Poverty is a touchy subject for Americans, evoking as it does an awkward mixture of empathy and reproach. It's not that we lack compassion for the grizzled old man shuffling down the subway platform in his paper bag shoes; it's just that we can't help holding him somewhat accountable for his own misery. Good little capitalists that we are, weaned on notions of meritocracy, we harbor suspicions that a failure to thrive points to a failure of character. If this man's life is in tatters, we tell ourselves, it stands to reason that he's in possession of an X-acto knife. Katherine Boo's new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, reveals the self-serving hypocrisy of this tactic. Blaming the poor for their own predicament, she tells us, is like blaming a cancer patient for his prognosis--it serves little purpose but to shift the blame away from the real culprits.
Writing ab out the disadvantaged isn't new territory for Boo, who has spent her career detailing the circumstances of the U.S.'s most powerless residents for the New Yorker and the Washington Post, garnering a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur "Genius Grant" for her efforts. But Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a departure in that this time she has trained her eye on India, a country so synonymous with poverty that the mere mention of it evokes images of what she describes as "ribby children with flies in their eyes." In choosing India as her subject Boo confronts two major obstacles: the American allergy to discussing poverty and our general disinterest in world affairs. (Before picking up this book, I couldn't help imagining Boo's pitch meeting with her agent about this project. I'm guessing the word "unmarketable" came up more than once.) It takes a brave writer to tackle such challenging subject matter. Luckily, Boo has the talent to match the task. Her method for dealing with reader resistance is to render Mumbai's Annawadi slum, the focus of the book, in such exquisite detail that we are soon too enveloped to turn back.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers reads less like a sociological tract than a great work of fiction. The world Boo portrays is vivid and alive, swimming with beauty and filth and disease, and populated by characters whose complexities and heartbreaks we come to see as our own. In her careful hands, Annawadi's residents are not just victims ofa hopelessly broken system, stereotypes of squalor easily shelved away, but flesh and blood people whose fates seem urgently important. In these pages we meet Abdul, an industrious young garbage sorter working to raise his family of 11 one or two rungs above mere subsistence; the beautiful Manju who labors toward becoming Annawadi's first female college graduate while shielding herself from the scheming of her ambitious mother; Kalu, the wayward boy thief, who grows his hair to match his Bollywood idols; and the clever Sunil, who dreams only ofgetting enough to eat that he one day grows taller than his sister. We care about each and every one; their successes become ours and their tragedies leave us gutted.
Make no mistake, Behind the Beautiful Forevers contains a catalogue of horrors: murdered babies, corpses abandoned on the side of the road, human immolation--even more disturbing, in some ways, is the rampant corruption and ruthlessness of those who oversee the life of the slum. Americans are not the only ones guilty of dehumanizing the poor. Indian officials of every stripe come offvery poorly in this book, quite literarily looking to profit from the misery ofothers. A slum boy caught scavenging at a site near the Mumbai International Airport is coerced by the police into spying on a local drug syndicate. A family framed for a crime are repeatedly bribed and beaten by the very people assigned to investigate it. Money funneled into the slum by various government agencies to promote education and other improvements is expertly rerouted into the hands of the powerful.
Still, hope prevails for most of Boo's subjects. Those not too broken to try labor endlessly to improve their conditions, looking for the loophole that will allow them to escape. Taking in the vagaries oflife in Annawadi, it becomes impossible to hold any individual responsible for his fate. In a world this callous and capricious, effort means nothing without luck.
Given how much Boo clearly cares about her subjects, one of the most troubling aspects of the book is her passiveness. Reporting a nonfiction novel is a herculean task requiring years ofinterviewing, investigating, and exhuming of documents. When Boo describes a character's zigzagging journey through "a lane of huts, out onto a rubbled road. Garbage and water buffalo, slum-side" you can be sure this isn't embroidery. It's reported fact, as are the details she reveals about various court documents and conversations. Given this, it's hard to escape the conclusion that she sometimes knows a great deal more about what's happening to her subjects than they do. One of the central dramas of the book is a sham court case brought against Abdul and members of his family that drags on like something out of Bleak House. As a westerner and a journalist schooled in navigating public bureaucracies, Boo likely had both the access and acumen necessary to help interrupt or at least expedite this travesty of justice, but if she intercedes on their behalf, we never see it. Instead, she is entirely absent from the text, a detached set of eyes recording the rising and falling fates of a handful of people we, the reader, come to love.
The moral calculus involved in Boo's choice to remain on the sidelines is complex. At moments, it's tempting to condemn her for standing idly by while disasters unfold around her, but ultimately one comes to see the wisdom in her decision not to cast herself as the "great white hope." Boo's project is about more than intervening in the lives of a few, it's about revealing what she calls "the infrastructure of opportunity" in this society to galvanize real change. Even if her work doesn't give rise to broad-scale reforms, what Boo offers Abdul, Sunil, and the others may, in the end, be more important than counsel or money. Behind the Beautiful Forevers gives the lives of people who have been chronically undervalued by everyone but themselves profound and lasting meaning.