I've long been a fan of Katherine Boo's writing. In one of my favorite New Yorker stories, about efforts to get the poor to marry, her opening line is a treasure: “One July morning last year in Oklahoma City, in a public-housing project named Sooner Haven, 22-year-old Kin Henderson pulled a pair of low-rider jeans over a high-rising gold lame thong and declared herself ready for church.”
Such intimacy and understated irony is the mark of Boo's writing. And in "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," her first book, her immeasurable talent as a narrative journalist shines. She brings us so close to her characters and to their slum, Annawadi, that one comes away with the feeling that we've been there — that Sunil, Abdul, Manju and the others have been a part of our lives. Which I suppose they have. Which is the beauty and magic of Boo's work. "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" is a marvel of empathy. And a marvel of reporting. Boo spent three years in Annawadi documenting the turbulent, precarious state of its occupants. She got to know them so deeply — and they clearly so trusted her — that they shared with her not only their closely held dreams and fears, but their anxieties about their own shortcomings. Where others see symbols, Boo sees people who are complicated, introspective and often filled with thoughts and desires at odds with their actions. She writes with unflinching honesty — and with heart.
The book's narrative revolves around the fiery death of one of the community's residents, a woman who, like so many others, has tried to make the best of a miserable situation. It's a death filled with ambiguity and unexpected consequences. It's a death that outside of Annawadi, like so much else that happens there, goes virtually unnoticed — and when it is noticed, by the police, is grossly misunderstood and misconstrued. It would be a mistake to think of this book narrowly, as an exploration of modern-day
. Rather, it's about all those who are eking out a living in the shadows of the immense wealth that accumulates to the few; it's about those who look around and see what is and isn't theirs. In the end, as Boo reminds us, the story of those in Annawadi is the story of those on the losing end of globalization, an economic wave that has buoyed some and submerged others.
Annawadi sits a few hundred yards from Mumbai's perennially growing airport. It's here that the slum's 3,000 occupants make their living, such as it is, mostly by scavenging for recyclable trash: plastic bottles, scraps of aluminum, cardboard, polyurethane bags — though others find corrupt means, including a man who paints stripes on his horses so he can rent them out as zebras and a woman who's determined to become the slum's overseer. "In the West, and among some in the Indian elite," Boo writes, "this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India's modern, global ambitions. But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained." It is, indeed, a place of little opportunity. At one end of Annawadi sits a sewage lake where some trap rats and frogs for food. Its residents must line up twice a day for fresh water and use overflowing outdoor toilets, which for a couple of girls becomes the one place they can gather to gossip. Migrants first squatted on this land 17 years earlier, and the threat of the land being reclaimed, of homes being razed hangs over its residents, a constant reminder that there is no certainty for those living off the discarded trash of global excess.
Boo gives her subjects dignity, and a depth that comes from her immersion in the community. Of one young scavenger, she writes: "Sunil knew how he appeared to the people who frequented the airport: shoeless, unclean, pathetic. By winter's end, he had defended against this imagined contempt by developing a rangy, loose-hipped stride for exclusive use on Sahar Airport Road." Such insight, such detail comes from someone willing to give herself over to the experience, someone willing to take the time to establish trusting relationships, someone who is able to imagine herself in the place of a Sunil whose life I can only imagine is worlds apart from Boo's. I know from my own experience that such intimate, empathic reporting requires great patience and a leap of faith that if one spends enough time in a place, they will come to know it as if it is their own.
One hears Boo's indignant fury at the conditions of Annawadi — the endemic corruption; the squashed aspirations; the utter, woeful neglect, but to her credit she doesn't shout or prod, but rather spins out a yarn of such incredible power that one arrives at that anger oneself. "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" is a gift, really, a testament to the richness and fullness of the human spirit, to the struggle of those on the bottom to stand erect in an otherwise slumping world. The story of Annawadi simultaneously haunts and inspires. It is a book that needs to be passed along to be read and reread by all of us.
Alex Kotlowitz is the author of three books, including the best-seller "There Are No Children Here."
a film he made with
, recently received the Film Independent Spirit Award for best documentary. Kotlowitz is a writer-in-residence at Northwestern University.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday