As some of the overindulged freshmen of 2012 move their flat-screen TVs, laptops and mini-fridges into comfortable dorms with gourmet dining, they could probably use a cold dose of the harsh reality presented in Katherine Boo’s debut book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” The narrative nonfiction was recently named as the One Book, One Community selection for East Lansing, and this week Boo will be coming to the area to speak about her powerful work.
Boo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, MacArthur Fellowship recipient and staff writer for the New Yorker, spent three years living among the 3,000 residents of Annawadi, one of India’s squatter slums located on the fringe of the Mumbai airport and home to the poorest of the poor.
Its residents pick through mounds of junk looking for recyclables they can turn into money. For food, many are forced to trap frogs and rats in a polluted lake. “Beautiful Forevers” focuses on a few families and individuals, opening with the dramatic self-immolation of a woman who has reached her limits. Boo, an accomplished documentarian, only records what she sees and hears with no need for embellishment.
Boo does not tell a “Slumdog Millionaire” story in this book, but crafts a tale that is as disturbing as it is revelatory about the global economy. In many ways, it is the tale of a real-life modern dystopia. Speaking in an interview from London where she lives with her Indian husband, Boo said that her book “doesn’t have the same kind of fairy tale” approach as “Slumdog.”
“In Indian parlance, that’s called zero to hero,” she said. Instead, Boo said she tries to show the reader that Annawadi is part of a much bigger stage and that we should take notice of what happens there when wealth goes to the top. She said that her book is about the volatility of the world, the decline of manufacturing and how communities are less stable when there is less permanence. Boo said she was “amazed and honored” that her book was selected for a community reading program, but she is confident that it has the power to heighten empathy from Western readers.
“There is an enormous amount of connective tissue across global borders,” she says.
Boo is obviously moved by the deaths of several of the individuals she had been following, but her story is more about how we are all in this together, including bold acts of selflessness she witnessed.
“It moves me that so many people tried to act ethically, even when it was not in their own economic interests,” she said.
As a documentary journalist having spent her career writing about the poor and disadvantaged in the U.S., she says she just sort of hung out in the slum waiting to see what developed. She told the New York Times recently that her early days in the slum were “a circus act” — she actually fell in the city’s festering lake — before she became “there” and the story told itself.
And that story is not a pretty one. In one segment, she follows the murder of Kalu, a crime that went largely ignored by the openly corrupt local police. She also circles back to the death of Fatima — the woman from the beginning of the book who killed herself — and follows the trial of Abdul, a man who was mistakenly accused of killing her. Bribes and graft almost always prevail.
Boo’s look at modern slum life is more than slightly reminiscent of George Orwell’s “Road to Wigan Pier,” a book that was written 77 years ago about the slums of England. Given her own health problems (Boo has severe arthritis), she could not embed herself in the slums quite like Orwell did, but she came close, spending long days at Annawadi accompanied by interpreters for whom she had the highest regard. She rails in her book about the corruption and graft she finds at all levels and especially how it has such terrible impacts on the residents of Annawadi. Even those at the bottom need to pay someone for something.
Students and area residents will have several opportunities to hear her talk. A free community-wide event will be held at the East Lansing High School auditorium at 7 p.m. on Sunday. She will address incoming freshmen at the Breslin Center at 9 a.m. on Monday and will appear for a special Afternoon Tea event later that day at 4 p.m. at the East Lansing Public Library. Boo will read selections from her book and answer questions.