But the book does not exist to restore humanity to an ‘undercity’ (Boo’s word) that others simply haven’t yet noticed. It is also, symptomatically, a book about the failure to notice.
Boo is not in the business of making class-based accusations, but Behind the Beautiful Forevers eats into the hazy but persuasive confidence widely harboured about urban growth. The elite embarrassment over ‘Slumbai’ is often secretly accompanied by the perverse notion that this blatantly public view of inequality, specific to Mumbai, is in some way its own solution. The contradiction of this visibility is that it softens the idea of real and deep divides into abstraction. That is why the Erase-X and the suppurating hands of scavengers will come as a shock to few Indian readers and almost no Mumbaikar.
Boo attacks this narrative obfuscation, not to deflate expectations, but to better understand the challenges of these expectations. The story is not just that growth fails to be inclusive; it is about the ways in which the excluded negotiate these failures. The story is these lines from the book’s last quarter: ‘Among the poor, there was no doubt that instability fostered ingenuity, but over time the lack of a link between effort and result could become debilitating. “We try so many things,” as one Annawadi girl puts it, “but the world doesn’t move in our favor.”’
Supriya Nair on Katherine Boo’s new book