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Behind the Beautiful For­evers

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

(Page 2 of 2)

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 piece) worries that he will remain forever stunted, but at least he’s not a “baldie” like his taller younger sister. Meanwhile, thieving Kalu re-creates the latest Bollywood films with his talented impersonations, entertaining slum kids who will never witness such marvels themselves.

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Mumbai, for all 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 gross domestic product, 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 or a political treatise on widespread corruption. “Beautiful” is pure, astonishing reportage with as un-biased a lens as possible trained on specific individuals in a clearly delineated 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 the book’s end. Before ever “meeting” Kate Boo, readers experience Annawadi through Abdul, One Leg, Manju, Sunil, and other memorable characters. Boo’s presence as the silent reporter remains so discreet 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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