Katherine Boo
"When the potential of low-income people gets squandered," Westerners often profit, says author and journalist Katherine Boo, who signed copies of her book after her UCI talk. Here, she chats with fourth-year international studies major Reka Katona. Steve Zylius / UCI

A bleak, disease-ridden slum briefly flickered to life at the University of California, Irvine on Thursday, courtesy of author and investigative journalist Katherine Boo.

Backed by a slideshow of stark and sometimes unsettling images, Boo spoke to an overflow crowd in the 300-seat Merage School Auditorium, sharing stories and lessons from her prize-winning book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death & Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.

A soft-spoken staff writer at The New Yorker who’s married to an Indian man and spent several years in that country researching her 2012 nonfiction narrative, Boo visited UCI as part of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellows Series. Earlier in the week, she spoke to smaller groups at UCI about urban and global poverty, India and other topics.

Thursday’s talk kicked off with a photo of two boys standing in a seemingly innocuous pond of water that borders their Mumbai slum, which is surrounded by luxury hotels and an international airport so sleek “it makes LAX look like a 7-Eleven,” Boo said. Alas, the pond is teeming with sewage and illegally dumped chemicals.

It’s one of numerous hardships faced by Boo’s subjects, who typically eke out a living scrounging for recyclables in rat-infested piles of airport garbage. They also grapple with deadly diseases, dirty cops and unending corruption.

Rather than simply chronicle the misery she encountered, Boo set out to shed light on its root causes. “It’s important to talk about not just the victims, but also the perpetrators,” she said. To that end, she dug through thousands of public records – from hospitals, morgues, police departments and environmental agencies.

Boo had to adopt a new interviewing style to get inside the heads of Mumbai’s teenage slum dwellers. In contrast with American youths, these kids “were not used to talking about themselves,” she said. “That’s a leisure activity.” When Boo tried asking questions, some ran away. So she instead began shadowing the teens during their daily routines, framing queries related to their actions.

She discovered that her young subjects were surprisingly hopeful and optimistic about their futures. But reality sometimes intervened. Near the end of her talk, Boo revealed that seven of the people in her slideshow are now dead, mostly from tuberculosis and other slum health hazards.

The Western notion that “talent always rises to the top” doesn’t apply in Mumbai’s impoverished neighborhoods, she said. Hard work is often canceled out by the whims of “governments, corporations and consumers that are worlds away,” she explained, noting as one example that China’s slowing economy recently crimped prices for recycled goods, exacerbating poverty in the airport slum, where just six of 3,000 residents have full-time jobs.

When asked during a post-lecture Q&A if Americans can do anything besides donate money to help, Boo suggested going to India and teaching poor kids English, a valuable skill in the nation’s burgeoning service economy. “In one month, you can really change the earning power of 20 students,” she said.

For now, Mumbai’s slum dwellers are hanging on to dreams of escaping poverty, Boo said, “but I’m not sure how long the optimism will last.”