Friday, March 30, 2012

Truth in Journalism

Truth isn't just stranger than fiction; it's far more powerful and moving. At least that's how I felt after reading Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity. Boo, formerly a Washington Post journalist and now a New Yorker staff writer, lives part of each year in Mumbai with her Indian husband. Determined to present a portrait of slum life more nuanced than that of “Slumdog Millionaire”, she spent three years in Annawadi, a squatter settlement of three thousand people crammed into and around 335 huts, located next to a lake of sewage in the shadow of the Mumbai airport and vast luxury hotels.

Boo might have chosen to write a book packed with sociological statistics and economic analysis, but instead she does something far more effective; she simply tells a story. Or rather, she lets the people she comes to know tell their own stories. She focuses on Abdul, a teenaged boy who supports his family of eleven as a garbage trader (a position which places him higher on the economic ladder than the scavengers who bring him their goods), and Asha, a thirty-nine-year-old mother whose ambition is simple: “For the overcity people who wished to exploit Annawadi, and the undercity people who wished to survive it, she wanted to be the woman-to-see”. Working within a system of byzantine politics and rampant corruption she attempts to build a better life for her daughter. A single impulsive act has a profound effect on both of these families.

Boo's book reads so much like a novel (reminded me of Dickens) that I kept having to remind myself that these were real people. Please don't be put off by the subject matter. I'm sure you will find this book as compelling, powerful; and inspiring as I did.

PS: You might enjoy this Fresh Air interview with the author.

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