This is an astonishing book. It is astonishing on several levels: as a worm’s-eye view of the “undercity” of one of the world’s largest metropolises; as an intensely reported, deeply felt account of the lives, hopes and fears of people traditionally excluded from literate narratives; as a story that truly hasn’t been told before, at least not about India and not by a foreigner. But most of all, it is astonishing that it exists at all.

Katherine Boo, a New Yorker staff writer who won a Pulitzer Prize while working at The Washington Post, spent three years and four months (from November 2007 to March 2011) following the lives of some of Mumbai’s most deprived citizens, the dirt-poor residents of a squatter slum on the periphery of its international airport. Annawadi, in the shadow of luxury hotels, is “a bitty slum popped up in the biggest city of a country that holds one third of the planet’s poor.” Built on swampy land abutting a sewage lake, it is home to a motley collection of marginal Indians desperate to make a living out of the detritus of the city’s economic boom.

These are the footnotes to the success story of what was briefly called “Shining India,” the poor people who are usually, in other accounts, treated as a collectivity, the object of economists’ analyses, politicians’ promises and ideologues’ outrage. In “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” Boo humanizes them as individuals with their own stories to tell. Overcoming the obstacles to effective reporting posed by her class, gender, ethnicity and language, Boo follows their lives and experiences in an effort to understand the problems of poverty from the bottom up. The result is a searing account, in effective and racy prose, that reads like a thrilling novel but packs a punch Sinclair Lewis might have envied.

The narrative teems with larger-than-life figures to whom Boo instantly draws you: Abdul, a Muslim teen with a single-minded talent for scavenging recyclable garbage, which “had bestowed on his family an income few residents of Annawadi had ever known”; Asha, who uses political and police connections to climb out of poverty while raising her beautiful daughter, Manju, the slum’s “only college-going girl,” to escape the life of compromises she has led; Fatima, a one-legged neighbor of Abdul’s family, prone to violent rages; Kalu, a boy with the spunk to steal the scrap he then sells to Abdul; and Sunil, a smelly and nerveless ragamuffin with a head for heights.

Their stories unfold as Annawadi comes to vivid life, accompanied by a host of lesser but equally indelible characters — the dying man trying to raise money for the operation that might save him, the policewoman seeking to extort money in return for tailoring her case files, the passionate teacher at a juvenile detention center, the young woman who swallows rat poison because “this was one decision about her life she got to make.” And then there’s Abdul’s father, who “had developed an irritating habit of talking about the future as if it were a bus” that one could run after, even if one kept missing it. The raw pathos to the stories of the characters in “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is of the kind usually found in great fiction, except that, as Boo confirms, they are all real, down to their names.

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” by Katherine Boo (Random House)

So is Annawadi, with its noxious sights and smells, its mounds of refuse and lean-to hovels, its fetid garbage that is almost a living presence in this book. Boo, who has an Indian husband, has not just lived with its people and gotten to know them; she has penetrated the dynamics of their relationships, acquired insights into their psyches, breathed the polluted air that suffuses their fears. Her empathy for the slum-dwellers, striving against impossible odds to earn enough for “the full enjoy” they can only dream about, is total. She reports their hopes, their diversions, their vices and their shocking deaths with the matter-of-factness that comes to those inured to suffering.

Boo keeps herself entirely out of the narrative until an author’s note at the end, which gives her account an intimacy and immediacy that are unchallengeable. Her research is meticulous and worthy of the most demanding sociologist; her understanding of “India, a land of few safe assumptions,” is impossible to quarrel with, since the book is devoid of the commonplace errors about the country that litter most Western attempts to understand its complexities.

So when Boo writes in graphic detail about corruption and police abuse, she does so through the eyes of the poor people who are so often reduced to statistics in well-meaning human rights documents and development paradigms. She writes movingly of “a system in which the most wretched tried to punish the slightly less wretched by turning to a justice system so malign it sank them all.” Sometimes her justified indignation, coupled with her talent for the telling metaphor, can lead her to stylistic excess: “The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage,” she writes. “Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”

But indeed, as Boo points out, the corruption that elite Indians see as an obstacle to India’s progress appears to the slum-dwellers as an aspect of “the distribution of opportunity in a fast-changing country that they loved.”

Otherwise, they are assailed by the arbitrariness of life: “In Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they avoided. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.” In this sordid drama, the poor are too busy fighting each other for the scraps: “The poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.”

This is not a reassuring message for those of us in India striving to change the country. Boo’s last sentence asks a haunting question: “If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?” It is a question that Indians try to answer every day as we build our country, and Boo has earned the right to ask it, too.

Shashi Tharoor is a member of India’s parliament, a columnist and a novelist, and the author, most recently, of “The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone: Reflections on India in the 21st Century.”


By Katherine Boo

Random House. 256 pp. $27