In 2007, the New Yorker writer Katherine Boo started three years of visits to the Annawadi slum in Mumbai, India, interviewing residents in the small shantytown behind the city’s gleaming airport and near several luxury hotels. Boo’s resulting book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity”(Random House, $27, 288pp.), is a breathtaking work of great reportage, full of lush images and nuanced characters.
Boo focuses on Abdul, a teenage garbage broker who supports his family of 10, and introduces readers to Kalu, who braves the barbed wire of the Mumbai airport to raid the recycling bins. Boo also explores the changes to Asha, a woman from the impoverished countryside who becomes a small-time political activist immersed in bribery and fraud.
The community of 3,000 is rocked by the suicide of the one-legged Fatima, who Abdul is falsely accused of murdering. Abdul’s trip through the Kafkaesque Indian court system allows Boo to examine how individual initiative can easily be crushed by cruelty, corruption and indifference.
Boo, 47, splits her time between Mumbai and Washington, D.C. She spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from Portland, Oregon.
Q. How did you wind up finding the Annawadi slum?
A. As a point of principle, I don’t use fixers. I found Annawadi on my own in November 2007. I went with a man who was monitoring a micro-lending scheme in Annawadi. Asha was there.
Q. The center of the book becomes Abdul, who is falsely accused of murder. How did you bond with him?
A. For months, I just watched him work, sorting garbage. His father would be coughing in the hut, and his brothers and sisters would be running around. He started telling me his views on the value of life.
Q. The book opens with a mesmerizing image of a terrified Abdul hiding from the police in his rat-infested garbage storage area. How did you create the vignette?
A. I was with Abdul before Fatima set herself on fire. I had videotapes of where the garbage was stored. I reported from Abdul’s perspective, from that of a small Nepalese boy (a witness) and I had police documents. I reported from Fatima’s hut, as well as the hospital.
Q. Asha goes from being a no-show schoolteacher to becoming a semi-ruthless powerbroker in the slum. How did she evolve for you?
A. Asha comes from a region in India that is the shorthand for hardship and poverty. Her husband is a drunk and she’s got three children. He always seemed to be passed out. She could have gotten a job in a factory, but she’s smart as hell. The local corrupt politician was able to notice her intelligence and uses it. I am not trying to sentimentalize her, but over the course of the book, I hope the readers will understand the choices she’s made.
Q. Despite the poverty and fist-to-mouth existences of most of the people in Annawadi, you present a balanced portrait. The street children have witty commentaries on the wealthy people in the nearby hotels and women dress their best for festivals. Why was this so important?
A. That’s part of the problem with how poverty is written about. We think that people will only care about the poor if they are sitting around, sad-faced and miserable. I wrote about this moment when there was a break in the rain and the kids took a busted inner-tube and started playing ring toss with the flagpole. It was mayhem and joy.
Q. Did you ever feel the need to intervene when you witnessed violence?
A. There were certain incidents when I did intervene. I am not physically strong, but I’d use my video camera and start yelling. There was an incident where men were evicting a widow, pulling her out by her hair and throwing her possessions in the sewage lake. I created a distraction.