Under the Covers: In the midst of harsh realities, hope springs eternal

January 29, 2015

In a slum surrounding Mumbai’s gleaming Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, hope springs eternal, at least when prices for a kilo of compressed plastic bags are high.

Katherine Boo’s stunning nonfiction novel, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, pulls the curtains back from the façade of the “New India” of cellphones and Hyatt hotels. The India she knows and portrays is a bare-knuckle scramble over the backs of others in Annawadi, a neighborhood where the only business around is collecting and reselling garbage.

The poor are grateful they are not the poorest—those who “trapped rats and frogs and fried them for dinner.” It’s not a catalog of despair; it’s an honest look at the complexities of life in a country that’s been roiled by the urbanization of millions of unskilled, uneducated peasants from the country. There is happiness in measured quantities. But, as Boo put it, “for every two people in Annawadi inching up, there was one in a catastrophic plunge.”

I trust that Boo was meticulous in her reporting on the trials of Annawadi’s residents.She writes that Abdul, a Muslim teenager with a knack for garbage-collecting, “had never given his future much thought, beyond vague fantasies of living in Vasai and more concrete health-related worries.” I’m confident that, even though Abdul may never have directly admitted such, Boo determined that it was true.

In creating our own narratives of the past, we falsify reasons for our decisions. We construct firm trajectories out of the series of unexpected events that constitute our lives. People can’t be counted on to recall their experiences in a reliable way. They twist and shape their past actions to fit the ways they define themselves today.

I’ve denied truths and buried emotions within the fictions that I’ve written for myself. Breakups, unfulfilled goals, difficult choices—they all provide a blank script for writing in motivations that may or may not have existed.

Close friends, detached from my perspectives, have often pointed the most honest searchlights at the reasons why I’ve done things—reasons that I have distorted.

A rigorous observer can illuminate what we deny to ourselves. A writer of nonfiction has to get at the truth of a person’s thoughts, and that truth isn’t always what they say it is.

The writer Erik Larson, in an interview with the magazine Narrative Nonfiction, put his approach towards portraying his real-life characters’ thoughts this way: “I will only propose what somebody is thinking or not thinking if I have something concrete hand that makes that clear. You absolutely cannot make that stuff up out of whole cloth because then you pass into another realm entirely.”

Boo’s approach toward writing and reporting Behind the Beautiful Forevers is more compatible with delivering the fullness of the truth than other pieces of creative nonfiction that I’ve read. It’s also much more ambitious.

She spent much of 2008, 2009, and 2010 in the Mumbai slums, chronicling the days of their inhabitants, eating dinner with them or lingering while women washed laundry and groups of orphaned teenagers sniffed discarded bottles of whiteout for numbing highs. She was searching for stories, not chronicling something that had already happened. This meant that when something momentous went down, like the self-immolation of a disabled woman called One Leg, Boo was either in Annawadi or would be soon.

The memories she recounted from the people she interviewed were fresh.

In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s report of a quadruple murder, is often regarded as the quintessential piece of narrative nonfiction. But many of Capote’s interviews took place years after the crime, and muddling memories sullied the accuracy of the novelized version of events.

Today, In Cold Blood is generally regarded to be close to the truth.  But Capote’s confident assertion that “every word is true” was probably an overstatement. I don’t think Behind the Beautiful Forevers suffers from the same problem.

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