Notes from the Undercity
Katherine Boo's intimate portrait of a Mumbai slum
Behind the Beautiful Forevers:
Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity
by Katherine Boo
$27.00 List Price
On December 9, 2011, the ABC News program 20/20 aired a dramatic report from India, presented by the show’s Emmy Award–winning anchor Elizabeth Vargas. In an uncharacteristically long piece devoted to social issues in a foreign country not recently liberated from tyranny by an American invasion, the fifteen-minute segment set out to reveal what its title dubbed “India’s Deadly Secret.” The deadly secret in question—so secret that the Times of India has only mentioned it about six hundred times in the past two years, according to LexisNexis—is the propensity of Indian families to abort female fetuses: a disturbing and disturbingly widespread practice, which has produced badly skewed child sex ratios (as high as 129 boys for every 100 girls in certain districts) that indicate the “disappearance” of tens of millions of women over the past several decades.
This is a subject of unquestionable significance, but 20/20’s report on India’s “growing gender gap” turned out to be a kind of master class in how deeply a group of well-meaning journalists can drown their good intentions in a warm bath of patronizing condescension and pity. Backed by the requisite sitar-and-tabla sound track, Vargas strode bravely down dusty, crowded roads with nary a female in sight. “Walk down any street, as I did throughout India,” she said in a voice-over, “and you notice something startling: In every direction you see men, and very few women.” Cut to a slow-motion shot of four uniformed schoolgirls walking past the camera: “Now look closely at the faces of these
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