* "Behind the Beautiful Forevers:" a best seller
* Critics praise nonfiction book that reads like novel
* Author Katherine Boo calls it a "zoom-in" on ordinary people
By Andrea Burzynski
Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo's idea to spend her days in a Mumbai slum originated one night while she was laying on the floor of her Washington, D.C. area home with a punctured lung and three broken ribs after tripping over a dictionary.
The former Washington Post editor and reporter and current New Yorker staff writer figured that if she couldn't escape calamity in her own home, she may as well do what she loved: report on poverty from one of its epicenters.
Boo does just that in her first book, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity." Since its release in February, the book has become a top 10 New York Times best seller in the nonfiction and political categories. It has attracted wide praise for informing readers on the lives of India's poor and shedding light on government corruption.
The book is nonfiction, but "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" is frequently said to read more like a novel, a sentiment echoed across the U.S. cultural spectrum by The Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly magazine and humorist David Sedaris.
The New York Times Book Review called it "extraordinary," women's magazine Redbook described it as "a mind-blowing read," while Indian writer Ramachandra Guha declared it to be "the best book yet written on contemporary India."
In "Behind the Beautiful Forevers", Boo focuses on the hopes, fears, and improvisational efforts to survive by a handful of residents of Annawadi, a slum pieced together in the shadows of the five-star hotels that encircle Mumbai's international airport.
"There's a lack of deeply reported stories about ordinary people, not enough of a zoom-in on people's lives," Boo, whose book is almost as much of an ethnography as long-form reportage, told Reuters in an interview.
Boo is no novice at such examination: her portraits of American lives affected by poverty have won several awards. A Washington Post series in 2000 on public group homes for the mentally impaired earned her a Pulitzer, and she won a National Magazine Award in 2004 for a New Yorker piece about an Oklahoma community's efforts to solve poverty by promoting marriage.
Despite her experience, Boo, 47, was wary of how her status as a blonde, white westerner lacking deep knowledge of India would shape her work. She compensated for her shortcomings the same way she always has -- "by time spent, attention paid, documentation secured, accounts cross-checked."
"The biggest challenge was language - there's many, many languages spoken," she said, crediting a small group of skilled translators. "I also needed someone to work with me the way I worked - slowly and patiently."
From November 2007 to March 2011, Boo accompanied young boys on nighttime trips to steal scrap metal from construction sites, watched neighbors feud, felt the anxiety of a visit from corrupt local police, undertook endless interviews, sorted through thousands of public documents and even fell into a sewage lake.
Boo occasionally slips a statistic into her coverage, but prefers to let the lives of Annawadi's residents inform her readers.
The corruption that permeates every level of the government and legal system is captured when a teenager called Abdul is falsely accused of murdering a neighbor named Fatima, while Fatima in turn dies in a hospital devoid of adequate medicine to treat her burns.
Boo avoids policy questions in her book and believes that such "zoom-ins," including her latest chronicle of life in Annawadi, are crucial for exposing and addressing problems like poverty and corruption.
"The most effective way to fight corruption is to shed light on it," Boo said. "If you only look at the policy side, you'll miss a lot. That goes for the U.S. as well."
Whether social problems are being addressed by governments or private organizations, Boo said scrutiny and accountability are more important than the search for an ideal policy model.
"I think that the search for one thing that will solve all problems is the wrong approach," she said. "These are multifaceted issues. There's no silver bullet that's going to fix everything completely." (Editing By Christine Kearney and Bob Tourtellotte)