In the end, the Dr. Pepper can over which Katherine Boo tripped did the world a favor.
As the MacArthur award-winning journalist lay on the floor of her home in Washington, DC, unable to move for hours, and with three broken ribs and a punctured lung, a thought came over her:
If I can’t handle safety here, why not go to India?
That question prompted Boo not just to travel to her husband’s homeland, but to immerse herself in the muck and mire of Annawadi, a slum of squatters that sprouted up right near the Mumbai airport.
Boo spent the better part of four years applying her distinctive combination of blending in and letting epoeple be themselves, uncanny eye for detail, relentless search of, and combing through, of relevant public records, and impressive writing ability that fans of Boo will remember from works like “The Marriage Cure,” which won a National Magazine Award.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Boo’s first book, emerged from her labors. It may be most unusual in its approach toward looking at the intersection of poverty and opportunity.
The work is a panoptic look at the community that emerged in Annawadi (Boo explains in an interview that accompanied my review copy that she seeks to know as many people as possible in any place she covers.).
Heartbreakingly poor, the residents face all kinds of obstacles and brutality.
First and most obvious are poverty and the environment. Although located near some of Mumbai’s most luxurious hotels, the 3,300 people in Annawadi are surrounded by a lake of sewage and are in an area that is slated for demolition.
Others obstacles are more subtle, but no less real, like the constraint these realities put on even the most determined resident.
Yet the book is not a story either of relentless vicitimization or or chastising blame.
The array of characters in Behind have agency, and, beyond that, a sense of a real, if painfully precarious, opportunity.
The book’s characters often exercise their capacity to act in heartbreaking ways.
Meena, the first girl born in Annawadi, literally takes her life into her hands by deciding to end it through drinking rat poison.
“It was her only choice,’ Boo writes, in essence.
Death is not the only source of heartbreak.
One of the most difficult of many such moments in the book comes when Asha, a fiercely ambitious slumlord who’s invested her hopes in her daughter’s marriage and college education, is celebrating her 40th birthday with her ailing husband and children.
Boo describes the cake and festivities and the evening’s joyful tone.
Then the call comes.
She tries to resist leaving her home, her family, her weeping husband and her imploring daughter to join the man in the police van who will pay her for his pleasure.
But she can’t.
Examining the intersection of individual lives with the larger system is one of Boo’s chief interests, and she does it extremely effectively.
One of the points she makes is the vulnerability of the advances the residents work so hard to gain.
This is seen through Abdul, a focused and dedicated garbage sorter who literally cannot envision another future for himself.
His life changes dramatically when a disabled neighbor burns herself after conflict with his sister and father, and then accuses Abdul of having beaten her.
The book opens with his hiding from the police in the garbage.
His arrest, along with that of his father and sister, caused almost unimaginable strain on his mother Zehursina, who somehow manages to get by through a combination of begging, borrowing and bribing.
Annawadians’ vulnerability extends beyond capricious and inaccurate accusations from a neighbor.
Boo convincingly shows how the economic meltdown hurt the garbage sorters, thieves and local political figures far more than it did Dick Fuld and other top-level executives.
Boo brings a clear-eyed view, too, to the violence, police brutality and utter callousness displayed by authorities toward residents of Annawadi.
As a result, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a convincing, and, in many ways, unprecedented insight into this community.
It is also a lense into how to think about similar such communities the world over.
If the conclusion of A Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s 10-year reportorial odyssey, is that many young people in American cities have enormous talents, yet are almost inevitably doomed to repeat the destructive behavior cycles under which they came up, Boo’s final take is slightly different.
In her depiction of Annawadi, love and community and connection coexist with rivalry and betrayal and straight up cruelty and all the consequences of public indifference and pervasive corruption.
Yet through it all there is a gritty resilience and tenacity that Boo is careful not to romanticize while showing its presence.
Some moments in the book work better than others.
Even as giving these folks their due, it is still hard to get past the often confirmed sense that many positive things the residents dream of will never materialize.
The way she shows Annawadians’ awareness of the outside world may be accurate, but felt very intentional.
Highly skilled writer, and in places felt a bit too aware of what she was trying to do with having characters illustrate the larger structures of the society and the nuanced sensibility she seeks to depict.
These blemishes are minor, and not nearly enough to detract from overall value of the work on many levels.
We are grateful to Boo for taking the opportunity created by her trip over her soda can, and look forward to what comes next from this highly dedicated, intelligent and competent woman.