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Behind the Beautiful For­evers

'Pure, astonishing reportage’ of makeshift life in an Indian slum.

By Terry Hong / February 20, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers By Katherine Boo Random House 288 pp

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Remember the title of Katherine Boo’s new book, Behind the Beautiful For­evers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mum­bai Undercity, because you will see it on nominee lists for the next round of Very Important Literary Prizes. That Boo won the Pulitzer in 2000 and a MacArthur fellowship in 2002, became a staff writer for The New Yorker in 2003 (she had been a contributor since 2001) after 10 years with The Washington Post, and is just now publishing her debut title will guarantee media coverage. That “Beautiful” is an unforgettable true story, meticulously researched with unblinking honesty, will make Boo’s next awards well deserved.

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From November 2007 to March 2011, Boo became a regular fixture in Annawadi, “the sumpy plug of slum” next to the constantly modernizing international Mumbai Airport, and home to 3,000 inhabitants “packed into, or on top of 355 huts.” Settled in 1991 by Tamil Nadu laborers from southern India hired to repair an airport runway, 21st-century Annawadi sits “where New India collided with old India and made new India late.” Encircling Annawadi are “five extravagant hotels,” luxurious evidence of India’s growing global presence: “ ‘Everything around us is roses,’ ” describes an Annawadian. But not Annawadi. In this fetid microcosm, everyday dramas range from petty jealousies to explosive violence fueled by religion, caste, and gender.

At the center of Boo’s story is garbage trafficker Abdul, the oldest son and prime earner of the 11-member Husain family that makes up almost one-third of Annawadi’s three-dozen Muslim population. Thoughtful, quiet Abdul, who is 16 or 19 – “his parents were hopeless with dates” – his ill father, and his older sister stand accused of beating their crippled neighbor One Leg and setting her on fire. For three years, the family is victimized by a labyrinthine legal system controlled by open palms constantly demanding payment.

Meanwhile, life in Annawadi goes on: Asha, a lowly paid kindergarten teacher, works her growing political connections toward escaping the slum, determined that her daughter Manju will become Annawadi’s first college graduate. Manju’s best friend, Meena, wants to be something more than a teenage bride trapped in an arranged marriage: “Everything on television announced a new and better India for women,” but “marrying into a village family was like time-traveling backward.”

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