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Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo


Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an eye-opening book about life in one Mumbai slum written from the point of view of the people who live and work in it. Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo lived a great deal of the years 2007 to early 2011 in Mumbai interviewing and recording the lives and events of the Annawadi settlement in the shadow of the Mumbai airport. Her book is a marvel of non-fiction writing, reading almost like a novel.

The characters will stay with you - Abdul, a scavenger of garbage - Asha, a pragmatic woman who did what she had to to help her family - Manju, a young woman attending college against great odds, and many others. Boo did not inject herself into the story at all, to the point where I spent time online after reading it trying to find out more about her. Unlike many books of this type, she used real names and portrayed actual events meticulously, getting video and written documentation as well as petitioning for official records under the Indian equivalent of the US Freedom of Information Act to obtain evidence of proof of what she found, which included corruption at every level of human interaction and government.

She writes the stories of a group of people who worked harder and smarter than most anyone I've known to survive and to try to get a little bit ahead under the most appalling and trying of conditions. Filth, disease, suicide, crime and despair are documented as well as the small victories, perseverance, ethical dilemmas and the amazing resilience of the human spirit. I found the following quotation especially poignant:

"What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too. In the age of global market capitalism....[p]oor people didn't unite; they competed ferociously among themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional. And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of the society at large. The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached. The politicians held forth on the middle class. The poor took down one another, and the world's great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace."

It made me realize anew how a galvanizing prophet and leader like Gandhi was so instrumental in uniting the people for effective change. It was also a revelation to me that the people of this settlement did not hate or resent those who were better off. They just wanted to find a way to do better for themselves, in any way they could find.

Pat @ Central
From the very first chapter, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity was a book I didn't want to read. It was too depressing, too frightening, a book that makes you mad. It is the true story of life in a makeshift settlement on land near the Mumbai airport in India. The settlement is called Annawadi. The main characters include Abdul, a Muslim teen, who makes his living on other peoples garbage (he has been accused of setting fire to Fatima, a one legged neighbor woman), Asha, a woman trying to get to the top via political corruption who wants her daughter to become Annawadi's first female college graduate and Kalul, a scrap iron thief.

The description of how the children scavenged for garbage and the risks they took (many places were well guarded or had high fences) was unimaginable. There's an election in which only women are eligible to run, but even when one does it doesn't make a difference. Her employer actually runs the show in her name. Orphanages accept clothing at the front door and then sell it out the back door.

Katherine Boo, the author, is a reporter married to an Indian man. She spent more than twenty years reporting on poor communities in the United States before going to India to research this book. The conditions here are deplorable and so are the people who run things. Corruption is everywhere. The upside to the story is how enterprising these poor people can be in order to survive. An eye opening look into the underbelly of another land.

Lynn @ Center Street (April 23, 2012)

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 7, 2012 11:37 AM.

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