Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the most disturbing book I have read in a long time.

Although it reads like a well-written novel, it is the non-fictional account of the lives of several families living in the Annawadi slum at the edge of the Mumbai airport. The slum is located behind a sign that advertises tile flooring with the motto: Beautiful Forever. That's where the title comes from.

The author, Katherine Boo, is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist. She spent three years in Annawadi where she developed relationships with several families and followed their stories. She did extensive interviews and other research for the book which is subtitled "Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity."

Residents of Annawadi are mostly refugees from rural areas who were unable to sustain themselves there and were drawn to the bustling, emergent economy of Mumbai. They literally live on the cast-aways of the more affluent as they pick through garbage daily looking for re-cyclables they can sell. Annawadi itself is likely to be recycled into middle class housing and other projects deemed more appropriate for the area around the international airport by city officials.

The families Boo follows include the good, the corrupt, the selfish, the intelligent, the greedy, the disabled, the beautiful, and the despised. Although the caste system of India is breaking down as it evolves into a modern state, the barriers are still there. Corruption infects every aspect of  their lives in ways that those of us blessed to live in America cannot begin to imagine.

In her concluding chapter, Boo writes "Poor people didn't unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional...It is easy from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in under-cities governed by corruption where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good and that many people try to be...." 

This is the message that is so disturbing that at one point in the narrative I set the book aside for a few days. Without providing a spoiler, I will only say that when I returned to finish the book I was relieved to find that my worst fears about the outcome of a tragic situation for one of the families was not realized and a small bit of hope revealed.

Beyond the Beautiful Forevers reveals the hidden and marginalized society living beneath the glittering facade of the new Mumbai. By implication, similar "under-cities" exist wherever the global economy is emerging and changing traditional cultures.

Boo concludes, "If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything straight?"  This is not a hopeful message, but it is an enlightening and important one.