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'Behind the Beautiful Forevers': a heart-rending tale of life in Mumbai slums

Posted: February 9, 2012 - 12:03am

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” (Random House), by Katherine Boo: This book should come with a warning — reading it may be hazardous to your rosy view that global capitalism will set the world’s billions free from poverty.

The author, Katherine Boo, spent several years documenting daily life in a Mumbai slum in order to get beyond the stereotypes of modernizing India depicted in many contemporary books and movies.

“For all the lush and brilliant depictions of wild festivals, megalomaniacal gangsters and soulful prostitutes, I felt stinted of some everyday truths,” says Boo, who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for public service at The Washington Post for reporting on neglect and abuse in group homes for the mentally disabled.

Now a staff writer at The New Yorker, where she specializes in stories about poverty and the unequal distribution of opportunity, Boo is a fantastically gifted observer and writer, as well as a dogged reporter.

She combed through more than 3,000 public records to supplement the more than three years of taped interviews that went into “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” her first book.

Her focus is Annawadi, a squatter settlement in the shadow of Mumbai’s gleaming international airport, bordered by a sewage lake that Boo swims in to better understand the toxic environment where her subjects live.

Here scavengers return home at night “with gunny sacks of garbage on their backs, like a procession of broken-toothed, profit-minded Santas,” while the police officers “would gladly blow their noses in your last piece of bread.”

We meet Abdul, a scrawny teenager whose garbage trading supports his family of 11. What happens after he and his relatives are wrongly accused in the beating and burning death of a troubled neighbor forms the suspenseful narrative at the heart of the work.

Others have written about the filth, disease and corruption of India’s slums, where poverty is so grinding that some subsist on fried rats and frogs and the scrub grass growing beside the sewage lake.

Boo also writes of these things. But she does more. She sticks with her characters long enough to reveal their essential humanity. Her portraits of Abdul and some of the other Annawadians reveal the intelligence, courage, imagination and integrity underneath the dirt and the rags.

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