Please Read Responsibly

by Hasan Altaf
One of the main differences between fiction and nonfiction might be, to use the phrase of writing workshops, between showing and telling: Fiction shows us other lives, what those other lives are like, how it might feel to be living those lives; the other tells us, laying out the context, the backstory, the rules of the game. Both forms are important, but fiction seems to me the more powerful, as stories speak to us at a more visceral level than do facts – to our emotions, rather than our intellect. There is overlap between the two genres, however, and while fiction can succeed without giving us the information of nonfiction, the strongest journalism is usually that which adopts the techniques of fiction to give us both story and background – some of Arundhati Roy's essays, for example, or Joan Didion's – that journalism which gives us both narrative and analysis, the question and some semblance of an answer.

It is easy, when reading Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, to forget that one is reading nonfiction at all; the book feels more like a novel, and it is in fact tempting to read it as one. The careful, in-depth reporting and the meticulous research of an excellent journalist are there, but far more striking are the attributes of a novelist – the empathy and the insight that Boo brings to her writing. The style is also deliberate: Boo excludes herself almost entirely, writing instead from the perspective of her characters, letting them show us the story of their lives and their community. These people aren't case studies, side-barred in a study; they're individuals, every one of them sympathetic and understandable. The result is an incredibly rich portrait of unique, fascinating, frustrating people, doing their best to get by in a particular community and particular landscape.

For some inexplicable reason, Behind the Beautiful Forevers has been compared to Slumdog Millionaire, which is both unfortunate and unfair. The book has much more in common with something like Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance or EL Doctorow's Ragtime; it isn't a book that “tells us what slum life is like” or that discusses academically the relationship of globalization to urban Indian poverty; it's a book that lets us see the lives of individuals, in which “slums” and “globalization” and “urban Indian poverty” are all present, but never the subjects.

This is, however, nonfiction, and Boo is deliberately using the mosaic of those individual lives in order to create a bigger picture and raise bigger questions. Equally deliberately, she doesn't answer them. The book doesn't give the reader the kind of information that one generally expects from nonfiction, the kind that we get from Suketu Mehta's Maximum City or William Dalrymple's writing about the Mughals. Mehta gave himself the advantage of the first-person; Dalrymple had the advantage that his subjects are long dead. Boo did her research, too – years of it – but because she withholds almost all of it, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is in one sense frustrating; Boo gives us the story, but not the background; we see the game being played but we don't learn the rules.

In the afterword – the only place in which the author allows herself an “I,” the only part of the book in which the writer intrudes – Boo writes, “I don't try to fool myself that the stories of individuals are themselves arguments. I just believe that better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about ordinary lives.” She leaves the reader with a greater responsibility than most authors of nonfiction (it is impossible to read her book and not want to learn more, read more), but I think the first part of that quote may be even more important than the second. Much writing, especially about places like India and subjects like poverty, falls into the trap of turning individuals into representative, stories into arguments. Too often we look for the stories that reinforce our analysis; with this excellent and frustrating book, Boo reminds us that the relationship should be the inverse.