When the investigative journalist Katherine Boo set out to write about poverty in India’s largest city, she didn’t merely want to chronicle “poignant snapshots of Indian squalor: the ribby children with flies in their eyes and other emblems of abjectness that one can’t help but see within five minutes of walking into a slum.”
No, her goal during nearly 3 1/2 years of reporting in a Mumbai slum known as Annawadi, was something far more ambitious and difficult to discern. In a place so poor that residents compete ferociously to scavenge for recyclable trash they can sell for a pittance, what forces determine who succeeds (a relative term) and who fails? What role does individual initiative play and what are its limits? How do market forces, government policies and endemic corruption encourage or stunt opportunity? Whose capabilities are squandered and at what cost?
In short, she asks, “By what means might that ribby child grow up to less poor?”
Boo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, a staff writer for The New Yorker and a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship “genius” grant. She’s known for immersion-style projects that probe dark subjects like poverty. And she won a National Book Award for her 2012 book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.”
I knew all that when I put the book on my wish list last Christmas. Recently, I got the chance to read it.
I hesitate to use the word “beautiful” but it is a stirring book, the product of tireless reporting and a clear-eyed narrative that seeks only to inform, never to judge. By focusing on 3,000 people crammed together on a half-acre in a city of nearly 13 million, she brings things down to a manageable scale. By telling the stories of a handful of residents, she gives voice to the aspirations, frustrations and indignities of individuals who might otherwise be reduced to “poignant snapshots of Indian squalor.” She succeeds magnificently.
Among others, we come to know the industrious teenager Abdul, the one-legged prostitute Fatima, the wannabe politician Asha and her beautiful, ambitious daughter Manju, who hopes to become the first Annawadian to graduate from college. Abdul, a master trash collector, and two other family members run up against brutish police and mind-boggling corruption after they are arrested following the death of a neighbor. Their plight drives much of the book.
Boo is a fair-skinned, slender blonde, married to an Indian man, who couldn’t help but stand out in Annawadi, a place where raggedy shacks and huts are built near an open sewage lake adjacent to a road leading to the Mumbai airport. Yet, with the help of two translators, she evidently won the trust (or at least the tolerance) of her many subjects as she reported from November 2007 to March 2011 in the Indian capital formerly known as Bombay.
In focusing on Annawadi, Boo literally takes us behind gleaming aluminum fences and a concrete wall separating the slum from the airport and a cluster of five-star hotels. The wall is covered with sunshine-yellow ads for Italianate floor tiles and a corporate slogan runs its entire length, repeating the words “Beautiful forever, beautiful forever.”
The division of wealth and poverty reflects the chasm between new India and old India, as the slum dwellers strive to survive in a country whose growing wealth doesn’t begin to trickle down to them.
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is a gritty read, for sure. But you can’t help but come away with an appreciation for the well-rounded portraits of these people in Annawadi. Boo doesn’t make them out to be heroes; she simply presents them as real human beings, each of them flawed and striving in their own way against enormous odds. This is immersion journalism at its finest. An important story told with insight and empathy through the eyes of memorable characters.
Photograph of boys: beyondthebeautifulforevers.com
Photograph of slum: National Public Radio
Note: Katherine Boo is scheduled to speak in Portland in April 2015 as part of Portland Arts & Lectures.
Read a Q&A with her editor, Kate Medina.