Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

imageAs the husband of an Indian woman, I’ve come to expect certain reactions from my fellow Americans when I tell them where my wife Manju is from. The most common responses can be grouped into two main categories: 1) “Oh yeah, India, I saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire” and 2) “Oh yeah, India, I read a book about the poverty there.”

Perhaps this over-proliferation of predictable responses is why I never got around to seeing Slumdog – in spite of the whole world talking about it – and had never read any of the many books about poverty in India – until this month.

What changed my mind about the reading thing was my boss tossing a book about India on my desk a week ago and my realization that it might be a good idea if I could eventually talk with him about it.

After just a few pages, I realized that the book in question, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, was going to be one of those reads that haunt you day and night. It’s a book you can’t stop thinking about.

I’m also convinced that it’s not really a book “about India” any more than, say, a book covering life in New Orleans is “about the United States.” It’s a slice, a small sample, but Forevers is about people who could be living in any place where extreme poverty and institutionalized corruption lead to desperation, deeply compromised moral and ethical decisions, and mistreatment of those closest to us (including neighbors, family members, and the very people who could band together and improve our shared conditions).

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Katherine Boo writes non-fiction like a novel, getting inside the heads of many of the 90,000 residents of Annawadi, an “undercity” in the shadow of luxury hotels and restaurants near the Mumbai airport. The book’s title refers to an advertisement for floor tiles displayed prominently and ironically on the wall separating the two worlds

Boo’s skill as a story-teller allows us to get beyond the vast differences of economy and country and culture to appreciate both the daily and the life-long struggles of individuals ranging from young trash scavengers, girls coming-of-age, and desperate mothers trying to save their families and themselves from complete collapse.

As a New York Times writer, Boo also brings her journalistic sensibilities to the book. She uses the real names of everyone involved including the legion of persons who abuse the power of their position – police officers, politicians, court officials, even those running charities – to benefit financially or socially.

If good writing is about showing not telling, then Boo succeeds masterfully in describing almost dispassionately how these undercity residents live and plan and survive. Her narrative profoundly reveals her protagonists’ lives, detailing on a daily basis the suffering and moral complexity of living in a world in which none of the social structures work and, even more disturbing, how people at each socio-economic level ruthlessly abuse and profit from those below them.

In 2009, my family and I flew into the Mumbai airport and my wife’s brother took us to dinner at one of the luxury hotels in the area. Like my fellow Americans, I stared in shock at the undercities and the people sleeping on the ground next to the highway. I must have passed close to Annawadi at the time Boo was researching her book. At the time, I had no idea what I was looking at – or whom I was looking at. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

I strongly recommend this book and, thanks to my boss, have overcome a literary blind spot.

I’m still not interested in Slumdog Millionaire though.

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