March 8, 2012
Karen Thomas, as a special contributor to the Dallas Morning News, reviews a new work of nonfiction by writer Katherine Boo.
In many major cities, the poor are invisible. Swept away from the views of tourists and wealthier residents, their neighborhoods are crammed into dank, dark corners while prosperity explodes all around them.
No one knows this better than New Yorker writer Katherine Boo. She has spent most of her extraordinary journalistic career taking readers into the shadows of America’s glitziest cities as she peels back layers of social and economic policies that lead to poverty. For some writers, this could result in preachy prose or deadly statistics, but Boo uses her narrative writing skills to allow us to experience the humanity and struggles of their daily lives.
Poverty, of course, exists worldwide, and Boo, in her first book-length work of nonfiction, looks at the problem in India. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity , explores the lives of several families of Annawadi, a settlement of 335 huts that Boo calls a “sumpy plug of a slum.” Its residents live in the shadow of the Mumbai airport and the city’s luxury hotels.
There we meet Abdul, Manju and Sunil, young residents who stand on the cusp of adulthood. But Annawadi is a place where sorting garbage becomes a way of reaching the good life, and injustice, corruption and the ever-looming threat of death can upend dreams long before they can take root.
“It seemed to him that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they avoided. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught,” Boo writes about Abdul in the book’s prologue. Abdul is a teenage garbage-sorter whose skills have helped place his family on the path to owning a decent home in a better neighborhood.
Much of the book centers on Abdul’s family just as India’s economy sprinted forward near the end of the last decade, breathing hope into Annawadi. But Abdul’s family becomes caught in a catastrophe when his mother simply tries to improve her hut by installing a kitchen shelf.
The shelf sets off a series of events that eventually includes a neighbor setting herself on fire and then blaming Abdul, his father and his sister. They find themselves at the mercy of a justice system that is anything but.
Boo, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a restrained and fine writer who has honed her reporting skills to a level that it is easy to forget you are reading nonfiction. When she delves into the unthinkable, she pulls her prose back and allows the story to unfold. One can only imagine the language and cultural difficulties she overcame to earn the trust of her subjects.
We come to know Abdul and the other families so well that we begin to understand their daily lives in an intimate and personal way. Journalists once prided themselves on being the voice of the voiceless — for Boo, it’s not some empty statement. It’s an art that she has mastered.
Boo says in her author’s note that she came to India after marrying an Indian man. She saw parallels with American communities and set out to explore one particular nagging question: If wealth and poverty are placed “cheek-by-jowl … why don’t more of our unequal societies implode?”
By focusing particularly on Annawadi’s children, Boo allows that question to linger and then be explained by the book’s end. It’s not an answer that should sit easily with anyone.
In one passage, Boo describes Abdul as wanting to be like ice. Water and ice, he deduces, are made from the same thing. “But here was the interesting thing. Ice was distinct from — and in his view, better than — what it was made of.
“He wanted to be better than what he was made of. In Mumbai’s dirty water, he wanted to be ice,” Boo writes.
As Abdul leaves childhood behind and as his case moves through the justice system, his ideals begin to slip away.
“For some time, I tried to keep the ice inside me from melting,” was how he put it. “But now I’m just becoming dirty water, like everyone else.”
Karen M. Thomas teaches journalism at Southern Methodist University.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
(Random House, $28)