Friday, February 10, 2012
An Outsider Gives Voice to Slumdogs
Unlike many journalists Katherine Boo aspires to invisibility. She hates publicity and talks about herself with about as much ease as someone trying to wriggle from a thicket — stopping, pausing, retracing her sentences and looking for a better way out. In her new book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” the word “I” doesn’t appear until an author’s note on page 247, and by then it’s a little jarring.
One result is that “Beautiful Forevers,” a nonfiction account of the 3,000 or so people who live in Annawadi, a “sumpy plug of slum” on the outskirts of the Mumbai airport, reads almost like a novel: a true-life version of “Slumdog Millionaire” without the Bollywood ending. The characters include various thieves and Dumpster divers; the neighborhood ward boss and her prized daughter, who is earning a college degree by rote, memorizing word for word the plots of “Mrs. Dalloway” and “The Way of the World”; and a man who makes a living of sorts by racing a carriage drawn by horses painted to look like zebras. The plot turns on a seemingly petty feud in which a disgruntled woman sets herself on fire and then blames her neighbors, two of whom wind up jail, where they are brazenly extorted by a legal system that thrives on corruption.
Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor of The New York Times who has written extensively about India, wrote in an e-mail message that “Beautiful Forevers” is “the best piece of reporting to come out of India in a half century at least” and compared it to another groundbreaking book about poverty, George Orwell’s “Road to Wigan Pier.”