Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo
This is an astonishing, ground-breaking book. Katherine Boo, an award-winning American writer/reporter who has earned accolades for reporting on the poor, married an Indian man, Sunil Khilnani. They spend half of their time in the U.S. and half in India.
Over three years, she spent countless hours shadowing the residents of Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai airport filled with people without permanent work...each one of them struggling to make a living, mostly through garbage picking and recycling, temporary jobs, and theft. With the help of translators, she gradually got to know Annawadi's residents, and they finally got used to having the strange white woman around.
As she grew to learn their stories, a few stood out. Central to the book is the story of Abdul, a young Muslim who buys and recycles the garbage that others collect, whose family is accused of a crime by their angry neighbor. Manju hopes to become Annawadi's first college grad, but she's disturbed by her mother's constant conniving and corruption (which actually assist in paying her college bills). Kalu, a young thief, entertains the other boys by acting out scenes from Bollywood movies. A young woman commits suicide with poison to avoid the arranged marriage her family has made for her. As a Dalit, she knows that her life in a small village away from relatively progressive Mumbai will be miserable.
|From Boo's web site|
When Abdul and his father and sister are accused of inciting a spiteful neighbor woman to set herself aflame, everyone crowds in to make some money. They are tortured in jail and told, by many, that if they pay money, the problem will go away. Abdul's mother even goes directly to the other family to negotiate, but they believe they'll be able to extort more money through the courts.
|From Boo's web site|
And beyond that is an examination of the modernization and regentrification of India. Annawadi is located within sight of the huge, fancy Mumbai airport hotels, behind walls plastered with ads for ceramic tile that say "Beautiful Forever." As young Mirchi (Abdul's younger brother) is quoted in this review from The Times of India, "Everything around us is roses, and we are the shit between." Hovering over Annawadi and its residents is the constant fear that the slum--and their homes--will be leveled and destroyed.
This book has made me look at India and my own existence in a new way. It begs the question of what can be done to eradicate such corruption and extreme poverty in the world. It also makes one think about the price of affluence. When the economy began suffering, the Annawadians suffered as well. Yet on the other hand, what is the price of progress as the gap between rich and poor grows and grows?
For more information about Katherine Boo and this book, I encourage you to visit her web site, listen to this interview on NPR, or watch this video. This book and its stories of these desperately hard-working people will stick with me for a very long time.