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Originally published February 12, 2012 at 5:00 AM | Page modified February 12, 2012 at 5:27 AM

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Book review

'Behind the Beautiful Forevers': Elusive justice in a Mumbai slum

Katherine Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's account of life in a Mumbai slum, a bravura work of nonfiction that reads like a novel. Boo discusses her book Tuesday at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Katherine Boo

The author of "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Stimson Auditiorium of the Seattle Asian Art Museum, 1400 E. Prospect St. in Seattle's Volunteer Park; free. For more information call the Elliott Bay Book Co. at 206-624-6600 or go to www.seattleartmuseum.org.
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'Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity'

by Katherine Boo

Random House, 279 pp., $27

The back story of Katherine Boo's debut book about a slum in Mumbai, India, is certainly impressive. A Pulitzer Prize winner and recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" award, Boo spent more than three years exhaustively researching "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," interviewing residents, visiting jails and courts, and poring over thousands of pages of public records.

Yet as good a reporter as she is, Boo is an even better storyteller: this bravura work of nonfiction reads more like a novel for the gratifying completeness of its characters and the journey they travel over the course of several months in 2008, centering on the shocking death of a female resident of the slum and a young man who is falsely accused of her murder.

Annawadi was first settled in 1991 by Tamil migrants squatting on land adjacent to the Mumbai Airport. Although not technically impoverished by modern Indian standards, the 3,000 slum dwellers live in grimy, patchwork quarters next to open sewers. Only six people in the community have full-time jobs. The rest make do as quilters, day laborers, flower sellers. Many young people scavenge for reusable garbage, living on proceeds from pilfered construction material and other recyclables.

Hunger, disease, hazardous jobs and continual threats that the slum will be razed add to sense of impermanence and powerlessness for Annawadi denizens. Two of the teens we meet respond to the desperate living conditions with suicide, ingesting rat poison to kill themselves.

Among the cast of characters is Abdul, an enterprising young Muslim who sells reusable garbage; Asha, the most powerful and politically connected resident; her beautiful daughter Manju, who is about to become the settlement's first college graduate; and Fatima, a one-legged woman known for her "blatant" sexual needs. When Abdul is wrongly implicated in Fatima's death, he lands in prison, facing the fight of his life.

The investigation of Abdul and two other family members show just how vulnerable they are as people without means or connections. Corruption is rife in all Indian institutions — the police, courts, government — and they can't afford the exorbitant bribes it would take for exoneration. Justice seems remote and unattainable.

Boo brings us inside their world: We sit in their huts, we listen to their lively conversations, we run with the scavengers on late-night forays for scrap metal.

She is equally adept at weaving in wide-angle glimpses of the surrounding city, national politics, and the global economy. It turns out, for instance, that the trigger effect of the American recession causes the price of recyclable plastic to plummet in Mumbai, making a precarious economy even more fragile.

Boo's writing skills are such that she can render even a dirty slum lovely ("The pale sun lent the sewage lake a sparkling silver cast" ), and on a deeper level, extract sublime irony from a seemingly straightforward news story. When an accident at a horse-and-carriage race in Mumbai results in horses plunging to their deaths from a bridge, the subsequent public outcry rankles some of the young Annawadi residents. Where was the outrage, they wonder, when boys were dying in the street either from beatings or suicide? Their reaction is both astute and heartbreaking: "Annawadi boys broadly accepted the basic truths: that in a modernizing increasingly prosperous city, their lives were embarrassments best confined to small spaces, and their deaths would matter not at all."

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