Was it fate?
Behind the Beautiful Forevers follows the lives of several individuals living in a slum that was erected on an unused piece of airport property in Mumbai. Here individuals are forced to endure unbelievable levels of poverty. Running water only works for two hours a day. “Bathrooms” are a shared affair. Babies are bitten on their heads by rats as they sleep. A college education, let alone proper grade schooling is practically non-existent. And the law is definitely on the side of whoever has the most to offer financially to those in positions of power.
Early in the book members of one family in particular get put on trial for a heinous crime that they didn’t commit even though dozens of people witnessed the event and the victim changed their story several times. The only way they could have avoided jail and the physical abuse that comes along with the interrogation practices of the crooked cops was to squander their meager savings on a payoff to the local police, the government prosecutors assigned to investigate the case, and the supposed victim’s family. Which is the better option: broke and free, or imprisoned and abused with the knowledge that the rest of your family can still support themselves for a time without you?
The biggest problem I encountered while reading this book was that I found I had to stop frequently to remind myself that the book’s subjects were real people who were all suffering at the hands of extreme poverty, government corruption, and corporate greed.
Certainly on one hand I needed the steady flow of constant reminders because the work is written as a piece of narrative nonfiction, which means that it reads like a novel. On the other hand I was having trouble processing that everything that was being presented, from the way of life, to the lack of opportunities, to the appalling living conditions, could be, and is in fact real, because I didn’t want to accept that these conditions could exist smack in the middle of an area that was supposedly thriving economically.
Once I got past the horrific quality of life however, what became most interesting was not the fact that this poverty existed in the first place, but rather that instead of banding together as a group that demands to be heard, the citizens of this particular slum, and I would imagine the same logic would hold true for slums the country over, are content to snipe at one another, argue with their neighbors, and engage in frequent contests to one-up each other.
It makes for a curious social/economic puzzle, this idea that no matter what class you’re a member of, the same biases and hatreds exist. How Boo managed to plop herself in the center of it all, become a trusted member of the community people would share their stories with, and actually survive the living conditions long enough to come up with enough research material to write a full length book is barely touched upon, but one would imagine it would be just as fascinating a tale.
This year marks the first time that I’ve strayed beyond the National Book Award’s fiction list, where I’m at the top of my comfort level, and wandered into new territory. This certainly isn’t the first piece of non-fiction I’ve ever read, but at the same time I don’t have a good feel for what makes a book in this particular category truly award worthy. Are the judges looking for a gripping, moving tale like what’s presented here or are they instead interested in a historical document like what I imagine is presented in Robert Caro’s 4th installment of his Lyndon Johnson biography The Passage of Power?
We’ll find out soon enough.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers
By Katherine Boo