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Thursday, 13 September 2012

Katherine Boo and the Snapshot Slum

I loved reading Katherine Boo's Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, her strangely fictionalised story of life, death, corruption and the struggle to survive in a Mumbai slum.

At the back of the book, she sums up the problem with photography. "I quickly grew impatient with poignant snapshots of Indian squalor; the ribby children with flies in their eyes and other emblems of abjectness that one can't help but see within five minutes of walking into a slum. For me... the more important line of inquiry is something that takes longer to discern."

Boo spent four years in her slum. "To me, becoming attached to a country involves pressing uncomfortable questions about justice and opportunity for its least powerful citizens... I thought it would be useful to follow the inhabitants of a single, exceptional slum over the course of several years to see who got ahead and who didn't, and why, as India prospered. There being no way around the not-being-Indian business, I tried to compensate for my limitations the same way I do in unfamiliar American territory: by time spent, attention paid, documentation secured, accounts cross-checked."

The work shows. It's not an Indian book, but the research from the  "...written notes, video recordings, audiotapes, and photographs" make for a compelling book. And I think the hard work was far, far harder than Boo is letting on.

And the cover. A snapshot of course. Slumdog Millionaire snapshot! 


rajiv said...

Hi Colin,

A while back a journalist friend recommended Katherine Boo's book and another by a young Indian journalist, Aman Sethi, titled `A Free Man'. He felt he connected better with the latter's work.

While I haven't yet read `Behind the Beautiful Forevers' I did read Aman Sethi's book and it is quite a stunning achievement.

It might be something you might find interesting :-).

colin pantall said...

Thanks Rajiv - I'll check it out. Boo recognises her limitations ( she's not Indian), and then hammers the research to overcome it. It's a work in translation though, but a really good one. I know what you mean about connection - it's incredibly readable but is more like a novel than non-fiction. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing though.