Let's skip the formalities: What's it going to take for you to read a book about a Mumbai slum that sits on the edge of a lake of sewage? Keep in mind that it's nonfiction, so nobody goes on a game show, nobody becomes a millionaire, nobody dances to ''Jai Ho.'' Would reading an unqualified rave be enough? If so, here you go: Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a riveting, fearlessly reported portrait of a poverty so obliterating that it amounts to a slow-motion genocide. Right now the book is sitting on my shelf making all the other books feel stupid.
Maybe you need the added inducement of knowing that Beautiful Forevers will be one of the year's big books a conversation starter, an award winner. It will be. Maybe you want to be promised that the book isn't a screed, that it isn't a guilt trip, and that no children you care about will die in pitiless circumstances. It isn't, it isn't...and I wish I could lie about that kid thing.
Beautiful Forevers was written by Katherine Boo, a New Yorker writer with a Pulitzer, among other things, to her credit. The book plays out like a swift, richly plotted novel. That's partly because Boo writes so damn well. But it's also because over the course of three years in India she got extraordinary access to the lives and minds of the Annawadi slum, a settlement nestled jarringly close to a shiny international airport and a row of luxury hotels. Boo gives even the broadest themes (the collateral damage of globalization, say) a human face. And there are half a dozen characters here so indelible so swept up in impossible dreams and schemes that they call Dickens and Austen to mind.
In the book's stunning central sequence, a sexually rapacious, wildly vindictive one-legged woman named Fatima pours kerosene over her head and lights it just to frame some neighbors she hates, the Husains. ''Seconds later,'' Boo writes, ''the [music in the shack] was eclipsed by a whoosh, a small boom, and an eight-year-old screaming, 'My mother! On fire!' '' Fatima's scheme works. A kind, nearly friendless young man named Abdul Husain, who spends his days buying and sorting recyclables, is promptly arrested with his father and submitted to a judicial system so corrupt it's like something from science fiction. Abdul has no idea how old he is, so a doctor does a forensic exam to determine whether he can be tried as an adult. The results? For 2,000 rupees, the doctor will say Abdul is 17; otherwise, Abdul is 20. Witnesses won't tell the police the truth unless they're paid off too. And the police aren't on an obsessive quest for justice anyway they've already falsified Fatima's ''victim'' statement so they can blackmail the Husains themselves. While he waits in jail, Abdul refuses to bathe because being dirty is the only thing that reminds him of home.
In Beautiful Forevers, corruption trickles down. So do cruelty and snobbery everything but money, really. Most everyone takes whatever abuse and indignity are heaped on them and heaps them on somebody else, even if they're only infinitesimally lower on the social ladder. One of Boo's great achievements here is that in the interest of objectivity, she suppresses the rage she must feel at the political and economic machinery that set all this in motion. America has also allowed chasms to form between the classes, of course. Boo refrains from beating that gong, but she's got a shrewd eye for details that hit home. One day, a fisherman wades into Annawadi's sewage lake, which is home to goat carcasses, malarial mosquitoes, and other delicacies, and emerges with a catch that'll get ground into fish oil sold in the West. Try some it's good for your blood pressure. A