Every page I turn lately seems anchored in economics. And politics aside, there is no denying these uncertain economic times have readers flocking to stories of poverty and power, examining how we provide for ourselves, and what the future might portend.
This is no truer than in Katherine Boo's tragic and captivating work of non-fiction "Behind the Beautiful Forevers." Boo, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has long reported on poverty from all corners of the globe, here turns her eye on the daily calamity of the Annawadi slum.
Mumbai Undercity," Boo's story echoes globally by focusing locally.
Annawadi, a compact slum in the shadow of Mumbai's airport, spawned from necessity and loss. Settled in 1991 "by a band of laborers trucked in from the southern India state of Tamil Nadu," Annawadi is home to Tamils, Hindus and Muslims. By 2008, before the global economic meltdown, Annawadians "were among roughly one hundred million Indians freed from poverty since 1991."
This potential mobility is at the heart of Boo's assessment. The proximity to success is tenuous at best, and laughable by Western standards. In a country of more than a billion, Annawadians are little better than their neighbors. Of three thousand residents, only six have permanent jobs.
The rest, like those all over India, orbit an informal economy, eked out with dangerously toxic physical labor such as garbage picking and mining.
Boo quickly introduces readers to her central characters, including Sunil, "a perceptive twelve-year old scavenger" who stays close to the local orphanage because when television cameras appear, foreign and local aid workers give out ice cream and clothing here.
Scavenging is potentially dangerous work. "Where skin broke, maggots got in. Lice colonized hair; gangrene inched up fingers, calves swelled into tree trunks." Sunil's closest competitor and several of his contemporaries "kept a running wager about which of the scavengers would be the next to die."
We also meet Asha Waghekar, a 39-year-old aspiring "slum lord," which is an "unofficial position, but residents knew who held it -- a person chosen by local politicians and police officers to run the settlement according to the authorities' interests."
When Asha's son Abdul is arrested for a horrific crime, his mother trades her newfound powers of corruption to fake a school record, hoping her son is treated as the child he is, rather than as an adult. The price of such deception, however, is steep.
The cost, she thinks, is secrecy, but "It was hard to keep secrets in a slum. As Asha understood, secrets successfully kept were a kind of currency."
Valuable journalism demands a local view to tell a global story. Boo narrows her focus to a few square miles, illuminating the lives of a half dozen tenants to illustrate the obvious ways in which a handful of diminutive Annawadians represent untold millions from all corners of the world.
"Behind The Beautiful Forevers" demonstrates that while the flattening of the world provides untold opportunity, this same leveling brings shared responsibility.
RATING: 5 OUT OF 5 books
Glen Young teaches English at Petoskey High School. His column, Literate Matters, appears the second and fourth Thursday of each month. Young can be reached at P.O. Box 174, Petoskey, Mich. 49770.