I only have tags on this blog for a handful of favorite writers. They are writers who, for whatever reason, keep popping up again in my life.
So — it’s with pleasure that I see Katherine Boo popping up over and over again in friends’ Twitter streams. I’ve been a fan of hers for more than a decade now, since her “Invisible Lives/Invisible Deaths” series.
Though I missed her reading at Politics and Prose last month (am still disappointed in myself), I’ve been reading every story and review of her book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Favorite snippets from these articles have piled up in a file on my machine. So far, they have been:
This is an astonishing book.
The author poignantly details these many lives: Abdul, a quiet buyer of recyclable trash who wished for nothing more than what he had; Zehrunisa, Abdul’s mother, a Muslim matriarch among hostile Hindu neighbors; Asha, the ambitious slum leader who used her connections and body in a vain attempt to escape from Annawadi; Manju, her beautiful, intelligent daughter whose hopes laid in the new India of opportunity; Sunil, the master scavenger, a little boy who would not grow; Meena, who drank rat poison rather than become a teenage bride in a remote village; Kalu, the charming garbage thief who was murdered and left by the side of the road.
There’s a brothel owner and goat keeper who can’t keep either of his quarries in line; an ambitious woman named Asha who’s trying to jump-start her career in corruption; and, most memorably, “One Leg,” a Mumbai mother with, yes, one leg, who’s notorious for a “sexual need as blatant as her lipstick” and who’s not above setting herself on fire and framing her neighbors for the crime.
“Poor people didn’t unite” during her time in Annawadi, Ms. Boo writes in a rare polemical moment; “they competed ferociously with one another for spoils as slender as they were provisional. And this undercity blood sport created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of society at large. The gates of the rich were not stormed. The powerful did not worry. The poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.”
Boo admits that she was often daunted by the weight of her project. “There were so many times when I was reporting in Annawadi that I would just come home and cry, because I didn’t think that I was going to be able to bring the stories to the page in a way that would make other people care,” she says.
In her early visits to Annawadi, which began in 2007, Ms. Boo, who is small, blond and delicate looking and knew none of the half dozen or so languages spoken there, was anything but invisible. There are, or used to be, two main landmarks in the slum: a concrete wall with ads for Italian tiles (“Beautiful Forever”) that give the book its title, and a foul-smelling sewage lake: a junk-rimmed pool of excrement, monsoon runoff and petrochemicals. While videotaping one day, Ms. Boo fell in, and when she came out her feet were blue.
Since her late teens Ms. Boo, who is now 47, has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and several related immunological disorders. She walks a little slowly and sometimes has trouble with her eyes. Her fingers are gnarled and bent. That she is still able to type is owing in large part to a 2002 MacArthur grant, which helped pay for surgery on her right hand.
There are cult filmmakers and cult novelists, but Katherine Boo may be the world’s only cult journalist. Although a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship, she’s not a marquee name in her profession. Yet those discerning readers who have latched onto her work — particularly her articles for the New Yorker — are obsessed with it. (The TV and movie producer J.J. Abrams, of all people, once interrupted an interview to rhapsodize for 10 minutes about Boo. “Do you know her?” he asked reverently.)
But “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is, above all, a moral inquiry in the great tradition of Oscar Lewis and Michael Harrington. As Boo explains in an author’s note, the spectacle of Mumbai’s “profound and juxtaposed inequality” provoked a line of questioning: “What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government’s economic and social policy? Whose capabilities are squandered? . . . Why don’t more of our unequal societies implode?”