Last evening we went to see and hear Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (mini reviewed at MillersTime here.)
I didn’t find out what I wanted to know, but what I gained was better than what I had come to learn.
What I wanted to know was how an American white female could get inside a Bombay slum and come away with so much information, so many details, so many insights as Boo portrayed in her wonderful non-fiction book (that reads like a novel). How did she cross the cultural divide?
Could I trust that what she wrote would not turn out to be suspect in some ways, in the ways that say Greg Mortensen’s Three Cups of Tea has become?
On the second question, I was satisfied that what Boo portrayed is valid and will hold up to the scrutiny it is already undergoing. She talked about how she gathered information, something she calls ‘immersion journalism and document exploration.’ She used written notes, audio tape, video tape, pictures, and documents she secured by using India’s equivalence of Freedom of Information laws. Also, she said, she had (two ?) wonderful translators that made her job possible.
But, despite several good questions from the audience, Boo did not give us much information on how she actually went about gaining the confidence of the individuals she portrays. Nor did she give any details of her time in Annawandi or the other slums where she also spent time, other than to say her ‘research’ covered a period of three plus years (in addition to reporting she has done in the US on similar issues).
What Boo did say was that she purposely kept herself out of the story. She wanted to use every sentence to bring the reader as “close to the people who didn’t have a choice” about being there (as she did).
Her intent, and she does it brilliantly I think, was to do more than simply report what life was like in Annawadi. She wanted to capture the the heart and soul of individuals, their hope as well as their despair, their morality, and their humanity.
And she wanted to document and put a face on the 60% of India that lives in poverty, despite the economic progress India has made in the past decade. She wanted to document how the government and society fail. How money meant for the poor doesn’t get there. How the larger society extorts money from the poor, who gets it and where it goes.
And she names names. She does not use made up names. Every person portrayed is done so with their real name. It is her belief, she told us, that transparency and accountability is crucial if there is any hope of creating possibilities for change.
Boo is a physically small woman who struggles with an autoimmune disease (she couldn’t sign books but stamped them last night), but what she has done is mammoth: she has told a story, the truth, about a world where “a decent life is a train that hasn’t hit” its inhabitants.
Katherine Boo and her Behind the Beautiful Forevers deserves to be widely read and widely discussed.