American journalist Katherine Boo is very well-intentioned with her first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, and that’s probably part of the problem.
Boo has witnessed the grinding poverty of Mumbai’s slums. She married an Indian and has lived in the city and felt compelled to write of its horrors. She comes to the task with powerful credentials – a Pulitzer Prize winner writing for the New Yorker with a reputation for tackling stories about poverty in her home country – but makes a choice that fatally flaws her book.
Will she write a conventional “biography” of a city (as in Geoffrey Moorhouse’s timeless Calcutta)? Or a sociological study burdened by such earnest words as “distribution of opportunity” and “globalisation”? Or a novel into which she might pour her offended feelings? Or might she, a feature writer through and through, fall back on that age-old device of tackling a big subject through the experiences of one person or one family?
Let’s have them all, she must have concluded. And so we have a book that describes itself as “narrative nonfiction”. Mainly it reads like a novel. Sure, the characters – a group of Annawadians squatting in the shadow of Mumbai’s airport and big hotels – and their names are real enough. But Boo assigns inner thoughts and feelings to them in a way one could only describe as fictional writing.
Despite the distracting American language – does an Indian “kick ass”? Do you really find “dumpsters” on India’s streets? – I began to sink into her story, only to be brought up with a jolt by sentences such as, “Nearly sixty per cent of the state’s public school teachers hadn’t finished college”, and this well-known bit of preaching, “Most Annawadians considered daughters a liability, given the crushing financial burden of the dowry”.
The journalist cannot resist her facts; she must tell, not show. And between facts, characters are manipulated with all the deftness of a drunken puppeteer to make the author’s point. The tone is one of weary indignation. The indignation is all the greater for being held so coolly in check, but it proves tiring for the reader. Has Boo nothing more to say, I kept wondering, than to recount the indignities heaped upon slum dwellers? How low they will stoop to get ahead?
The injustices they must daily endure? She recounts inequality, discrimination, corruption, wrongs by the mile. But it is a sombre, Western eye that tries to penetrate the Indian spirit. Where is the ingenuity, the resilience, the adaptability, the dignity, the ultimate happiness that, by contrast, British TV presenter Kevin McCloud found in his documentary on Mumbai’s Dharavi slum? McCloud, while living there, didn’t pretend to be other than an outsider and still uncovered gems. Booshould have done the same.
BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS: LIFE, DEATH, AND HOPE IN A MUMBAI UNDERCITY, by Katherine Boo (Scribe, $35).
Peter Riordan’s Strangers in My Sleeper: Rail Journeys and Encounters on the Indian Subcontinent was runner-up for the 2007 Travcom Travel Book of the Year Award and his Gods of the Stones: Travels in the Middle East was this year’s winner.