Monday, April 16, 2012
Author: Katherine Boo
Genre: Non-Fiction (narrative), Sociological
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date: February 7, 2012
In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Pulitzer Prize winning Katherine Boo transports us to Annawadi, India; there she brings us into the lives of some of the children and adults living in a slum that happens to be near the Mumbai airport. This is where the country's richest and the wealthy from all over the world jet to and from. Juxtaposed against the wealth of the airport and the luxury hotels surrounding them is the slum where the residents often have to scavenge for food or at least for items to sell so they can buy food.
Boo spent years interviewing the residents about their lives, and in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, she illustrates the stark contrast between the lives they are living and the wealth right next door. While India continues to grow and prosper in some ways, it simultaneously oppresses this other population. The real weight of this book was meeting the "characters" in the slum of Annawadi. Their lives are so incredibly different from what most people live in the States that it was hard to believe this was non-fiction and that the people we meet are actual people living on the same earth we are. In meeting these people, liking some and definitely not liking others, the preposterousness of the situations they are placed in is brought to the surface for everyone to see. Abdul is a teenager whose family "runs" a garbage collecting business of sorts. Many of the people living in the slums collect garbage and then trade or sell it for money or food. The work is difficult and gross but is how so many people there keep themselves alive. Being next to the airport, they look forward to picking up the garbage left by the travelers there. Some of the individuals in the slum dream of one day working in one of the luxury hotels.
But within the slum, corruption runs rampant as well. In creating their own society, people have also learned to take advantage of their systems. It sickened me to read about the ways in which they took government money, faked using it for the intended purpose (taking pictures or putting on a show for the day when people came to monitor) and then used the money for themselves. The political corruptors promise people the government grants for a price and then keep part of the grant money. Even the police and community officials abuse their authority. In one of the turning points for Abdul and his family, a neighbor with whom they don't get along, one-legged Fatima, sets herself on fire but blames Abdul and his family. (It's crazy that this is non-fiction!) Abdul and his family have little to no recourse to defend themselves and prove their innocence. Although just learning about the people and seeing the injustice of the airport and hotels vs. the slums of Mumbai is interesting enough in this book, another driving "plot" line in this book was the trial against Abdul and his family members.
While it didn't necessarily provide answers, Behind the Beautiful Forevers was an eye-opening read that introduced us to the extremes of a rapidly prospering city. The first step to making any kind of change is awareness, and this is the perfect kind of book to do just that. It highlights the consequences of building up parts of the city without looking out for the welfare of the residents who are already there. And it also demonstrated the need for better management and monitoring of government and charitable aid that is provided. Definitely a recommended read for anyone interested in sociological issues or just in the plights of our fellow human beings.