Katherine Boo documents India’s forgotten
Published: Monday, October 1, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 1, 2012 21:10
Katherine Boo refuses to work from behind a desk and prefers to devote herself wholeheartedly to her work, which most recently included three years of reporting from a slum in Mumbai, India.
Annawadi is the setting of her first book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.” She said she uses a combination of narrative storytelling and hard, investigative reporting to cover the stories of individuals in society who the media have forgotten.
Boo, 48, graduated summa cum laude from Barnard College with a degree in English literature. She has won the National Magazine Award for “The Marriage Cure,” the Sidney Hillman Award for “After Welfare” and the MacArthur Fellowship Award.
There was not an exact moment when Boo realized her life passion was to tell the stories of those who could not do it themselves. She said it was years of preparation and education, mainly from her mother.
“It was just something that I was always aware of and I think it’s partially because my mother had had some really, really difficult times,” Boo said. “She would be telling me about someone who was supposed to be doing all this good charitable work and was really, you know, sticking all the money in their bank account.”
The job of a journalist, according to Boo, is to help readers better understand the world. She said she does not look for the most exciting, flamboyant stories but rather the ones in which justice and education have failed. She said she hopes her articles engage readers and shed light on real life problems.
“I’m hoping that people will read and get engaged in these problems and want to do something about it,” Boo said. “It doesn’t always happen, but I always hope.”
Boo’s Pulitzer Prize winning articles, published in The Washington Post in 1999, exposed a number of wrongful deaths within mentally handicapped Washington, D.C. group home residents. The 116 deaths she uncovered resulted in the suspension of the chief investigator in the D.C. Department of Human Services. The true cause of death, often neglect, had been concealed from public records and the families of the victim.
“When they died they were no longer income generators and their deaths were just simply covered up and disposed of,” Boo said.
She encountered similar tragedies thousands of miles away in Annawadi.
“Some of the deaths of young people that I wrote about in India in the ‘Beautiful Forevers,’ some vibrant, special people who just didn’t rank in the hierarchy of their city and they were also deaths to be disposed of,” she said.
The deaths themselves were not the only thing that bothered Boo. She said the sense of invisibility felt by both the mentally handicapped in Washington, D.C. and the residents of Annawadi were heartbreaking.
“In both cases it’s not just that there’s a loss of a life, it’s that all the other people around those people who are poor, understand that their lives too don’t matter at all,” Boo said.
"That’s an incredibly painful and disabling recognition for people to have.”