“Do you ever think when you look at someone, when you listen to someone, does that person really have a life?” Abdul was asking the boy who was not listening. “Like that woman who just went to hang herself, or her husband, who probably beat her before she did this? I wonder what kind of life is that,” Abdul went on. “I go through tensions just to see it. But it is a life. Even the person who lives like a dog still has a kind of life. Once when my mother was beating me, and that thought came to me. I said, ‘If what is happening now, you beating me, is to keep happening for the rest of my life, it would be a bad life, but it would be a life, too.’ And my mother was so shocked when I said that. She said, “Don’t confuse yourself by thinking about such terrible lives.'” Sunil thought that he, too, had a life. A bad life, certainly-the kind that could be ended as Kalu’s had been and then forgotten, because it made no difference to the people who lived in the overcity. But something he’d come to realize on the roof, leaning out, thinking about what would happen if he leaned too far, was that a boy’s life could still matter to himself.”
At a compact 250 pages, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a small masterpiece of documentary storytelling. In its subject matter of poverty, its meticulous research (she says the first six months of material were “absolutely worthless” – a vivid illustration of the commitment involved), and Boo’s great gift for sympathy, the book seems an obvious next step in a successful career. But the setting is a dramatic departure: to write it, she moved to India, where she spent much of the years 2008-2010 in a Mumbai slum called Annawadi that sits in the shadow of the city’s airport.