was a miserable job for the translator – so it was just me and them and we had to find ways to communicate.

“Part of what you have to do in any reporting situation is say, ‘Look, I have this strange job, I want to understand what your life is like and the choices you have to make.’ And they understand that, they absolutely do.

“But many of the people I write about aren’t used to talking about their lives, so it was sometimes best for me to just watch – to watch Abdul turning the Barbie dolls on his rubbish pile tits down, for instance. Better to watch what they were doing and then to ask why.”

Did the people there respond to her more easily, perhaps, because they could see that she faces difficulties of her own?

“I’m not an intimidating presence. They used to call me The One Leg [like one of the subjects in the book] and there was a lot of teasing about my scars, and about how my husband must be a loser because I’m defective – who would have married me?” That hearty laugh again.

When I ask whether the experience of those years in the slum changed her, for once Boo seems lost for words. “It aged me,” she says with a laugh, after a long pause. “It has made me sadder. I don’t know if it’s made me wiser.” Then, after a time, she says, “You know, I’m not that introspective.”

And it’s true that her focus stays unwaveringly on her subjects, not herself. Every project has its afterlife – she tells me how one of the women from the Oklahoma project read the Annawadi book and told Boo how much she recognised her own experience. “That’s been an extraordinary thing. Several people I’ve written about before now ask about Adbul and the others as if they know them; there’s very much a sense of identification among lower-income people across cultures and borders.”

The question I most want to ask, perhaps, is how she sees the effect of her crusading and committed journalism. Can writing such as hers really effect change? In reply, she is careful, realistic. “There’s always this voice in my head saying, ‘What’s the purpose, what’s the purpose?’ But I tell myself it is a valid thing. It’s valid to record that the police are marking homicides as TB deaths because these kids aren’t worth investigating. So much stuff like that. The work has to have the investigative dimension, to bring observations together coherently.”

The pizzas are finally whisked away, and our two black coffees arrive. I ask Boo about her continuing commitment to Annawadi. “When the money from the book started to come in,” she explains, “I asked people what they wanted. And one of the surprising things – it wasn’t even on my radar – was they wanted an Aadhaar card, the new identity card. Without that you can’t do anything, officials have an excuse to turn slumdwellers away from schools and even public hospitals. We also arranged for several hundred private school, tuition and training courses, and medical treatment and other stuff.

“And here’s where I should say it’s been happily ever after. But it’s not: it’s a continual battle.” For instance, after placing 10 children in the area’s best private school, Boo and her husband went back this year to place 12 more students. But affluent parents did not want their children mixing with the slum children, and the school slammed their doors on the Annawadians at the last minute. “We’ve literally stood at the door begging schools to let the kids in. Sunil and I aren’t naive but the resistance has been really jolting.”

At other times, structural problems sabotage individual desire. After she’d put 36 teenagers in an intensive programme to learn English – a coveted skill in the airport hotels – there was a water shortage in Annawadi. “The students couldn’t get clean, so they didn’t go to classes because they were embarrassed at the way they smelled.

“Apart from all the other things to contend with, you are operating in a world where wealthier people treat you with contempt. One of the boys scavenging said to me, ‘I feel like an insult.’ That internalisation of contempt really thwarts what children think is possible.”

Hope is a political instrument, Boo believes, but it is also a reality. In her book, and in conversation, she always stresses the dreams and aspirations found even in a filthy slum.

When I suggest that she has changed people’s lives, she replies: “OK, you may change individual lives but you’re also trying to talk about structures. Maybe you can make a small contribution, show things so that other people who are working on issues of inequality, say, can pick up the book and say, ‘Look, this is what I’ve been telling you about.’

“That it does any good at all is a very slim hope – but if the broader public has no information, even that slim chance might disappear.”

Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor

Illustration by Patrick Morgan

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