Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo

I don't think I've read many books like this.  Katherine Boo spent years visiting a shantytown slum in Mumbai getting to know the residents very well indeed, and eventually wrote their story.  She writes as though she was not there.  We get to know several neighboring families in the slum: a family that sorts garbage for a living, the very angry disabled woman next door, a politically-ambitious woman who wants to become the slumlord, her daughter who attends college and teaches children.  They all live next to a lake of sewage behind the Mumbai airport, and their place is called Annawadi.

Boo's chronicle centers around an incident that causes huge trouble for Annawadi residents, stemming out of jealousy, anger, and ordinary neighborly bickering.  Everyone has their own story and hopes for a better life; it's amazing to read about how they mostly keep going, not just surviving but trying to live their ambitions, in the incredibly brutal place they live in.  In some ways I found the book difficult to grasp because even though I knew it was written about real people (names weren't changed or anything), I kept expecting it to act like a story.  I wanted Manju to graduate and get a job as a real teacher instead of getting caught in her mother's cons, but we never find out what happens to her.

India's endemic corruption is the overriding force in the lives of Annawadi people (and, I expect, in most of India's poorer population).  Everyone with any kind of power is corrupt: the slumlords fabricating fictional women's cooperatives, the doctors at the hospital, the social workers, the police, the politicians, even the nuns running the orphanage.  Money for microloans, schools, charities, and housing is available, and nearly all of it goes into somebody's pocket.  The people at the bottom work hard and save and hope, only to have it all taken away again and again by the very people who are, in theory, supposed to hold up the structure of society.

Boo comments, “It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in under-cities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be—all those invisible individuals who every day find themselves faced with dilemmas not unlike the one Abdul confronted, stone slab in hand, one July afternoon when his life exploded. If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?”

I think it's an important book, and Boo is an excellent writer who manages to make herself disappear in the narrative.  That's an impressive thing when it seems like most of the non-fiction books we read are all about the writer.  It will hurt to read, but you should read it anyway.


Anonymous said...

Ordinarily this kind of book would be pretty daunting for me, but I've heard such good things about it. It sounds like Katherine Boo was particularly self-aware about the work she was doing and what it means to write about poverty.

Jean said...

Oh, definitely. She talks at the end about how she didn't think she could do it at all--but no one else was doing it, so finally she decided. She has written quite a bit about poverty in the US, but India of course is quite different in a lot of ways. I'd like to see her US writing,