by Katherine Boo, author of the 2012 National Book Award-winning 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.