Sunday, May 13, 2012

"Behind the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a narrative nonfiction account of several lives within the Annawadi slums in Mumbai. It makes an interesting point of comparison with the last book I read, Nothing to Envy, which details lives in North Korea. People in both countries suffer in terrible ways, though their experiences are unsurprisingly different.

Whereas the individuals in North Korea live in fear of their communist regime and leadership, the people of Annawadi live in fear of their country's corruption. The event which loosely ties the book together is the self-immolation of a one-legged woman, who dies blaming the slightly better off family next door, the Husains, for her demise. Though the families fought, the Husains are undoubtedly innocent, yet they live in a country where one's innocence or guilt has nothing to do with facts and everything to do with how much money you can pay.

It's this universal corruption that is the most terrifying part of Behind the Beautiful Forevers. In Mumbai, nothing can be relied upon; the government, the police, the medical professionals, the nonprofits, and your neighbors all expect and demand bribes for assistance. Money is everything, yet those in the slums must eke out an existence from the most meager of circumstances. Most of the young people make money through garbage collecting, which they can turn in for recycling, making a small profit. Yet even this is not simple, for the boys must steal the garbage from the adjacent modern airport, risking their lives in the process.

One thing Boo notes at the end is how the system is designed to keep the poor powerless. There are far more people in Mumbai in poverty than in money, yet the society is designed to keep such people fighting among themselves rather than uniting to demand change.

Stylistically, Behind the Beautiful Forevers felt a bit odd to me. It's written in narrative form, but it lacks the subtlety and richness that a novel would have. However, its story format makes it hard to read as nonfiction, serving to separate me from the real individuals that are depicted. Nonetheless, it's a well-written book about the lives of some of the poorest people. It offers no solutions or even real hope, but it does bring a face to an underrepresented community on our planet.

1 comment:

  1. The book is not written in first person, which Boo defends as a way to make sure the focus remains on her characters, never on her. I agree, to a point. If this was in the "I" of a white westerner (though she's married to an Indian), it would change the reader's perspective. However, I think her presence changed the story and possibly the events more than she seems to think. The book opens with a tragedy, and I wonder if the extra attention Boo paid to the main family of the book led to jealousy within the slum community that might have led to the tragedy that followed. I have no idea. But the "I" is always there, whether written first person or not; the writer can't have it both ways, and I would have liked a little more acknowledgement of that within the narrative.

    But, I loved this book - not 'love' like I wanted more, but because it captured a part of the human spirit I forgot exists. There are 7-8 billion people in the world, and far too many live in situations like these Mumbai slums - but they live and create and work all the same, despite rampant corruption by those supposed to protect them, and little chance for upward mobility. If you want to learn more about a half-dozen of those people, who you'll never meet, and whose lifestyle you'll likely never experience, this book opens that door a little bit. For those who talk about the concept of a "global economy," here it is for real.