Behind the Beautiful Forevers
A Book by Katherine Boo
2012 / 288 Pages
The Setup: From Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a landmark work of narrative nonfiction that tells the dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in one of the twenty-first century’s great, unequal cities.
In this brilliantly written, fast-paced book, based on three years of uncompromising reporting, a bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human.
Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting” in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption. With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter—Annawadi’s “most-everything girl”—will soon become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves inching closer to the good lives and good times they call “the full enjoy.”
But then Abdul the garbage sorter is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and a global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy turn brutal. As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths,the true contours of a competitive age are revealed. And so, too, are the imaginations and courage of the people of Annawadi.
With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects human beings to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds, and into the lives of people impossible to forget. (from the hardcover edition)
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.