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The Chronicles of Annawadi

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Katherine Boo’s first book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”, has received wonderful reviews everywhere that one can see. Isaac Chotiner writes in the New Republic:

‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers,’ by Katherine Boo

[The] story is cinematic in its scope, and in the manner by which it builds to several hinge moments while moving back and forward in time. But that is where any similarity between Beyond the Beautiful Forevers and Slumdog Millionaire, the most famous depiction of Indian slum existence, ends. Danny Boyle’s movie extravagantly presented the “slumdog” life of its central character as frequently horrific but ultimately (and literally) rewarding: his terrible experiences allowed him to prosper on a game show. It was a kind of television theodicy. Despite its subtitle, by contrast, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers is not a hopeful book, and its despair is anything but cathartic. “Among the poor, there was no doubt that instability fostered ingenuity,” Boo writes, “but over time the lack of a link between effort and result could become debilitating. ‘We try so many things,’ as one Annawadian girl put it, ‘but the world doesn’t move in our favor.’”

The fates of the Annawadians are shaped by their relationships and ambition and fortitude; but these people have no prospects, and only the most narrow and local and difficult horizons. They cannot, in the girl’s words, make the world move. The independence of their actions and the sharpness of their personalities do not amount to anything like historical agency. And their vitality never distracts the reader from the crushing sense that poverty has prevented them from becoming independent actors.

Boo’s crucial strength is an empathetic imagination. Her book has the closely observed and artfully constructed quality of high fiction and film. It is worth recalling that [Henry Mayhew, author of London Labour and the London Poor] wrote many scenes that mirrored Dickens’s stories, and showed an interest in character that would not have embarrassed Thackeray or George Eliot. In this way he was Boo’s precursor in the “problems” tradition: sometimes journalism succeeds by reading like a novel.

Jonathan Shinin raves in the Book Forum:

To say that modesty is among the greatest virtues of a given work of nonfiction may seem like the faintest of praise, particularly in an era when prizes and plaudits accrue mostly to massive tomes whose blurbs proclaim them “magisterial” or “compendious.” But the sentence quoted above, like the rest of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is a testimony to the transcendent power of reportorial humility: The tragedy in these words—both individual and national, in this case—calls no attention to itself; it just sits there, without false melodrama or coerced tears, in a style well suited to the flint-hard manner of the book’s subjects, who scorn pity and charity alike. What is perhaps even more remarkable, and equally characteristic of Boo’s accomplishment here, is the effortlessly concise depiction of the broader issue at hand. At each juncture where the narrative requires context from beyond the boundaries of the slum at its center—and especially when the machinations of what Boo calls “the overcity” wreak havoc on its denizens—one finds no traces of those original sins of foreign correspondence, abstraction and generalization. This is not a book about “India”—in the sense that it makes no pretense to describe an entire nation of 1.2 billion people—but it tells us more about India than most books which pursue that ludicrous ambition.

The first dwellings in Annawadi were built in 1991 by Tamil migrant laborers who came to Mumbai to repair an airport runway and decided, as Boo writes, that “a sodden, snake-filled bit of brushland across the street from the international terminal seemed the least-bad place to live.” A few hundred yards from the airport access road—a stretch of pavement, Boo wryly notes, “where new India collided with old India and made new India late”—the slum squats on land owned by the airport authority. Contractors renovating the newly privatized airport use “a vast pool of sewage that marks the slum’s eastern border” as a garbage dump; their bulldozers loom like an existential threat, nibbling for now at the slum’s edges but almost guaranteed, at some unknown future date, to raze the makeshift tin-and-plywood shacks of its residents.

Across almost three hundred pages in which there is scarcely a single false note, Boo has managed a task I would have thought impossible for a foreign journalist in a Mumbai slum: to merge her eyes almost completely with those of her characters—an illusion, to be sure, but one whose precision, subtlety, and control present the impression that we are not merely viewing the lives of the Annawadians at close range but indeed seeing the entire world through their eyes.

Even Shashi Tharoor manages to work in a few words of praise for the book while plugging himself in a review in Washington Post:

But indeed, as Boo points out, the corruption that elite Indians see as an obstacle to India’s progress appears to the slum-dwellers as an aspect of “the distribution of opportunity in a fast-changing country that they loved.”

Otherwise, they are assailed by the arbitrariness of life: “In Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they avoided. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.” In this sordid drama, the poor are too busy fighting each other for the scraps: “The poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.”

This is not a reassuring message for those of us in India striving to change the country. Boo’s last sentence asks a haunting question: “If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?” It is a question that Indians try to answer every day as we build our country, and Boo has earned the right to ask it, too.

The NYT quotes very high praise:

Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor of The New York Times who has written extensively about India, wrote in an e-mail message that “Beautiful Forevers” is “the best piece of reporting to come out of India in a half century at least” and compared it to another groundbreaking book about poverty, George Orwell’s “Road to Wigan Pier.”

Katherine Boo, photo by Fred R. Conrad in NYT Feb 8 2012

The New Yorker has a small bio of Katherine Boo:

Katherine Boo has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2003 and a contributor since 2001. Her writing focusses on issues of poverty, opportunity, social and economic policy, and education. Her article “The Marriage Cure,” on marriage seminars for the poor in Oklahoma City, received a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing in 2004.

Before joining The New Yorker, Boo was a writer and editor for the Washington Post, where, for a decade, she was a member of the Outlook and Investigative staffs. She was also an editor and writer for the Washington City Paper and The Washington Monthly. In 2000, she received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, and, in 2002, she was awarded a MacArthur fellowship, in recognition of her body of work on the disadvantaged.

Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

February 11, 2012 at 4:45 am

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