Katherine Boo gives FYE lecture on social justice in Mumbai

Posted by Sara Rose Slate

On Monday, Oct. 1, author Katherine Boo visited Skidmore College to discuss her first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, which was assigned as summer reading for the Class of 2016 as part of the First-Year Experience program.

Boo is a staff writer at The New Yorker, and previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, a reporter at Washington City Paper, and a writer and co-editor at Washington Monthly Magazine. She has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant", and a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing for her reporting over the years.
For the last decade, Boo has lived part-time in the United States and in India, the birthplace of her husband, Sunil Khilna. Speaking on her experiences there and the process of compiling her research into a book, she told a packed Zankel Music Center that she started her research by asking questions. Among them were: What are the mechanics of upward mobility? Who can find a way out of poverty, and why? Why isn't poverty seen as a practical problem instead of a moral one?

Her findings told her that the shortcomings of India begin at the level of the powerful, and not the poor. Boo said given the flourishing economy in India, there is an expectation of social mobility in India, and a common misconception that the poor should be able to better their situations without assistance.

However, this was not easy for the people Boo encountered in India, she said. The corruption of the government, conditions such as illness that kept people from being able to work and the fact that stable long-term jobs don't exist in the slums have made it almost impossible to break the cycle of poverty. Boo asserted that institutions need to be held accountable for their actions and those in power should recognize the humanity of people who are impoverished and in need.

Throughout her talk, Boo was frank in her conviction that her goal in writing her book was not to tell flamboyant tales, but to tell stories that illuminate the nature of a changing society. However, she also doesn't want her book to be seen as a guilt trip, but as an honest account of her experiences in a Mumbai slum.

Boo emphasized that while the people she met faced crippling hardships, she still saw hope every day, that the members of the community were still able to demonstrate strong principled feelings and an earnest desire to better their situation accompanied by hard work.

"Young people are all alike in dreams and academic realities," Boo told the students, claiming that young adults know more about each other than ever before, and they are all linked for better or for worse.

"I was moved by her dedication to her work and the causes she was a part of. She was a phenomenal speaker," Cara Kraus-Perrotta '16 said.

"She was very clear on what she wanted the reader to get out of the book," added Anna Kasok '16.

Boo challenged the audience to find a way to connect to the people in her story and to constantly question themselves: Am I truly open to deep connections with people I seem to have nothing in common with? What can I do today to make this world a slightly better place?

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