“Sunil knew nothing of the movie that ends with an airport-slum boy finding money, love, and fame,” Boo writes. “However, he might have recognized one of that movie’s conceits: that deprivation may give a child a certain intelligence. The other conceit—that a child’s specific miserable experiences might be the things to spring him from his deprivation—was the lie…[Affluent filmgoers] could relax, not just because the film about the slum boy had a happy ending but because the boy’s suffering had been part of the solution.”
The scavenger, Sunil, also appears in Beautiful Forevers, and Boo’s book expands on these themes. But while other recent nonfiction works about India (Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned, Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing, and Anand Giridharadas’s India Calling) also address the country’s widespread poverty, they focus on urban opportunity and the loosening caste structures, not on people who remain untouched by economic growth. Boo’s emphasis on lives stagnating as India’s economy strengthened runs counter to the prevailing narrative in the country. In fact, she first visited Annawadi when an official took her there to see a “self-help” microfinance group—the “poverty solution du jour”—that turned out to be just a random assemblage of local women. But the place piqued her interest, and she returned, for years, to report what she saw rather than what others tried to show her.
She’s used to and unfazed by the fact that this work makes her an outlier. “I felt that some of these things that I was writing—that needed to be said—needed to be part of this conversation about India,” Boo says. “I would never recommend that this be the only book anybody reads about India, but I felt that a really in-depth look at how a historically poor community was or wasn’t being changed by the new prosperity is something that hadn’t been written.”
Jodie Allen thinks Boo’s fierce devotion to reporting her stories is what allows her work to grow longer, against the current, as her career progresses. “She is swimming upstream, but it’s her soul,” Allen says, recounting one night at the Post back in 1993. Boo had finished a story on Friday about the decay of a public-housing complex, juggling reporting with her official editing duties. She led with the most visible evidence of the complex’s decline: an unaddressed leak that was flooding one building and rotting its ceilings.
“In many of the District’s public housing projects this past winter, 15 minutes of hot water was tough to come by,” Boo wrote. “Southeast’s Sheridan Terrace, on the other hand, featured a nonstop hot waterfall. Day and night, a scalding stream ran out of an abandoned second-floor apartment on 2633 Pomeroy Rd., pouring from a broken bathroom sink past a living-room couch and an empty Dash detergent box down a stairway and into a pool in a trash-filled basement.”
“She had talked to all the responsible people,” Allen recalls, and the piece was set for the Sunday paper. But Boo suspected city officials would fix the leak before the paper printed, diminishing the power of her opening scene. So after work, she set off, alone, in the dark, to the rough Southeast section of DC to double-check. The city had indeed fixed the leak, and she rewrote the lede to reflect that. “That was just so Kate,” Allen says. “It told you everything about her.”
Though Boo’s devotion to her craft has translated into prestige and success, she mostly dodges the limelight. In May, she did agree to give the commencement speech at Columbia’s Journalism School: “I think that our careers grow when we start accepting the world’s lack of enthusiasm as a given and face down the part of the problem that’s on us—that maybe, as individuals, we’re not quite good enough yet at what it is that we do.” She and her fellow self-loathers, she said, are “simply sweating to do what [Samuel] Beckett said, which is to fail better.”