From Manhattan to Mumbai: Wrestling with the Issues of Our Time

BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS by Katherine Boo

by Katherine Boo, author of the forthcoming Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity (Random House, February 2012).

As jobs and capital whip around the planet, college students will graduate into a world where economic instability and social inequality are increasing and geographic boundaries matter less and less. Unfortunately, globalization and social inequality remain two of the most over-theorized, under-reported issues of our age. My book is an intimate investigative account of how this volatile new reality affects the young people of an Indian slum called Annawadi. Like young people elsewhere, the Annawadians are trying to figure out their place in a world where temp jobs are becoming the norm, adaptability is everything, and bewildering change is the one abiding constant.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers took me three hard years to report, and one thought that sustained me was that I had a unique opportunity to show American readers that the distance between themselves and, say, a teenaged boy in Mumbai who finds an entrepreneurial niche in other people’s garbage, is not nearly as great as they might think. In the two decades I’ve spent writing about poverty and how people get out of it, I’ve come to believe, viscerally, that there are deep connections among individuals that transcend specificities of geography, culture, religion or class. The problem is that, in a time of high walls and security gates, it’s getting harder for people of means to grasp the struggles of less privileged people.

Behind one such high wall, near the increasingly glamorous Mumbai airport, a sensitive girl is studying Othello in a makeshift hut by a vast sewage lake, and dreading an arranged marriage that might send her to a rural village. A convention-defying disabled woman is longing to be acknowledged as a valid human being. A smart teenaged boy named Mirchi is resisting the garbage-recycling work that is his family trade. Instead he dreams of being a waiter at a fancy hotel, sticking toothpicks into cubes of cheese. “Watch me,” he snaps at his mother one day. “I’ll have a bathroom as big as this hut!” Over the course of time, as Mirchi and the other residents of the slum apply their imaginations to overcoming corruption and injustice and making better lives for themselves, the broader contours of the market-global age are gradually revealed.

Although I’m elated when readers join me in thinking about how to build a fairer world for people, I don’t consider didactic lectures an effective way to engage people—particularly young people—in questions about fairness and justice. Nor do I think young people want mawkishly sentimental or sensationalized nonfiction. Stereotypes put them off, and they know when they’re being manipulated. What they want, in my experience, is good, concrete information from which they can work out what they think for themselves.

With a combination of extensive observation and documents-based reporting, I try to pull the reader in close to the lives and dilemmas of the poor, while unfolding a story that is powerful and honest enough to keep readers turning the pages. By the last page, I’d like to believe that some young readers will also find themselves wrestling with essential questions of our time: about how opportunity is distributed across the world; about what an individual should be willing to give up to get ahead; about the interconnections between, say, the collapse of investment banks in Manhattan and the price Mumbai waste-pickers receive for their empty plastic water bottles; about whether it is possible to be good and moral in a society that is not good and moral; and about the ultimate value of a human life.

KATHERINE BOO is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post. Her reporting has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur “Genius” grant, and a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. For the last decade, she has divided her time between the United States and India. This is her first book.

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6 Comments

Filed under Author Essays

6 responses to “From Manhattan to Mumbai: Wrestling with the Issues of Our Time

  1. We need more studies of poverty. Not enough people realize that poverty affects how people live, achieve, and perform. I read that the major predictor of academic achievement by students is nothing about teachers or schools, but about the social class background of the student and their parents.

  2. Diane Onorato

    I am intrigued by Katherine Boo’s purpose and methodology in the development of this debut book. Her comments about what readers do not want in a non-fiction work about building a just world remind me of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky which focuses on individual stories of women in particular who are facing and rising above unspeakable injustices; in their book, each woman’s story ends with a positive spin and a suggestion of what the reader can do if s/he feels motivated to action in response to the situation portrayed in the chapter. In contrast, Boo’s premise of allowing the reader to formulate his/her own connections and conclusions when provided with the data should be even more powerful than their directed lecture style since the reader of Boo’s book will participate in the conversation rather than being an observer who is lectured. As an English instructor in a private liberal arts college, I teach both rhetoric and world literature, so I am interested in reading Boo’s work in order to watch this narrative process as well as to hear and feel the stories she has researched.

  3. Katherine Boo, a veteran, award-winning journalist, is one of my favorite American non-fiction narrative writers. Her journalism incorporates pure story more so than mere reportage. Her field tends to encompass economically-challenged individuals and environments. As a teacher of journalism and writing at a small Ohio college, I utilize her published pieces quite a bit. I look forward to her first book. I realize she’s been working on it a long time. I certainly await an advance reader’s copy and plan to have students buy the book when it’s available in February 2012.

  4. Katherine Boo is an exquisite journalist, a writer of formidable grace, intelligence, and passion. I have read her work for years. I’ve also taught her long non-fiction narratives in literature courses I teach at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio. My students, too, grasp the kind of depthful reportage that Kate Boo achieves, which we continue to be sorely in need of today. I’m very happy that her book is coming out, and I anxiously await its arrival. My prediction already, given her past accolades, work ethic, and pure talent, is that it’s going to garner award after award. Deservingly so. I hope Kate comes to Cincinnati to sign books at some point in 2012. Sooner, rather than later. –Jeffrey Hillard

  5. Ron Bernthal

    Mumbai is a fascinating city to study and visit, and I am looking forward to reading Katherine Boo’s characters and descriptions in her newest book. I am hoping to have my students read it as well, and Kate seems to have a great sense of what young people are thinking and feeling, which should make this literature on Mumbai one of the best teaching tools among some of the other books, articles, and films that try to capture the less glamorous, but more interesting, side of the city.

  6. As a sociology professor, I am always looking for books that will inspire students’ Sociological Imagination–that ability to understand the connections among people’s “private” struggles and larger global and policy changes. Katherine Boo’s writing is impressive in this regard (and many others). I look forward to reading, and hopefully assigning, Behind the Beautiful Forevers soon.

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