When a big bank goes bust in Manhattan, forcing a thriving construction site in Mumbai to shut down and the price of recyclable scrap to plummet, entire families in the slums of India go hungry. This is the butterfly effect of the harrowingly interrelated global economy described in Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo’s first book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.”
This narrative nonfiction work catalogs a period of three years, beginning before the global market crash of 2008, of the Husain family, supported by a teenage trash-buyer named Abdul, and others who scrape together a living in a slum called Annawadi on a half-acre of polluted land beside the gleaming Mumbai international airport.
Mumbai is a city “that has this incredible contradiction,” Boo says over the phone recently from her hotel room in New York City. “It’s expanding, it’s prosperous, yet 60 percent of its residents live in poverty. It’s one of the richest cities in India, but life expectancy is less than in other places.”
She chose to base herself in Annawadi, which she describes as a “sumpy plug of slum,” because of the contrast provided by its location and because it was a manageable size and she was allowed, however wearily at first, to shadow its residents.
The result of these exhaustive efforts has garnered rave reviews and elicited comparisons to the work of Charles Dickens and his skillful portraits of urban poverty.
In order to gain the detailed insight with which she writes about her subjects, Boo says she had to “earn” her facts. This enabled her to write about a frame of mind or way of thinking not because somebody told her about it, but because she witnessed it repeatedly.
Annawadi, which is home to 3,000 exhausted souls, is hidden from view of the airport by a fence papered with ads for fancy Italianate tile that repeat the words “beautiful” and “forever” over and over again. This is where the book gets its title.
The economy is fueled by those salvaging, stealing and recycling trash and scraps. The book depicts a modern India in the throes of embracing the Western-spun dream of unchecked capitalism and the upward mobility that supposedly comes with it — one that is helping to break down what many deem an anachronistic caste system.
The great irony exposed within the book’s finely wrought pages, however, is the lie of equality in the new age of global markets, particularly when it comes to the extremely poor.
A staff writer at the New Yorker, Boo had written extensively about poverty and the disadvantaged in America.
She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2000 for a series of stories for The Washington Post about group homes for the mentally impaired.
Boo wanted to better understand how the infrastructure of opportunity was working in the world’s most impoverished places and decided that the best way to do that was “to stay in one place to see who got rich and who didn’t.”
She became interested in using India as a prism through which to view the mutability (or not) of poverty after meeting and marrying an Indian man nearly a decade ago.
To write “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” Boo lived in Mumbai for three years, visiting Annawadi with an interpreter almost daily, trailing its residents, interviewing them extensively, taking notes, scouring public records and lending her Flip video camera to the slum’s children.
The end product is a richly detailed tapestry of tragedy and triumph told by a seemingly omniscient narrator with an attention to detail that reads like fiction while in possession of the urgent humanity of nonfiction.
In Boo’s Annawadi, a cripple named One Leg who likely drowned her 2-year-old daughter in a bucket because the child was sick sets herself on fire and blames the act on Abdul out of jealousy of his family’s relatively elevated position in the slum.
That terrible event and its aftermath serve as the book’s main plot as Abdul and his family are forced to deal with India’s corrupt criminal justice system.
Throughout, Annawadi is revealed as a place where police beat and deprive the homeless, and where hopeless souls fish for food in a blue-black sewage lake.
During monsoon season, bare feet butterfly black fungus; maggots breed in wounds wrought by trash picking; and a little boy who cuts his hand completely off in a plastic shredder apologizes to the plant’s owner and promises not to report the incident.
This landscape of misery is made even more striking by the fact that the disadvantaged of Annawadi prey upon the even more disadvantaged, causing what meager upward mobility there is to be gained at the expense of the book’s most tragic figures.
“Is globalization good or bad?” asks Boo. “What I’m trying to show over time is that people are very vulnerable. I had never given any thought to the economics of recyclable trash.”
To maintain the material’s urgency, she “tried to write down some of the experiences that I had almost immediately after the experience so I wasn’t coming to them cold years later and building a scene with Lego,” says Boo, who while reporting the book lived in a simple but nice apartment that “had running water all the time” as well as a bed, a desk and two chairs.
“People say, ‘Could you have lived in Annawadi?’” she says. “I could not. I would have spent so much time doing just the work it takes to live that I couldn’t possibly have worked.”