The dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in one of the twenty-first century's great, unequal cities. In this fast-paced book, based on three years of uncompromising reporting, a bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human. Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees fortune in the recyclable garbage of richer people. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a rural childhood, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption. And even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves inching closer to good times. But then, as the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed.--From publisher description.
True, only six of the slum's three thousand residents had permanent jobs. (The rest, like 85 percent of Indian workers, were part of the informal, unorganized economy). True, a few residents trapped rats and frogs and fried them for dinner. A few ate the scrub grass at the sewage lake's edge. And these individuals, miserable souls, thereby made an inestimable contribution to their neighbors. They gave those slumdwellers who didn't fry rats and eat weeds, like Abdul, a felt sense of their upward mobility."
The poverty in this slum by the Mumbai airport, depicted in Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, is staggering. Central character Abdul is able, in good times, to make eleven dollars a day by his skill in recycling the trash that is dumped near the airport. It is a competitive industry, because so many of those in poverty are scavenging and working the trash to obtain something salable, something of value. It is even possible to be killed in that competition. Others steal from the construction projects springing up due to India's new high octane economy. Some dream of advancement in society through education, but education of any use is almost impossible to obtain. While non-profit organizations take government money intended for educational purposes, they only distribute it to a favored few who typically create false records of schools that don't really exist.
And all of this is accompanied by almost unimaginable political corruption. I live in a city, Chicago, known for its persistent and hearty corruption, and Chicago politicos would be pikers in this comprehensive system. Everything that transpires in Annawadian is based on its cash potential. If you are arrested, there are the police to pay and lawyers to pay and influential community members to pay who may be able to help your cause. Your arrest itself will be based on its cash potential, not what actually occurred. If you need medical treatment, only payment will assist you in getting decent quarters and (maybe) safe medical instruments. With apologies, the kind doctor will need additional payment if you really want that necessary treatment. Your family will sell whatever it can, and get loans, to try to get you proper treatment, or to help keep you from being convicted.
The book's title derives from a concrete wall bordering the slum that bears repeated advertisements for tiles that will be "Beautiful Forever". One slum dweller dreams of having such tiles for her home, but it is clear she never will. This remarkable insider look at the underside of the miraculous juvenation of India's economy is a gripping, heart-wrenching read. Katherine Boo at the end explains the nearly four years she spent coming to know the slum's inhabitants and societal system. All names are true, all events are true. It is eye-opening, and perhaps a basis for moving forward to improvement. It could hardly be worse. What is remarkable, as the author observes, is how many of those inhabitants are striving to live good, productive lives, while stymied by every conceivable obstacle to what we take so much for granted - health, sanitary conditions, basic education, basic medical treatment, a just system for resolving disputes and crime, and so on. Boo's writing is compelling, and her book gives a clear-eyed view of a circle of Hell that not even Dante imagined, filled with innocents who never asked or deserved to be there.
The Book Report: I'll keep this short. Boo set out to tell the cost that average Indians are paying for the rapid rise through the capitalist ranks that their country has embarked on. She chose as her lens the small tragedy (in the cosmic scheme of things) of a death and subsequent court case surrounding the death in Mumbai's slum called Annawadi.
Really and truly, this is all one needs to know; names, places, details aren't going to make this any easier to pre-process. One is best advised to enter into this book with little information about the events chronicled. It simply cannot be fathomed by those of us with thirty dollars to spend on a book, with access to a free public library, with an education sufficient to read the text, with lives so easy that we possess time to pass, as opposed to needs to meet, what this story will reveal. I will not steal Boo's thunder with a fuller report.
My Review: I hate this woman's writing. It feels so chilly and so removed from the subject that I can't believe how much praise this aspect of the text has received. It's the kind of gawdawful New Journalism crapola...get in the middle of the story, get all the juice and dirt, and then spew it back at a faux-objective remove...that I associate with Norman Mailer's terrible Executioner's Song, of unlamented memory.
The story is this generation's 12 Million Black Voices. It deserves so much more than it got from its author. It is, quite simply, necessary reading for free marketeers and libertarians and their misguided, often foolishly optimistic, ilk.
THIS IS WHAT REALLY HAPPENS IN YOUR TERRIBLE, UNFORGIVING, “COMMUNITY STANDARDS” WORLD. Read it. Recognize yourselves in the unseen overclass. Your tax-o-phobic refusal to recognize your duty to your fellow human beings leads directly to this world, its injustices and cruelties, its inhumane and indifferent treatment of the innocent-of-any-crime hoi polloi.
If you don't feel deep and humiliating PERSONAL shame after reading Boo's awful story, I fear you are a sociopath.
Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, lived among the people of Annawadi for almost four years. There is a lot of depth to this story, which loosely follows several families and young children through the economic upheaval and terrorist attacks of 2008, and the court trial of members of a local family. And, although not necessarily a beautiful forever, Boo somehow managed to end the book on a somewhat hopeful note.
This is a stunning, beautifully written piece of narrative non-fiction that is often difficult and painful to read. It almost read like fiction but had it been, it would have seemed too unbelievable. It is not the type of book I am typically drawn to, but after reading just the first few pages, I found that I couldn’t put it down. I also found that I couldn’t read anything else
The first reason has more, perhaps, to do with me than with Boo's book. I have a great interest in India, it's history and culture. I have read so many books, both fiction and nonfiction, and seen so many documentaries on the subject that I didn't find much here that was new or surprising. Police and government corruption of all kinds; families killing sick or unwanted members; children digging through garbage in search of something to eat or to sell; supposedly 'free' clinics and doctors demanding bribes in return for treatment; neighbors stealing from and turning on one another; young women committing suicide rather than being forced into marriage or, once married, being burned to death in kitchen 'accidents'; children working at jobs we cannot imagine. It's awful, it's brutal. But it's the stuff on which a cadre of works about India are based, at least in part: City of Joy, Q & A (aka Slumdog Millionaire), A Fine Balance, The Death of Vishnu, documentaries like 'Born into Brothels' and National Geographic's 'The Real Slumdogs' and more.
That's not to say that we shouldn't care; but it gets frustrating to read about these problems over and over without knowing what exactly one can do about them. Eighty years ago, it was easy to blame all the corruption and poverty and prejudice on the usurping British; once they were gone, the Hindus blamed it on the Muslims, the Muslims blamed the Hindus, and the Sikhs, Christians, and others got caught in the crossfire. So who or what is to blame today, in an increasingly wealthy India, and how can the ongoing problems of unimaginable poverty be solved? As another LT reviewer points out, Boo seems to want us to do something--but what? In the end, she wants us to be uplifted by the undaunted hope of some of Anawadi's young inhabitants. But it's hard to imagine that hope being sustained in a world where the police beat innocent children wrongfully accused of crimes and take bribes to stop the beatings; where a father pours a pot of boiling lentils on a sick child for whom he can't afford medical treatment; where a woman lights herself on fire, hoping to survive and blame it on her neighbors in hope of both petty revenge and financial restitution; where a boy drinks rat poison because he believes his future holds nothing but either being killed by gang members who know that he witnessed a murder or being beaten to death by the police who questioned him about that murder and covered it up; where a woman starts an organization to make small business loans to other poor women, then takes the funds to buy herself jewelry.
To some extent, I felt that Boo was piling on the horrors so thickly that it was difficult to stay focused on the main individuals whose stories she was telling. At other times, the stories were so familiar that I felt I was reading fiction. The narrative jumps around quite a bit, from character to character and back and forth in time, and with the large number of persons involved, it is easy to get lost and blur them all together. And that also makes it hard to stay focused on or empathize strongly with any one character. This is a problem, because what, I think, Boo hopes to achieve is to put a face on each of the suffering poor, not to lump them into the anonymous 'teeming masses'.
So overall, would I recommend this book? Despite the comments above, yes, perhaps especially to those who haven't read, seen or heard much about the lives of India's slum dwellers. It's hard for Americans and others in more generally prosperous countries to imagine their world, but knowing about it does make one grateful for what we have.
And leaves us wishing we knew what we could do to help them to help themselves.
Katherine Boo's remarkable documentary book deals with life in one small sub-section of Mumbai's sprawling suburban slums near today's new international airport. The community of Annawadi, as the book begins, exists precariously near airport and several luxury hotels, screened from view by some signs advertising floor tiles that holler "Beautiful Forever". The airport and the hotels serve as a focus for the dreams of its residents -- oh, to become a waiter at the hotel! -- but also provides business opportunities for its scavengers and pragmatists. Boo tells the story of Annawadi and several of its inhabitants, following them intensively for a period of year as changes ripple through the community, which is threatened with being bulldozed.
Indirectly, and solely by heeding the facts -- what she observes and can document. She paints a picture of a city where everything is for sale. An educational diploma, if not education, can be purchased; where freedom from jail, if not true justice, can be acquired for a payment. The local police station "was not a place where victimhood was redressed and public safety held dear. It was a hectic bazaar ... and investigating ... death was not a profit-generating enterprise." India outside Annawadi may be changing, but the opportunities it creates for the slum's inhabitants aren't really leading them anywhere. Does it matter if Asha can become a slumlord? One teenager can see that new world on television, but, writes Boo, "it wasn't a place Meena knew how to get to."
Annawadi -- and, by extension, Mumbai, since perhaps half of the city's citizens life in various kinds of slums -- is a truly Darwinian world in Boo's book. As Boo intends, the reader does end up seeing that universe through the eyes of her characters, rather than through her own, as might have been the choice of other authors. (Indeed, having read recent books on modern India by Arundhati Roy -- Walking with the Comrades -- and Siddhartha Deb -- The Beautiful and the Damned -- I ended up appreciating this.) That's a decision I initially questioned, as the book felt strangely unfocused to me at first, and even slightly irritating. I jumped ahead to read the author's afterword and the Q&A for readers in a fit of exasperation at the lack of context, and in that light, went back and found finishing it was a much more straightforward and rewarding experience. (I still believe the book would be a better one with some of the afterword in a foreword, and with an epilogue that tells you what happens to her characters after she leaves them in the main narrative. Maybe there is one in the final version; I'm reading from an ER galley.)
Boo does a great job of juxtaposing the lives of the rich and the poor, her characters are vivid and compelling -- one of the downsides of her choice of narrative voice lead me to call them "her characters", because her choices sometimes make the book feel like a novel, when it is, terrifyingly enough, narrative non-fiction. Terrifyingly, because of what it implies about our world -- it reinforces the sense I have that we here in our privileged lives live atop a tiny crust of civility (yes, true, believe it or not, on a relative basis) and underneath lies a kind of desperation, organized chaos and brutal struggle of the kind seen in Annawadi. Our lives, in this globalizing world, are not the norm. The pluses of Boo's approach? The reader never sees what must have been an intensive and exhaustive research -- the narrative is simply beautifully constructed; we see through Manju's eyes her conflicted view towards her mother, we understand how a it becomes easier for the sponsors of a school to collect money for not running a school (or doing so on paper) than actually teaching. We feel empathy for someone we'd drive past and try to ignore if we went to Mumbai.
There are thousands of Abduls, Sunils, Manjus and Meeras in Mumbai alone; millions worldwide, and the wealth gap in India is no more egregious than that in other "emerging markets", or in Russia. Not to mention the widening wealth gap in Europe and North America. If that doesn't keep you awake at nights worrying, well, this won't be the kind of book you'll want to read. It's not a comfortable book, by any means, as Boo makes very clear that the endemic corruption stretches into the world of nonprofits -- when pictures have been taken for fund-raising brochures, a slum school never bothers to hold classes; Asha the slumlord distorts the intended purpose of microfinance grants to enrich her family at the expense of others, etc. Look to this book for an unflinching glimpse of reality rather than an optimistic view of the future.
The author is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who, previously had done in depth stories about the poor in the U.S. as a staff writer for the New Yorker among other publications and is quite adept at drawing the reader into the lives of the people she uses to tell the story of life in the Annawadi slums. This is how the book maintains its “narrative” style. The dialogue and other narrative features that are predominant in the book were enabled by the author’s copious notes, tape recorded conversations, videotaped footage, and official documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The result is a smooth account, told by the people living this miserable life.
And miserable and heartbreaking it is. Abdul is a teenager who is trying to support his parents and eight siblings doing the only job available to him: collecting recyclables around the airport, which enables him to be able to maintain the hut the family is crowded into under deplorable conditions. Asha is a woman working her way up the political ladder in her area, very rare for a woman in a society where women have very few rights and are treated dreadfully by men. Asha’s daughter, Manju, is a college student and teacher of young children, who wants to be the first woman college graduate from Annawadi. Through these two families we meet other friends and relatives, each adding to the story of those on the invisible margins of society in India.
The corruption in India isn’t limited to the police. That’s a given. But the poorest of the poor have to be able to bribe on a regular basis. When the one-legged woman next door ends up in the hospital after self-immolation, they discover that the nurses, who want no contact with patients, ask the patients’ families to supply medication, and the doctors need to be bribed to care for patients. The courts require a bribe to conduct a speedy (fast-track court) trial. But even with that, if sufficient bribery hasn’t taken place, the results can be uncertain.
Unfortunately, the publisher asks that no quotations be used from the book until after it’s published in February. That would have helped me tremendously in illustrating the ways in which the author relates the story in glorious prose while, at the same time, not letting her language stand out. It’s the people’s story and their words need to be the ones to shine. Boo is tremendously clever at achieving this.
This is an unforgettable book, presenting an intimate portrait of the desperate lives being lived in the shadow of luxury hotels. As India’s most vibrant city continues its meteoric rise the slum-dwellers find themselves being left further and further behind.
What is really eye-opening about this book is not the poverty, but the incredible level of corruption that dominates everyday life. One comes away with the impression that literally nothing in India functions without graft, and those who are unable to pay it are trapped forever on the bottom. Boo notes often that efforts to improve life in the slums through education and aid from the developing world are futile because middlemen and fixers end up lining their pockets with the money. Just one example of the graft she cites: the authorities plan to raze the slum in order to expand the airport. They announce that slum residents will be moved to new apartment blocks. Immediately non-slum residents throughout Mumbai start buying up the slum housing and falsifying papers stating that they live there so they can get placed in the new apartments and sell them for a profit.
Boo does a a good job with the characters and lives she writes about. It's hard not to be outraged, sympathetic and fascinated. Because Boo removes herself from the story, putting you in the characters' heads without writing her impressions, the book seemed a little strange to me at times. (Boo explains in the afterword why she does this.) I thought of both Dickens and Zola while reading this book -- Boo does for the 21st century underclass what those writers did for their times, and like them she's a great storyteller.
As others have mentioned its hard not be moved by the entrepreunerial and resilient spirit of the slum dwellers, and hard not be be profoundly depressed, not so much by the poverty but by the relentless grinding corruption at every level of authority. The slum dwellers need to bribe police not to victimise them, doctors to treat them, local fixers to intercede for them at every level of officialdom. And hard not to be incensed at the fate of those who decide suicide, through drinking rat poison, to be a better way out
I recommend reading the author blurb at the back of the book before reading the body of the story. It sets the reasons, hopes, and expectations of writing this particular account. It helped me understand where this was going. Like the author, I don't just want to hear how horrible slum life is. I want to explore what hope and opportunities are available to lift up the undercities and promising individuals within. Boo tried to address this. Obviously, there is no magic cure.
"... maybe because of the boiling April sun, he thought about water and ice. Water and ice were made of the same thing. He thought most people were made of the same thing, too. He, himself, was probably little different, constitutionally, from the cynical, corrupt people around him...
If he had to sort all humanity by its material essence, he thought he would probably end up with a single gigantic pile. But here was the interesting thing. Ice was distinct from -and in his view, better than - what it was made of.
He wanted to be better than what he was made of. In Mumbai's dirty water, he wanted to be ice. He wanted to have ideals. For self interested reasons, one of the ideals he most wanted to have was a belief in the possiblity of justice...
He wanted to be recognized as better than the dirty water in which he lived. He wanted a verdict of ice."
Abdul’s younger brother Mirchi says it best:
“Everything around us is roses, and we’re the shit in between.”
Katherine Boo reports the uncomfortable truth that several families must endure in the Undercity. The three thousand residents belong to all castes and sub-castes, Muslims, Hindus and the untouchables. They live in 335 huts that sit atop a landscape of slushy waste, toxic debris, unimaginable combinations of obnoxious odors, offal and filth laden with disease. Despite the pervasive dangers and keen competition, Abdul has acquired more than most, and his family’s future appears to be on the rise, but will this trend continue?
Survival is key with the hope that one day life will be better. Abdul has a theory for prosperity that speaks more to the randomness of his fate.
“It seemed to him fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.”
Katherine Boo details everyday life, the repulsiveness, squirmy truth and the desperation of those who live in the Mumbai Undercity. She shares what she has witnessed in her book as she follows the lives of several families. Imagine living in this environment, let alone having to pay rent to a slumlord who oversees the residents small space carved out amid the detritus. The author manages to show the sorrowful sadness that divides the squalor of slum against the economic gains India has acquired as part of our borderless global community. She is sensitive and frank with objectivity, although I imagine her subjectivity was hard to curtail. Without hiding behind the airport wall of shining yellow, Katherine Boo reveals the inhumanity and suffering that the people endure and despite the odds, somehow survive. Katherine Boo has received meritorious praise and notable awards, which as readers will discover, are well deserved Thanks to the author for writing an unforgettable book. BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS, is a reflective book with global appeal, heartfelt and insightful with a promise to linger long after the end.
DISCLOSURE: I PURCHASED THE KINDLE EDITION OF THIS BOOK.
© [Wisteria Leigh] and [Bookworm's Dinner], .
Ours is a well read group but we were all still amazed by the degree of corruption within India’s official systems. And although we are all aware, to a certain degree that this went on, Boo was able to give us a clear and heart-wrenching picture of what such fraud does to these poor communities.
Through our discussion we were able to come to some realisations though. The cultural and religious boundaries are deeply set and the complex caste system quite outside of our own understanding. So taking these and our own country’s faux pas in certain cultural areas into consideration, we felt that the book was an educational, informative and at times humorous look at a society replete with desperation but also hope.
The stories she told were haunting, and more than once I had to take a break in my reading to wipe away the tears. I won't soon forget the people in this book, or the fact that they're not just characters. These are their actual lives, and their own words are used to describe those lives.
I hesitate to recommend this book only because it was just overwhelmingly sad. There were virtually no bright moments in these people's lives, and certainly nothing has changed in the months since she wrote it. These are stories that need to be heard, but I know most people would rather turn away.
The book itself follows several different families living in the slum which has become a melting pot of Hindu and Muslim, old India and modern India, dreams and despair. The struggle for everyday existence is about more than survival; it is about defining humanity. There is Abdul, a teenage Muslim boy who sorts garbage and is burdened with being his family's chief source of income. There is Asha, a Hindu mother and kindergarten teacher, who understands that there is power to be had by manipulating the corruption that is rampant in India. Asha's daughter, Manju, dreams of graduating from college and choosing her own destiny. And Fatima, a woman with only one leg whose bitter heart will change everything. The stories that unfold are heartbreaking and tragic, and yet they are stories that need to be told, that need to be heard in order to illustrate that before anything else we are all human.
"Water and ice were made of the same thing. He (Abdul) thought most people were made of the same thing, too. He himself was probably little different, constitutionally, from the cynical, corrupt people around him-the police officers and the special executive officer and the morgue doctor who fixed Kalu's death. If he had to sort all humanity by its material essence, he thought he would probably end up with a single gigantic pile. But here was the interesting thing. Ice was distinct from - and in his view, better than - what it was made of. He wanted to be better than what he was made of. In Mumbai's dirty water, he wanted to be ice. He wanted to have ideals. For self-interested reasons, one of the ideals he most wanted to have was a belief in the possibility of justice."
While the investigation and writing were great, the structure was sometimes a little difficult to follow, jumping in time. But overall a great and important read.
I have spent quite a bit of time in Mumbai, and I have never felt the love of place that seems to engulf many others. Though I am more often repelled than enamored by the city, I am endlessly and undeniably fascinated. I have read a lot over the years trying to understand urban India better, and this is the single best non-fiction book on India I have read. A must read.
As this story unfolds, we get to know several characters and learn of their aspirations. Most of them are very hard-working and goal-oriented, performing the kind of work most of us couldn't imagine. For instance, there are many teenaged boys in Annawadi who are scavengers, collecting and sometimes stealing trash that can be recycled. One of the boys we will follow is Abdul, who is a step higher than a scavenger--he appraises, sorts, and buys the trash the scavengers bring in, so he can turn around and sell the items to a recycling plant. Abdul is actually able to support his family this way.
Unfortunately, unforeseeable trouble lies ahead of Abdul and his family, dashing what was their most prominent dream, and this tragic, distressful subplot is a case study in judicial corruption and greed. We also follow the scavengers through their difficult and dangerous days, and watch as they form alliances and "sort-of" friendships. These boys are endearing and vulnerable, leading such precarious lives.
People die, young and old, in sad ways--those who lose hope by suicide (especially young women), some of awful infections and illness, while still others are murdered or die in accidents. Few of these deaths are deemed worthy of investigation.
How does one go on when life offers so little and the hope of anything better is so slight and can be blown away so easily? Even Asha, Annawadi's most ambitious woman, with her political dreams and the very real hope of having a college-educated daughter, has sold her soul, debased herself, and become involved in the corruption herself, but may never get out of Annawadi.
Abdul and Asha may be polar opposites in most ways, but they are both survivors. This is a fascinating study of life in a desperate place that I would recommend to absolutely anyone.