As MSU’s Freshman class of 2012 move their flat screen TVs, laptops, and mini-fridges into comfortable dorms with gourmet dining, they should reflect on what they have read in Katherine Boo’s book “Behind the Beautiful Flowers”, this year’s One Book, One Community selection.
Students and area residents will have several opportunities to hear Boo talk about her book. A free community-wide event will be held at the East Lansing High School auditorium at 7 p.m., Sunday August 26. She also will address incoming freshman at Breslin Student Event Center Monday August 27 at 9 a.m. The public is invited.
A new event, an Afternoon Tea with Author Katherine Boo, was recently added for on Monday, Aug. 27 at 4 p.m. at the East Lansing Public Library, where she will read selections from her book and answer questions.
“Behind Beautiful Flowers” is Boo’s book on Annawadi, one of India’s squatter slums that sprout up from garbage heaps near prosperous global communities. Often called undercities, Annawadi is on the fringe of the Mumbai airport and is home to the poorest of the poor.
Residents there pick through mounds of junk looking for recyclables (plastic, aluminum, those ubiquitous poly bags) they can turn into money. For food, many are forced to trap frogs and rats in a polluted lake while jumbo jets from the nearby airport fly the rich and richer to business meetings across the globe.
Boo, who is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and a winner of the MacArthur genius award, spent three years among the 3000 residents and then wrote about their lives focusing on a few families and several individuals.
She opens the book with the dramatic self-immolation of Fatima, a woman who has reached her limits. Another resident of Annawadi is blamed and arrested for spurring her on. This scene becomes central to the book, and the graft and bribes that are a natural result could easily be a plot in one of Dennis Lehane’s dark novels (Mystic River), but Boo an accomplished documentarian, only records what she sees and hears with no need for embellishment.
The current staff writer for the New Yorker does not tell a “Slumdog Millionaire” story in “Behind Beautiful Flowers” but rather crafts a tale that is as disturbing as it is revelatory about the global economy. In many ways, it is a real life tale about a modern dystopia, the popular theme of so many fictional best sellers.
Speaking from London where she lives with her Indian husband, Boo said that her book “doesn’t have the same kind of fairy tale” kind of approach as “Slumdog.”.
“In Indian parlance, that’s called zero to hero,” she said. Instead, Boo tries to show the reader that Annawadi is part of a much bigger stage and that we should take notice what happens there when wealth goes to the top.
“Geographic borders matter less and less-it is one world-and young people in Annawadi have something in common with the rest of the world.”
She said that her book is about the volatility of the world, the decline of manufacturing and how communities are less stable and there is less permanence.
Boo said she was “amazed and honored” that her book was selected for a community read program.
“There is enormous amount of connective tissue across global borders.”
The author said she had none of this in mind when she first decided to spend time in the Indian slum.
“I knew I didn’t want to write a book about my journey.”
As a documentary journalist having spent her career writing about the poor and disadvantaged in the U.S., she just sort of hung out in the slum waiting to see what developed. She recently told the New York Times that her early days in the slum were “a circus act.” She actually fell in the festering lake.
Then she became just “there” and the story told itself. The story is not pretty. In one segment, she follows the murder of Kalu, mostly ignored by corrupt local police, and then revisits the death of Fatima through the trial of Abdul, who is accused of killing her. Bribes and graft almost always prevail.
And Boo is also obviously moved by the deaths of several of the “road dogs”, individuals she has been following, but her story is more about how we are all in this together.
She rails in her book about the corruption and graft she finds at all levels and especially how it has such terrible impacts on the residents of Annawadi. Even those at the bottom need to pay someone for something.
Boo said she found it remarkable facing such corruption that so many residents of Annawadi act ethically.
“It moves me that even when it is very difficult to act ethically-so many people tried to act ethically even when it was not in their own economicself interests.”
Boo’s look at modern slum life is more than slightly reminiscent of George Orwell’s “Road to Wigan Pier”, a book that was written 77 years ago about the slums of England. Given her own health problems, Boo has severe arthritis, she could not embed herself in the slums quite like Orwell did, but she came close, spending long days at Annawadi accompanied by interpreters for whom she had the highest regard. Readers also may want to check out the unusual thriller “Shantaram” which tells disturbing stories about the undercities of India.
Students and community members should not expect Boo to preach or implore when she visits campus. She doesn’t do that. Boo believes it is her job to the write the story and let the politicians sort it out.
One interesting thing of note is the e-book of “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” contains video that she shot to double check and fact check her self. Simply done, the videos show the power of the new medium of e-books.