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Reasons for Hope: Investigations of Extreme Injustice and Poverty in Mumbai with Katherine Boo

By John Taylor

Dur­ing Wel­come Week, as a part of this year’s fresh­man col­lec­tive read­ing assign­ment, Pulitzer Prize win­ner, author and jour­nal­ist Kather­ine Boo spoke to our new stu­dents about her book, “Behind the Beau­ti­ful Forevers.”

This non-fiction inves­ti­ga­tional piece is set in Mum­bai. Amongst rusted tin shacks in the Annawadi slum, over­shad­owed by lux­ury hotels and some of India’s largest finan­cial strong­holds, Boo tells the sim­ple story of the not so sim­ple indi­vid­u­als who prove that even the bleak­est sur­round­ings can be a breed­ing ground of hope and promis­ing futures.

It’s not us ver­sus them any­more, it’s a global com­pli­cated us… The world is a vast and com­pli­cated fam­ily for bet­ter or worse,” Boo said in her address.

On a giant screen behind Boo, a pro­jec­tor tog­gled images while she talked about excep­tional indi­vid­u­als, those who have cre­ated enter­prises and have been accepted to uni­ver­si­ties with no other resources beyond those of their sur­round­ing squalor.

The pic­tures showed derelict alley­ways and short excerpts of the slum-dwelling fam­i­lies that for three years had allowed Boo’s doc­u­ment­ing to become a con­stant pres­ence in their life. Unfor­tu­nately these kinds of pic­tures have some­what lost their edge with a tar­get audi­ence who are reg­u­larly exposed to the pleas of phil­an­thropic orga­ni­za­tions in our media.

But this was by no means the com­mon char­ity adver­tise­ment that for decades has desen­si­tized us to the hope­less prospects of muddy chil­dren and mangy dogs.

Instead Boo focused on her sub­jects’ ambi­tions, their sense of ethics, their inher­ent prin­ci­ples and how those qual­i­ties alone enabled them to over­come unfath­omable obsta­cles and achieve the unthinkable.

Boo exposed the sim­i­lar­i­ties between these remark­able peo­ple and how we would like to see our­selves. She bridged the geo­graph­i­cal, cul­tural and socioe­co­nomic gap that pre­vi­ously enabled us to dis­tance our­selves from any sense of respon­si­bil­ity. Ulti­mately, she instilled in us a sense of a shared future with these vic­tims of poverty and injustice.

Accord­ing to Boo, rea­sons for hope in Mum­bai are already tan­gi­ble: friends no longer dis­crim­i­nate between castes, women have become a major uplift­ing force in the slums, and despite unfath­omable poverty and a lack of jus­tice, these peo­ple do not see them­selves as doomed – they are pick­ing them­selves up.

Just because hope has pre­vi­ously been used as a tool and manip­u­lated by the pow­er­ful, doesn’t mean that hope in itself is fic­tional…,” Boo said. “The fail­ure of poverty lies with the pow­er­ful, not the inabil­ity of the poor.”

Leav­ing us with those unfor­get­table images and a notion of respon­si­bil­ity, she encour­aged our incom­ing fresh­men to enter the hope­ful global age and decide for them­selves what kind of devel­op­ments the world will need in their shared future.

Read more at the NU Polit­i­cal Review (NUPR).