First Person

In Katherine Boo’s book, ordinary people in Mumbai and their extraordinary survival

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Read Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai undercity” and it will open your eyes about what it means to really get to know a place and its people and to tell their story accurately–no small responsibility. This is the story of Annawadi, a desperately poor community of families trying to carve a life for themselves just beyond the luxury hotels circling India’s international airport in Mumbai. It’s the story of worlds colliding in a global economy.

To tell it, Boo–a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post and now a writer for The New Yorker–spent more than three years listening to and watching all that went on in Annawadi, conducting countless interviews, scouring thousands of public records, videoing, photographing, scribbling. She had married an Indian and was determined to get to know his country on its own terms.

“I had felt a shortage in nonfiction about India,” Boo writes in her author’s note, “of deeply reported accounts showing how ordinary low-income people–particularly women and children–were negotiating the age of global markets. I’d read accounts of people who were remaking themselves and triumphing in software India, accounts that sometimes elided early privileges of caste, family wealth, and private education. I’d read stories of saintly slumdwellers trapped in a monochromatically miserable place–that is, until saviors (often white Westerners) galloped in to save them. I’d read tales of gangsters and drug lords who spouted language Salman Rushdie would envy.”

Boo’s book is none of that–though her language sings with Rushdie’s. It is the story, as she says, of ordinary people, the extraordinary things they do to survive, and truths that may change the way you see the world. What more can you ask of a book?

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