Thursday, October 17, 2013

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

I take for granted growing up in a culture as a middle class kid who got a public education that gave me access to college. College meant a career. A career meant a roof over my head. A roof meant food on my plate each day. I have been taking college courses most of my life and that's because my public education gave me the foundation to go there. What if education in a public school was so bad I could never pass a college entrance exam? What if the justice system was so corrupt I could get falsely accused by others and become a victim because a neighbor was jealous I was making more money than her or him? What if my family was starving and I had to work instead of going to school? Linda Sue Park's "A Long Walk to Water" explains how African children collect water daily for survival spending hours walking to a watering hole. Going to school meant no water for the family. In this terrific narrative nonfiction, Katherine Boo shows life in India, specifically the Annawadi slum, where the public education system is so corrupt that teachers don't teach, where hospitals don't dispense medicine, where the police are brutal, where justice in the courts exists around bribes and lies. While life appears hopeless, it is not.

The cast or caste of characters is manyfold from the abused Meena, who dreads her arranged marriage and wants more from life but doesn't know how to get it resulting in her swallowing rat poison, to Abdul, who is falsely accused of beating a woman who commits suicide by setting herself on fire. Even though hundreds of witnesses saw that Abdul didn't commit the crime, he ends up in the legal system for years resulting in the loss of a good business and savings. The message of women having so few options in their culture and the abuse heaped on many in a patriarchal society is one that results in many choosing suicide. The recent international hoopla over rape cases in India is just another indicator of harmful societal norms toward women, although Boo doesn't show rape happening in the slum but prostitution as a way to earn money.

Boo's account could have become preachy, but she sticks with letting the story speak for itself in an understated tone that adds more power and depth than if she had cried foul at the injustices that happen over and over and over again in her story. She avoids stereotypes of poor people and creates a community where people cling to the hope of a better life and opportunity to break out of a system bent on holding them down in poverty. Don't expect any in-depth economical explanation of what put these people where they are and economic trends that have fostered slums in India. Don't expect point-of-views from police, government, teachers, or hospital personnel. This story focuses on the dramatic situation of human conditions in the Annawadi slum, but does not manipulate the reader's emotions by being overly sentimental.

Around the corner of the slum where Asha and her children live is a one-legged woman named Fatima who died after setting herself on fire. Fatima's character is portrayed not as a one-dimensional villain, but a complex human who acts out of frustrations born of living in a slum and being labeled as a cripple. We understand her fury at being defined by a physical deformity. We feel her bottomless pit of wanting to matter to others to the point that she will prostitute herself, even set herself on fire in an attempt to manipulate those around her. She has been victimized her whole life so it is not surprising when she victimizes her neighbors, the Husains, in a fit of jealousy and anger. Why someone would set themself on fire because their neighbor was renovating a wall seems so absurd until you step into the community of Annawadi where survival is cutthroat and violent. Did Fatima know she'd go to a hospital where she would get no care? We don't know. Probably. We do know that she liked the attention she got there. Did Fatima know she would die? I don't think so. I don't think she knew her extreme actions for attention and bringing down her neighbors would kill her in the end. I don't think she knew that she could die from her burns which makes her story all the more tragic.

Fatima concocts her lie because Adul, the Husain's son has a profitable business selling recyclables and garbage as five-star luxury hotels keep building around the slum and dumping more refuse; a reflection of India's rapid growth in a global economy. The Husain's have a T.V., are tiling their floor, have money for an extra plot, and are remodeling their kitchen. They look like they just might make it out of the Annawadi slum life for something better. Fatima wants to bring them down. When Abdul, his sister, and his father are falsely accused of causing her suicide, the corruption of the police, justice system, and complex bribing that occurs shows an unfair society that destroys any chance the Husain's had of leaving the slum. On the outset, life would seem hopeless, but Boo portrays the resiliency and ingenuity of the tenants that shows hope.

Asha's character is particularly interesting because of how far she will go to get ahead in the slum. She is willing to work the corruption of the system in a way that allows her to not only send her daughter to school, but put her through college. Her daughter, Manju, tries to be good and moral, but maintaining standards in a society where they don't exist seems impossible. Manju is judgmental of her mother at first, but later realizes that she would not have had the opportunities she had if her mother hadn't worked the system. She knows that the value of life is not held in high regard in the slum. People are murdered and no one is punished. A man is run over by a taxi and people walk by him all day. His cries for help go unanswered. It isn't until he is dead that his body is carted off. A young man is brutally murdered by the police and the morgue reported his death as sickness. "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" made me think of the dystopian picture book "Ship Breaker," by Paolo Bacigalupi, that shows a society ruled by scavenging for waste and full of corruption and drugs.

The drug of choice in the slum is Erazex, a type of whiteout fluid for correcting mistakes on paper that can be found in large quantities at the dump. When sniffed the fluid not only gives the person a high but takes the edge off hunger pains. This alternative food source can be addicting and Boo describes the skeletal looks of one person who was hooked on it. This wasn't the majority of people and most tried to avoid addiction. While the slum had some explosive problems, it also had a daily life that hummed with some normalcy from the public toilet where teenage girls would gossip and hang-out with friends, to the boys that entertained each other with stories, and the families enjoying their children. It was not all doom and gloom or portrayed with complete hopelessness. This book made me think about what opportunities low-income people have or have not in structured societies all over the world. The theme and symbol of waste and garbage in a global society where people survive is one that touches all of us, especially in wasteful industrial societies. This glimpse into the structure or life style of people in poor communities is the strength of this story for it makes me look at the wrongs in my own culture and wonder what I can do to make it right. The best stories are ones that inspire change and this one does just that.

5 Smileys


  1. So nice to read your review. I voted for this book in the 2012 goodreads reader choice awards without even having read it myself! I heard about it and knew what it was about so I wanted it to get the attention of more readers. Having said and done that, I really need to make time to read it myself! You've reminded me to do so!

    Charmaine Smith (The Maids)

  2. Thank you! We are actually going to Mumbai, India in February which is why I read the book. My sister-in-law read it for book club and when she heard of our trip insisted I read it. I'm so glad I did. I was in Bangkok and we drove by a slum that made me think of the community Boo created with her words in this book. It's a quick read and I checked it out of my public library as an eBook.

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