Journalist captures vitality of Indian lives

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March 24, 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers
By Katherine Boo
Random House, 256 pages, $32.00

Reviewed by Frances Backhouse

Behind the Beautiful Forevers opens with sixteen-year-old Abdul Hakim Husain on the run from the police, hiding among the garbage he sorts for a living in an Indian slum called Annawadi. The one-legged woman whose home shares a wall with his family’s tin-roofed shack has been severely burned, and Abdul and his father stand accused of setting her on fire.

Falsely accused, as it turns out, in an ill-considered attempt by the victim to destroy her neighbours, but truth has little currency in the desperate, corrupt world in which the Husains live. Father and son, as well as Abdul’s older sister, will be arrested, imprisoned and tried in a system that is only nominally interested in justice. The waste-picking business that supported the eleven-member Husain family and made them among the most affluent of Annawadi’s three thousand residents will be lost. There will be tears and hunger and despair–and through it all, Katherine Boo will be standing on the sidelines, bearing witness and recording the details of this real-life drama.

Boo, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, is our eyes and ears in this story, but is never present in person. For the first twenty pages or so, the action was so compelling that I hardly noticed her absence. However, by the middle of the second chapter, the writer in me was demanding to know more about Boo and how she pulled off this remarkable feat of narrative nonfiction. I flipped to the back of the book and started reading the Author’s Note, a parallel story that begins: “Ten years ago, I fell in love with an Indian man and gained a country. He urged me not to take it at face value.”

As Boo explains, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an attempt to understand the moral and practical implications of the profound inequalities she discovered when she moved to Mumbai, which differed only in scale from the kind of inequities she had previously reported on in Washington, DC. “To me,” she writes, “becoming attached to a country involves pressing uncomfortable questions about justice and opportunity for its least powerful citizens.” And so, for nearly four years, she meticulously documented the realities of one “unexceptional slum”–a boggy, congested scrap of land surrounded by opulent hotels–and investigated the forces that shaped its inhabitants.

While Boo’s journalistic skills provide the solid framework for this book, it is her storytelling proficiency and thoughtful analysis that make it such a memorable and moving work. Thinking of places like Annawadi, I have often said I can’t imagine living like that. Without sensationalizing or sanitizing, Boo fills in the gaps in my imagination. She eavesdrops on Abdul and his friends as they talk about “the usual subjects–food, movies, girls, the price of waste.” She observes the ruthless ambition of a woman determined to see her daughter become the slum’s first female college graduate. She lets the Annawadians speak for themselves.

While some readers might take issue with how Boo conveys both the thoughts and words of her subjects, the author’s note convinced me I could trust her methodology and her respect for their “deep, idiosyncratic intelligences.”

This is not a cheerful book, but it is riveting, and I feel wiser about the world for having read it.

Frances Backhouse is the author of several non-fiction books and has her MFA in Writing from the University of Victoria.

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