Working through barriers of language, culture and gender, American Katherine Boo spent over three years in the Mumbai slum of Annawadi. Her extraordinary book reveals the truth of life in urban India. Again and again, reviews mention her novelistic writing, the uncovering of Dickensian depths of corruption, and the detail with which she brings to life the families who live in Annawadi. Boo accomplishes all of this by focusing her account on a few families, and particularly 16-year-old Abdul, a boy who supports his entire family by reselling garbage.
As the New York Times review reveals, the author “used written notes, video recordings, audiotapes and photographs; some of the children of the book used her Flip video camera to document events. She also made use of more than 3,000 public records.”
Last week’s NPR interview addresses where Boo found the title of her book, how she discovered Annawadi, and how heavily she felt the importance of making her readers care about the families in her book.
Katherine Boo won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for a series of articles about group homes for the mentally disabled, published in the Washington Post.
* BOO, Katherine. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. 262p. Random. Feb. 2012. Tr $28. ISBN 978-1-4000-6755-8. LC 2011019555.
Adult/High School–As much crime novel as nonfiction is imparted in the opening line–“Midnight was closing in, the one-legged woman was grievously burned, and the Mumbai police were coming for Abdul and his father.” Abdul is 16, and he’s been accused of driving his neighbor to suicide, a crime in India. Abdul and the one-legged woman are just two of the many people readers meet in the Annawadi slum behind the Mumbai airport and hotel district. Three thousand squatters live in patched together huts in the literal backyard of these upscale hotels, surviving depths of poverty and corruption that are never ending. Abdul is one of the better off thanks to his “job”–he buys the garbage other slumdwellers pick from sewage lakes and trash piles and resells it to recyclers. As the drama unfolds, readers meet many other teenagers, including Manju, who hopes to be the first girl from Annawadi to graduate from college, even though her schooling involves memorizing plot summaries rather than actually reading the books. Or she may get married off to a boy from the countryside, a life worse than slumdwelling because women there are treated as near slaves. Sunil is only 12 but is trying to earn an honest living as a garbage picker rather than the more profitable life of a thief. Meanwhile, the mothers of Abdul and Manju are the driving force behind actions that quickly spin out of control. Boo frames the story around the accusations against Abdul, but informs readers about a multitude of social conditions. This book belongs on reading lists as a work that allows high schoolers to see the incredible hardships of life in a developing country.–Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, MD