Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a piece of non-fiction that reads like fiction. It is the result of an American journalist spending three years of her life researching a slum next the Mumbai airport. Her goal was to understand how the rapidly changing economic landscape of India was affecting the lives of some of the poorest people in the mega city. What made her approach different from most is that her interest was not to collect statistics, but to get to the human story that was playing out. And yet, it is somewhat different from how a novelist might observe the same story. She used rigorous journalistic techniques, making sure none of her story is fictionalized, checking and re-checking each story through multiple sources. Anything that can be verified through documentary evidence, she painstakingly followed every paper trail. The result is a stunning and moving story of a bunch of people making a living by collecting, sorting, and selling garbage, next to a number of 5-star hotels, the symbols of the economic boom that everyone talks about.
What I found most remarkable and surprising is how she discovered a world, with all its richness, by looking at reality straight on, and not through an ideological lens. It is certainly useful to look at the world in terms of some worldview that we may carry. It allows one to make more sense of what we see as it fits into the model. An individual observation becomes a supporting pillar that our beliefs can stand on. This human ability to find patterns and to generalize is powerful, and allowed us to discover many great things, but it can also lead to prejudicial views and ideological myopia. Like many others, I also got used to that mode of observation. I have my worldview and my ideology, and I wanted to make every social observation fit into that model.
Katherine Boo may also have her ideology, but she managed to keep it at bay, and through journalistic detachment just look at these people as individuals, and not as representatives of a class of people. When asked by an interviewer if she sees the characters in her book as representatives of other low-income people in the world, she said “I’ve been waiting years to run into a representative person. Sadly, all I ever meet are individuals.” When we try to impose our ideology onto people we observe, we inadvertently smooth out all the jagged edges and fill out some of the cracks to make them fit into our model. Since she did not try to look at these people as examples of some idea, the characters come out full of life, with all the jutting edges and contradictions that could have created a problem in any ideological narrative.
She talks about globalization, and how big economic events, far away from the realities of this slum were affecting their daily lives. However, unlike most discussions about the topic, where one tends to take a side and either praise or demonize globalization; she treats it as reality, and just observes its effect on these people. To me pronouncing globalization as either good or bad makes as much sense as taking a position of right or wrong when it comes to winter. Of course you can dislike winter, and think about how to deal with it or enjoy it, but it is not very useful to say winter is wrong. With the advancement of communication technologies globalization was inevitable. Individuals, corporations, and governments were bound to look for opportunities, if there is one to be found, in some other part of the world. This was also bound to be a disruptive change, with positive impact on some and devastating for others. We should all have our thoughts about how to deal with this reality, rather than objecting its very presence.
Katherine Boo, in an interview once commented “I generally find issues of poverty, opportunity, and global development to be over-theorized and under- reported. And it seemed to me that in India, as in the U.S., some of the experts most ready to describe how lower-income people are faring weren’t spending much time with those people.”
Older Comments (4)
1. Irina Guberman said on 1/20/13 - 12:45PM
Very powerful article! I hope I will get a chance to read this book soon.
2. Jagriti Ruparel said on 1/20/13 - 10:13PM
After you mentioned it - I did read a few reviews! Very different approach and Spellbinding! Hope to have a conversation soon!
3. Mrittika Bose said on 2/5/13 - 12:06AM
Awaiting to get hold of a copy.
4. Abhijit Sarkar said on 3/11/13 - 08:06AM
Am compelled to put it on my must read list.