Living Writers Series Features Katherine Boo

“Thank you for challenging assumptions of the American readership,” Katherine Boo said to her audience in Love Auditorium last Thursday evening, October 24.

When books like “50 Shades of Grey” dominate the bestseller lists, authors like Boo are relieved to know that an audience can still appreciate a sober piece of writing, especially one that does not reveal the indomitable nature of the human spirit. In her first full-length nonfiction work, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, ” Boo pushes the reader to embrace that which is painful in order to appreciate the unique human behind each story. Evidenced by the Husains, who make their money recycling garbage, and by Asha, a female slum boss trying to ensure that her daughter receives a quality education, Boo showed that stories of these invisible and marginalized people are often read by a fundamentally reluctant reader.

While Boo realizes that she is inspired by subjects that typically depress others, she uses such an assumption to her advantage, working twice as hard to spark the interest of her reader. The journalist and author stated that the inspiration for the 2012 publication, which later won the National Book Award, came from wanting to understand the persistent poverty that plagued the homeland of her Indian husband, Sunil Khilnani. However, the non-fiction account of life within the Annawadi slums of Mumbai is from a similar vein as the prolific writer and journalist’s previous work. Boo’s impressive record as an investigative journalist documenting the lives of impoverished communities includes a Pulitzer Prize-winning series for “The Washington Post” and a National Magazine Award and Sidney Hillman Award for her publications in “The New Yorker.” Boo’s work to advance social justice through reporting has also made her a senior fellow at The New America Foundation and won her a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002.

Recounting the lives of Indians living 8,000 miles from the Colgate campus, Boo read passages from her book that described the backbreaking 16 hours of daily labor that Abdul spends shifting garbage, of men and women dying of tuberculosis in their tents and of children standing by a lake of sewage and chemical waste that has been illegally dumped in their neighborhood. Boo also focused on the psychological effect that living in poverty has had on many of these children. The author recounted an instance in which a murder of a homeless child in Annawadi was covered up by the police, as the death was viewed as no more than a simple paperwork problem. The children Boo had befriended became active co-investigators, documenting various other injustices in their community. Through photographing police brutality and horrific health violations, the children used Boo’s camera to try to voice their innate understanding of the injustice of their situation.

“It was then I realized that I was truly their only reed of hope,” Boo said.

Perhaps this is why the author has decided to direct proceeds from the sale of “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” go towards economic, environmental and medical improvements within the Mumbai slums. Looking forward, poverty has and will, hopefully, continue to decrease in communities like Annawadi. The 21st century has seen less abject poverty than any previous era, and Boo describes the community as full of laughter.  It is the lives and future of the children who Boo spent so long documenting that show not only the terrible present conditions, but also the effect that modern improvements, medical research and increased awareness are starting to make. During the question and answer session, the audience members all leaned in, wanting to learn as much as possible about the Indian subjects they had become so attached to.

“Abdul is married now, he finally found a wife who doesn’t mind the smell of garbage, and he has a son,” Boo said to the audience. “He never wants that son to have to pick garbage and I think that he may get what he wants.”

Contact Leah Robinson at [email protected].