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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Katherine Boo's story of residents in a Mumbai slum is meticulously researched and told with unblinking honesty.

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The toilet cleaner Mr. Kamble is literally dying to raise enough money for a new heart valve so he can continue to shovel sewage and feed his family. The tiny scavenger-turned-thief Sunil (first introduced to Western readers in Boo’s February 2009 New Yorker article) worries that he will remain forever stunted, but at least he’s not a “baldie” like his taller, younger sister whose rat bites have become “boils [that] erupted with worms.” Meanwhile, thieving Kalu recreates the latest Bollywood films with his talented impersonations, entertaining slum kids who will never witness such marvels themselves.

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Mumbai, for its marvelous rebirth, remains the largest city in an India that, in spite of being “an increasingly affluent and powerful nation … still housed one-third
of the poverty, and one-quarter of the hunger, on the planet.” With the wealth of India’s top 100-richest equaling almost a quarter of the country’s GDP, today’s gap between top and bottom is virtually unfathomable.

Having built her lauded career on capturing the experiences of those living in some of America’s poorest communities, Boo moves “beyond [her] so-called expertise” to her husband’s country of origin, ready to “compensate for my limitations the same way I do in unfamiliar American territory: by time spent, attention paid, documentation secured, accounts cross-checked.” Once the Annawadians accepted the novelty of her foreign presence, “they went more or less about their business as I chronicled their lives” on the page, on film, on audiotape, in photos.

Throughout such careful documentation, the one element missing – very much to her credit – is Boo herself. “Beautiful” is by no means a personal memoir; it is not a socioeconomic study on poverty, nor a political treatise on widespread corruption. “Beautiful” is pure, astonishing reportage with as unbiased a lens as possible about specific individuals who populate a clearly demarcated section of ever-changing Mumbai.

The details of Boo’s process – with a glimpse into her experiences – are added in the “Author’s Note” at book’s end. Further details about Boo follow in “A Conversation with Katherine Boo” conducted by Random House power editor Kate Medina. Before ever "meeting" Kate Boo, readers thoroughly experience Annawadi with Abdul, One Leg, Manju, Sunil, and so many memorable others. Boo’s presence as the silent reporter remains so discreet throughout that she virtually disappears as you journey deeper and deeper, unable to turn away.

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.

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