I finished this book this morning, got to the end and thought, sure, I’ll read the author’s note, and therein I found out that this story–about life and death and poverty and corruption and justice and injustice and good luck and bad luck in a Mumbai slum–is totally, COMPLETELY TRUE. It blew my mind, you guys, because it reads like fiction: the characters are so well-documented in their thoughts and dreams (and sometimes even in the listed cause of death in official records and police reports), and the story is sometimes SO outrageous, I thought for sure I was reading a brilliant, well-researched, slightly-exaggerated story that Katherine Boo thought up and cleverly delivered.
Because the story IS crazy (no spoilers in this paragraph, because this happens in the first chapter, and honestly the fact that this is TRUE is the biggest twist ever): it centers mostly around the Hussain family’s complicated fight with their neighbor Fatima, and how she set herself on fire to frame them, and how it impacted their family business of buying garbage from scavengers and selling it to recycling plants. I know a lot of us in here are writers, and honestly, how many of us dream up such an amazing plot in such a unique and unknown setting that would so perfectly display so many of the unfamiliar (and therefore readable) realities of the character’s lives?
It shows how quickly fates can change. How much luck has to do with people’s lives. How thoroughly people can ruin themselves and each other. How people’s account of what happens changes with time, bribes, guilt, silencing. How corrupt Mumbai’s legal system. How slum life evolves around the changing fortunes.
So much of the time I was reading I was marveling at Katherine Boo’s brilliance at thinking up such an engaging work of fiction, when I SHOULD have been marveling that she spent years and years getting to know these (REAL! I’m still freaking out) people–not just their names and stories, but their thoughts. What they hoped for, how they rationalized their decisions, what they thought of their chances at success. Whether or not they prayed, got high, or thought about suicide.
But so much credit goes to these people for being honest, and telling their stories with the knowledge that they would be documented with their faults as well as their virtues. I mean, it’s one (difficult) thing to talk to a stranger about either hope or despair in the face of a system that makes it so hard to change your situation, and another to admit to a stranger in your own neighborhood that you’re a prostitute and your husband doesn’t know, that you’re embezzling government money that could improve the lives of your neighbors, that yes, you saw that man laying wounded in the street earlier and could have helped him before he died and yes, you do feel a little weird about it now, but you had your reasons, okay?
This book is incredible. Even if it was fiction, it offers facts and insight and perspective into lives that probably none of us can imagine. But now I sort of feel the need to read it again with the knowledge that every backstory and personal thought was admitted out loud, that every fact was triple-checked, that the cops and the politicians and the quotes from official records are all real. That every scene or personal conversation was either recounted to or witnessed by an interpreter and a white woman taking notes.
That Fatima the One-Leg is not an ingenious plot device but a real woman. A real woman, who actually got so pissed off that she set herself on fire to teach someone else a lesson. A real woman, who really died.