Thursday, April 4, 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

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

This is a difficult book to read. I actually think we might get more out of it on a second, deeper reading, once the horror of the subject matter has been fully revealed and we have braced ourselves. Boo is very matter of fact about the most stomach-churning realities of life in a Mumbai slum and after listening to Sunil Malhotra, the reader of the audiobook, relate all this in several hundreds of pages and hours of listening, one begins to wonder why Boo wrote it this way. Life is so miserable that one wonders how these people live. By the end of the book, we know that many of them do not, in fact, live. They die, often by their own hand, often from disease, or congenital deformities, or perhaps they are killed by the carelessness or blind revenge of others.

The story was one long saga of life in one particular slum near the Mumbai airport, Annawadi, from 2007-2011. Of course I wondered how Boo managed it—to view with such depth the inner and outer lives of slum dwellers. At the end of the book, Boo gives us an Afterword that explains her thinking for arranging the mind-numbing information in the way she did. “Statistics have a tenuous relation to lived experience.” Boo decided she “would follow the inhabitants of a single unexceptional slum over the course of a couple years and see who go ahead and who didn’t and why, as India prospered.” She used thousands of government documents, endless interviews, and newspaper reports to create a window into a world none of us will ever see.

The families she followed were not passive, but ingeniously devised ways to manage their lives in an unequal society that used bribes and intimidation to keep lower caste and low earners in a position of abject poverty. The people she talks about are real, and the events are real. Boo says that she is
“continually struck by the ethical imaginations of young people, even those in situations so desperate that selfishness would be an asset. Children have little power to act on those imaginations and by the time they grow up, they may have become the adults who keep walking as a bleeding waste-picker slowly dies on the roadside, who turn away when a burned woman writhes, whose first reaction when a vibrant teenager drinks rat poison is a shrug. So how does that happen?”

This is a remarkable document, and it is important. But it is hard to read or listen to.
“It is easy from a safe distance to overlook the fact that in undercities governed by corruption, where exhausted people rely 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. All those invisible individuals who everyday find themselves faced with dilemmas not unlike the one Abdul confronted, slab in hand, one July afternoon when his life exploded. If the house is crooked and crumbling and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?”

A note on the audio production: Sunil Malhotra does a remarkable job of presenting with restraint and a reporter’s sense of distance a non-fiction piece describing despicable living conditions. Boo and her team are remarkably equable when raising issues that make us squirm with discomfort. Sunil's ability to convey different Indian accents within a sentence of one another alleviates the inevitable confusion that comes when a group meeting is described. Altogether, it was a remarkable piece of reportage by a number of dedicated individuals, all of whom should be rightly proud of this ground-breaking work.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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