There are scores of heart-wrenching stories in veteran journalist Katherine Boo’s amazing book about a Mumbai slum. Here is one:
A garbage scavenger is hit by a car before dawn, and lies by the side of a road calling for help. A little boy passes, but is too frightened of the police to seek help. Schoolboys pass, but don’t want to be late for class. A woman passes, but is too preoccupied with helping her unjustly jailed husband. And so it goes, hour after hour. Finally, at 2:30 p.m., someone calls the cops to complain about a corpse. At 4 p.m., the body is picked up. The scavenger’s cause of death is recorded, falsely, as “tuberculosis,” because no one wants to bother with an investigation.
Such is life and death in Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai’s international airport, that is the scene of Boo’s first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Boo, a staff writer for the New Yorker, and her translators spent three years reporting in this “undercity,” exploring how ordinary people, particularly women and children, cope with inequality and the changes brought by globalism. She has produced a work of astonishingly good journalism.
Brace yourself: This is an unsparing view of a world of crushing poverty, disease, physical brutality and corruption. But, of course, actual human beings with dreams and ambitions live in this awful place, and Boo centers her story on about a dozen compelling characters who are trying to improve their circumstances.
Boo notes there are three ways out: entrepreneurship, corruption and education. Abdul and his family try to build a garbage-brokering business; Asha helps crooked politicians defraud anti-poverty programs; her daughter Manju tries to escape her mother’s schemes by finishing college; the street child Sunil makes a moral choice between scavenging and thievery. Boo delves far into what she calls their “deep, idiosyncratic intelligences,” and touches our hearts.
Perhaps most shocking to American readers will be the relentless graft that these slum residents face. No one with an official position does his or her job without soliciting a bribe, including doctors and victims’ advocates. Police routinely beat the poor, and have no interest in justice. Among Boo’s characters, four don’t survive slum life: One is murdered and three commit suicide.
But some endure and rise. Young Sunil faces his world with bravery and hope. Boo tries to make sure we will remember him.
Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.