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Laura Bramon Good

In the Undercity

Mumbai at ground level.

Imagine a dirt seashore rippled with footprints, tire ruts, the carcasses of scabby water trash. In the dark of night, its far bank shimmers with hotels, the stock skyline of a modern beach; in the air, tourist jets queue and gleam.

Save for the stench, you might be forgiven for misjudging the maidan, a dirt proscenium on which Behind the Beautiful Forevers plays out. Drawn in Katherine Boo's novelistic nonfiction prose, there is something mysterious and even beautiful about its sea—a sewage lake, with a tide fixed to the slog of wandering buffalo—and the maidan's lumpy sprawl: the handiwork of low-caste squatters who stole a bog, built a landfill, and took up residence in a Mumbai slum they named Annawadi.

Known largely for her Pulitzer Prize-winning exposés of U.S. poverty, Boo picks up the story where her 2009 New Yorker article "Opening Night" left off: in Mumbai's trembling, teeming undercity, on the eve of the Slumdog Millionaire movie premiere, where the striving, legion poor trade in trash while overcity dwellers get manis and pedis at the Hyatt across the sewage lake.

"Opening Night" contains the germ of Beautiful Forevers: an examination of the international economic downturn's butterfly effect, with a focus on the enterprising slum-dwellers who roost on prime, trash-rich real estate between Mumbai's International Airport and a phalanx of luxury hotels. Here, life and death hinge on a black market fueled by the detritus of modern consumption, and when a freeze in worldwide bank lending stalls Mumbai construction projects, the slum's prospects plummet.

It is one thing to read the excerpted fact that a "kilo of empty water bottles once worth twenty-five rupees was now worth ten." It is another to encounter in Boo's impossibly intimate account the smells, sights, and physical anguishes of child waste-pickers like Sunil, one among the "new economy's micro-saboteurs" who staves off hunger by sneaking into half-constructed parking garages and stealing high-dollar copper faucet valves.

Sunil shows up again in Beautiful Forevers, still stunted by malnutrition and plagued with head boils from nighttime rat bites. In the narrative of his waste-picker wanderings Boo reveals the ironic origin of the book's odd title: an Italianate floor-tile slogan, repeating in a bright yellow wave along the aluminum fence that hides Annawadi from the eyes of airport travelers: Beautiful Forever Beautiful Forever Beautiful Forever.

But Sunil is only a minor character in Beautiful Forever's ambitious, satisfying, and puzzling sweep. Examining the fortunes of various characters among Annawadi's mixed-caste, multi-faith strivers, Boo's wholly original amalgam of immersion journalism and painstakingly documented reportage allows her to glean and present—in incongruously gorgeous prose—a main dramatic line that charts the downfall of Abdul Husain, a teenage Muslim waste-picker framed for the death of One-Leg, the maudlin prostitute who puts on a full face of makeup before setting herself afire.

From the book's opening lines—a charged scene recounting Abdul's escape across the maidan to hide from the police in a work shed, among his vendable stash of discarded whiskey bottles, Barbie dolls, tampon applicators, and dirty Q-tips—Boo's attention to external and internal dramatic detail is disarming. Despite a final chapter avowing her three years of living life in the slum, alongside the very characters whose first and last names she records (Beautiful Forevers is not the work of a celebrity journalist dropping in now and then), her apparent ability to get inside the heads of her subjects remains astonishing: to know and report that as Abdul burrowed into the refuge of his trash pile, he considered how, most days, the prospect of his filthy life's work "weighed on him like a sentence. Tonight, hiding from the police, it felt like hope."

With Jon Krakauer's Greg Mortenson exposé, Three Cups of Deceit, still in regular circulation, Boo's Beautiful Forevers is either wildly imprudent or genuine. At a recent reading, Boo, who is tiny, pale, and blonde, with hands visibly crooked from adolescent-onset rheumatoid arthritis, grew impatient at questions regarding the book's factuality. With laud rarely heard in either journalism or international development circles, Boo praised again and again her two Indian translators, thanks to whose skill she forged Annawadi relationships of empathy and autonomy: the kinds of relationships that have allowed her similarly shrewd access to the lives of America's working poor and severely disabled. Boo recounted her liberal use of a new Indian law similar to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, which allows the general public to request access to publicly held government documents; and she noted the importance of video footage taken by Annawadi children, who commandeered Boo's Flip camera and came back with documentation of some of the book's pivotal scenes.

This relationship of trust between the author and her youngest researchers allowed Boo to verify key bits of Beautiful Forever's most telling story: that of Asha, an enterprising kindergarten teacher who gives up fair-gotten gains to grease palms, agitate for a xenophobic political party, and traffic the spoils of philanthropic fervor. Asha finally hitches a ride up to Mumbai's overcity via a sham non-profit organization, for which she divvies up donations to a patron's lengthy list of co-conspirators. But in order to secure her beautiful daughter's financial future, Asha is still prostituting.

In Asha's story, especially, Beautiful Forevers accords with Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo's scathing scrutiny of the international development industry. Although Moyo focuses solely on international development in the African context, Annawadi's strivers echo Moyo's arguments on aid, corruption, and the need for sustainable economic development that creates thriving economies with some power to shape and drain corrupt governments. Given this, Boo's restrained call for expansion of Indian government social services seems either an ironic gloss or a hope unfathomable to her characters, who prefer to flee inept and brutal government schemes for the mincing fate of the market.

Boo largely leaves formal policy analysis to the academics. Even in her tidy closing chapter, when the author finally steps out from behind her veil, she stays her course as a journalist: an observer with eyes wide open to the human scale of systematic crises, like modern Mumbai's uncomfortably contiguous over- and undercities. "The effect of corruption I find most underacknowledged is a contraction not of economic possibility but of our moral universe," she writes, noting with wonder the "ethical imaginations" of children not yet beaten down to unscrupulous desperation. For anyone who harbors hope in transforming the economic, moral, or spiritual state of the world, Boo's book is required and utterly rewarding reading.

Laura Bramon Good lives in Washington, D.C.

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