"Behind the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo (Random House)

"Behind the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo (Random House) Credit: Handout /

BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo. Random House, 256 pp., $27.

The wrenching poverty on view in India disturbs any first-time visitor who has grown up in the relative affluence of the West. Most of us look away; it's simply too difficult to contemplate at length.

But Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer at The New Yorker magazine, didn't avert her gaze. Instead, she looked closer. For three years, beginning in November 2007, Boo followed the lives of men, women and children in Annawadi, a desperately poor, makeshift slum in the shadow of the Mumbai airport. What she saw and experienced there has been crafted into a surprisingly engaging work of narrative nonfiction, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in Mumbai Undercity."

Start with Boo's vivid description of the place: crowded lanes of "hand-built, spatchcocked" huts, "a vast pool of sewage," a dusty open field. It is a chaotic scene of "people fighting, cooking, flirting, bathing, tending goats, playing cricket, waiting for water at a public tap, lining up outside a little brothel, or sleeping off the effects of . . . grave-digging liquor." Feral pigs, water buffalo and rats -- lots of rats -- share this terrain with the human inhabitants. A concrete wall shields airport arrivals from the sight of it all, a wall papered over with advertisements for floor tiles ("BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER") that give the book its enigmatic title.

If "Beautiful Forevers" were just a panoramic lens on such grinding poverty, it might not be so remarkable. But Boo uncovers the human drama amid the squalor, and it's her diverse characters who hook you. At the center is teen entrepreneur Abdul Husain, who acts as a middleman in the black market for refuse -- scrap metal, plastics and other recyclables that a small army of scavengers collect, or steal, from the airport and its five hotels.

Abdul's business makes the Husains relatively well off by Annawadi standards, inviting the resentment of Fatima, their promiscuous one-legged neighbor. When the Husains' home-improvement effort collapses a wall and dumps sand into the rice pot on Fatima's stove, her rage comes to a head. In an act of spectacular violence, Fatima immolates herself with kerosene and accuses Abdul and his father of the act. Thus are these hapless characters caught in the cogs of the corrupt Indian justice system.

Other residents of Annawadi include Asha, a calculating operator who sees a chance to become the community's first female slumlord; Asha's daughter, Manju, who puzzles over "Mrs. Dalloway" at college and hopes to escape her lot; and Sunil, an undernourished 12-year old trashpicker who flirts with criminal enterprise. Boo is sentimental about none of them. They are treated neither as grim statistics, nor as an excuse to sermonize or score political points.

But Boo doesn't just deserve praise for her unflinching look at these difficult lives. Her vital book keeps us from looking away, too.

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