Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: life, death and hope in a Mumbai undercity

by Katherine Boo, Random House, February 2012

 You won’t read better nonfiction than this story

This is the story of some of the residents of Annawadi, a slum right next to luxury hotels near the Mumbai Airport.  The author, Katherine Boo, an American Pulitzer Prize winning author, interviewed the slum residents over a three year period and has produced a stunning piece of work.   She tells the story by focusing on the lives of two families, Abdul’s Muslim family and Asha’s lower caste Hindu family.
Abdul, a young teenager, works as a garbage recycler.  He is excited with India’s new prosperity and “sees a fortune beyond counting” in collecting and selling rich people’s garbage.  Abdul’s skills are bringing more and more income to his family.  They begin to see a way out of slum life with these earnings.  Then tragically Abdul is falsely accused in a neighbor’s suicide and a series of events that will profoundly affect the family begin.
Asha, raised in rural poverty, sees her way out of slum life through political corruption.  She works tirelessly to bring income to her family by a series of schemes that defraud the government and various NGOs.  She is actually good at this and is able to send her idealistic young daughter Manju to college.  The descriptions of Asha’s schemes to get government money are really a testament to her ingenuity and a depressing fact for any of us who have given money (foreign aid or otherwise) to third world countries in hopes of improving circumstances for people. 
The story of Abdul’s imprisonment and the circumstances that caused it, the suicide of a neighbor Fatima, is the centerpiece of the book.  We get a look at the Indian legal system and the strange democracy that India has.  The political corruption is widespread and makes me wonder why anyone gives this system any credence.   Throughout the story the horror of life in this slum is described in a very straight forward way.  I won’t recount a lot of it because I’d like you to read this book.  The lack of judgment and sympathy for these characters only adds to the power of the narrative.  
There were so many memorable stories and characters in this book but the one that continues to haunt me is that suicide was a common choice for some of these people.  The challenges of everyday living, hunger and the despair were just too much for some.  So while there is hope in this story, the strength of the human spirit to work a way out of these terrible circumstances is certainly present, only the most determined could transcend this horror.  This unforgettable book is rich and beautifully written, the characters heartbreaking and the setting haunting.  It would be an excellent choice for book clubs.
You won’t read better nonfiction than this story, but I wish that it were fiction
I read a copy of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia.


Zibilee said...

I have a real soft spot for stories about India, and even more so when they are nonfictional like this one. It sounds like this was a haunting and powerful read, and like one that I would really be able to get into. Your review today was impressive and thoughtful, and I now need to go and see if I can find this book. Great review today!

Italia said...

For anyone who has seen "slumdog millionaire", some of the story will seem a bit familiar - specifically, the animosity between Hindus and Muslims, and the desperate level of ever present poverty, and injustice. Like "slumdog", the book depicts the miserable conditions that children are raised in, as well as the brutality of the police and justice system. Unfortunately, there is no happy ending in this book - this is real life. As the acknowledgments at the end of the book will tell you, this is a true story, and neither the events or names were changed. As you read of the daily struggles that each family faces, and watch their hope rise, just to be crushed days later, you will be grateful for everything you have. To realize that they don't even know if there will be food on the table, if they will have clean water for daily needs, or even if their flimsy homes will hold up against the turbulent weather. They raise children in this environment, and know that there isn't even a government program that can help them. There are no shelters, no free school lunches, no welfare or food stamps. There is simply life or death, and the people living in these slums do whatever they can to ensure life for their families. This book will really make you appreciate what you have, however meager it may seem to you in comparison to your neighbors.

Carole said...

Finally read this one over the past 5 days - (fast for me.) I don't read too much non-fiction but this was so well done that it read more like fiction...(as you say, wish that it were.)
What a remarkable story and what a great storyteller. The fact that there is so much life, and even hope, under these living conditions amazes me.