In Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Katherine Boo takes a compassionate and in-depth look at life in Annawadi, a slum hidden in the shadows of Mumbai’s bustling airport.
For nearly four years, Katherine spent her days and nights with slum dwellers whose livelihoods depend on the trash the rest of the city throws away. Among them are Manju, a young girl striving to be the slum’s first college graduate; her politically-corrupt mother, Asha; and Abdul, a twitchy, kind teenage boy who buys and sells trash to keep his family of 11 fed. Layer by layer, Katherine uncovers their hopes, fears and the stark realities of their everyday lives.
Katherine never planned on staying in Annawadi for as long as she did, but when Abdul and his father were falsely accused of dousing their neighbor Fatima with kerosene and setting her on fire, she made a point to be there and see their case through.
TakePart recently spoke with Katherine about Behind the Beautiful Forevers and getting to know the people of Annawadi.
TakePart: Why did you choose to write about this slum in Mumbai?
Katherine: The slum is in the largest and fastest growing suburb of the city, and it was a place where the economic diversity was so enormous. Like most of the city, it was going through these tremendous changes. Hotels, office buildings and condominiums were being built, and in between all the hotels and condominiums were settlements like the one in Annawadi.
TakePart: Did you know right away which people you wanted to focus on in the book?
Katherine: No, and part of what I try to do in the beginning of a project is to meet as many people as I possibly can and just follow them as they work and watch them at home. I’m not looking to follow the most exceptional person because I think ordinary people can be quite exceptional in their own way if you take time to get to know them.
TakePart: Did they open up quickly, or was it discouraging at first?
Katherine: I felt completely discouraged at first. Just on a practical level, they weren’t used to someone like me there, and I stood out. So when I would go into someone’s hut and try to speak to them, people would gather at the door and listen and be very excited. That’s not the best way to understand people’s lives. You know it was too much commotion, but they had lives to lead, they had children to raise, and they had incredibly difficult work to do. They had their own dreams, and eventually people just got used to me.
TakePart: In talking with Abdul, did you feel that he hoped to one day get out of the slum and have a better life?
Katherine: I think he had great hope that his brothers and sisters would have a better life than he had. I talk about his younger brother Mirchi, who is very smart, very funny and very charming. I think he saw himself working for the opportunities of the younger children in the family... One of the first things I noticed about him was when he would stop working late at night, he would just take his little brother in his arms. He had such love for this kid. He loved the way he was brave and fearless. He was a little toddler, and he saw what this kid could be, and he was really working for that.
What motivates me is to not do the same thing that everyone else is doing.
TakePart: What were the most painful moments for you to witness?
Katherine: There was disease—a lot of tuberculosis, malaria and dengue fever... It was endemic, and part of what was especially painful to see was that it would just go down the slum line. People were struggling to be treated, and I would follow them to the TB hospitals. The doctors didn’t even want to get near them because they didn’t want to catch disease. There was a woman who had three children. She was dying, loved her children, and they loved her. She knew she was dying, and in the last weeks of her life, she didn’t want to risk giving them the disease that was going to kill her. Her own husband started sleeping far away. Those kinds of things were just enormously painful to witness.
TakePart: You’ve been writing about poverty much of your life. Was this something you always wanted to do, or was there a catalyst that made you want to uncover these hidden truths?
Katherine: What motivates me is to not do the same thing that everyone else is doing. What’s the point? What does that add to the way we understand the world? I was aware this was something I could do that might have some tenuous value...and I was always interested in people, but I was also interested in money and the ways in which official records show all the help and support being provided to low-income people, particularly low-income children, and how different the reality was.
TakePart: What do you hope your readers hold on to when they read the book?
Katherine: Mostly it’s about the capabilities that get squandered in a society... If you really don’t have a sense of how amazing and complicated and intelligent so many of the people who live in these communities are, and how ill-served they are, whether it’s by the education system, the public health system, or the criminal justice system, then you aren’t going to care about making sure that kids like Abdul or Adarsh or Abdul’s brother Lalu get a chance to see their talents and to win.