my thoughts on katherine boo’s behind the beautiful forevers

When a friend suggested that I take his copy of Katherine Boo‘s ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers‘ on my month long trip into the deserts of Central Australia, I was just a little skeptical. To my mind, the best books about India are Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight Children’ and Rohinton Mistry ‘A Fine Balance’. There are a two other books that I would recommend – ‘Sacred Games’ by Vikram Chandra, and Khuswant Singh’s ‘Train to Pakistan’. If read in the following order – Singh, Rushdie, Mistry and Chandra – they tell the story of India from the Partition to contemporary times.

Anyway, I am not the keenest to read books on India by Indian writers as I feel that in itself has become a stylistic device. There seems to be an Indian voice – a comparative literature studies voice. While I was a fan of Jhumpa Lahiri‘s ‘Namesake’ (of which Mira Nair made a great film), her ‘Interpreter of Maladies‘ seemed to me, at times, to be written in a consciously Indian voice. Don’t get me wrong, I would still recommend one read Lahiri’s books. Lahiri is a good writer who tells great stories and the ‘Indian’ voice ebbs in and out of her writing which is why it easier to notice it. There are many more writers whose ‘Indian’ voice is painfully obvious and derivative.

So when given a book on the Mumbai slums written by an American, I was skeptical. It was not a very thick book so I decided it would be the first book I would read on my trip. I dived right in – even missed out on reading the blurbs at the back cover.

Just a few pages in and I was riveted. It was not just a great set of characters with very real stories but it was written beautifully. I have been thinking a fair bit recently about writing both as a practice and an outcome; I will do a post on that in time. Boo’s prose is clear and direct, with little extraneous or ornamental writing. She lets the characters have the lead and respects that their stories are strong enough. They do not need to be clouded by the flourishes of adjectives and cliches. It was a joy to read and it was only as I was two-thirds through the book that I started thinking that it might not be a work of fiction. It was no failing of Boo’s but rather that the book did not follow the narrative that one would expect of a work of fiction. A particular character, Kalu, who appears near the beginning of the book does not last till the end. Unlike fiction where the writer can hold onto the more interesting characters, life is not as generous. This was one of the signs that what I was reading was not a work of fiction. In no way is this a criticism but rather to make the point that I was so taken by Boo’s writing and the stories in the book that I did not even think consider if it was fiction or not.

You can read more on how Boo’s researched her book here. Also in her interview on ABC Classic, she speaks on her method which she calls immersion journalism (the interview is worth listening to especially on background on her time in the slum and her relationship with slum dwellers). Her interview with Charlie Rose has a great story about the beauty and the scavenger in the slum (she told the same story when I saw her speak at the Wheeler Center).

Below is the first few pages of the  book. There is a longer excerpt available here.

M I D N I G H T W A S C L O S I N G I N , the one-legged woman was grievously burned, and the Mumbai police were coming for Abdul and his fa- ther. In a slum hut by the international airport, Abdul’s parents came to a decision with an uncharacteristic economy of words. The father, a sick man, would wait inside the trash-strewn, tin-roofed shack where the family of eleven resided. He’d go quietly when arrested. Abdul, the household earner, was the one who had to flee.

Abdul’s opinion of this plan had not been solicited, typically. Al- ready he was mule-brained with panic. He was sixteen years old, or maybe nineteen—his parents were hopeless with dates. Allah, in His impenetrable wisdom, had cut him small and jumpy. A coward: Abdul said it of himself. He knew nothing about eluding policemen. What he knew about, mainly, was trash. For nearly all the waking hours of nearly all the years he could remember, he’d been buying and selling to recyclers the things that richer people threw away.

Now Abdul grasped the need to disappear, but beyond that his imagination flagged. He took off running, then came back home. The only place he could think to hide was in his garbage.

He cracked the door of the family hut and looked out. His home sat midway down a row of hand-built, spatchcock dwellings; the lop- sided shed where he stowed his trash was just next door. To reach this shed unseen would deprive his neighbors of the pleasure of turning him in to the police.

He didn’t like the moon, though: full and stupid bright, illuminat- ing a dusty open lot in front of his home. Across the lot were the shacks of two dozen other families, and Abdul feared he wasn’t the only per- son peering out from behind the cover of a plywood door. Some peo- ple in this slum wished his family ill because of the old Hindu–Muslim resentments. Others resented his family for the modern reason, eco- nomic envy. Doing waste work that many Indians found contempt- ible, Abdul had lifted his large family above subsistence.

The open lot was quiet, at least—freakishly so. A kind of beach- front for a vast pool of sewage that marked the slum’s eastern border, the place was bedlam most nights: people fighting, cooking, flirting, bathing, tending goats, playing cricket, waiting for water at a public tap, lining up outside a little brothel, or sleeping off the effects of the grave-digging liquor dispensed from a hut two doors down from Ab- dul’s own. The pressures that built up in crowded huts on narrow slumlanes had only this place, the maidan, to escape. But after the fight, and the burning of the woman called the One Leg, people had retreated to their huts.

Now, among the feral pigs, water buffalo, and the usual belly-down splay of alcoholics, there seemed to be just one watchful presence: a small, unspookable boy from Nepal. He was sitting, arms around knees, in a spangly blue haze by the sewage lake—the reflected neon signage of a luxury hotel across the water. Abdul didn’t mind if the Nepali boy saw him go into hiding. This kid, Adarsh, was no spy for the police. He just liked to stay out late, to avoid his mother and her nightly rages.

It was as safe a moment as Abdul was going to get. He bolted for the trash shed and closed the door behind him.

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