Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

This is a non-fiction book about life in a Mumbai slum which reads like a well written novel.  It was fascinating to get insight into the lives of the incredibly poor members of Mumbai society and to watch their day to day struggle to survive against poverty, corruption, discrimination, religious tensions and the tremendous wealth which they only get to glimpse from afar.  Kudos to the author who spent months with these people who are so busy struggling to survive they do not really have time to sit around and open up about their lives to a complete stranger.  But nonetheless, open up they eventually did.

The narrative takes place primarily in the Mumbai slum known as Annawadi.  It lies right on the outskirts of Mumbai's international airport and the story begins in 2008 when India has been booming so the airport and related hotels have been growing and the threat of the airport overtaking the slum looms large. I love the title because the "beautiful forevers" is taken from a billboard on the side of the highway leading from the airport into the city.  We get to see what actually happens behind the beautiful forevers.

The main character is a teenaged boy named Abdul.  He lives in a makeshift home with his parents and several siblings.  He earns money for the family buying garbage from scavengers, sorting it and reselling it to recyclers.  Unfortunately he, together with his father and older sister, are accused of causing a neighbour woman to commit suicide by setting herself on fire.  Though he is charged as a juvenile which improves his fate, his little business never really recovers.  It is also not helped by the global recession which lowers the price recyclers are willing to pay or the terrorist attacks in Mumbai which reduce tourism and thus the amount of garbage that the airport district generates.

Besides Abdul's colourful family, we meet Asha, a local woman who is trying to capitalize on the abundant corruption of local officials to become the slum overseer.  She in fact gets ahead by sleeping with whoever can give her what she wants in return - government officials, police, etc.  One of the most heartbreaking characters is Asha's daughter - she is trying desperately to graduate from a third rate college to become a teacher, in fact teaching slum children at a school which her mother  established to obtain government and charitable funds (though her mother would be happy just to collect the money and not bother with the teaching).  Instead, being a dutiful daughter, she is dragged into her mothers schemes.

We also meet several scavengers, thieves and others - many of whom fund the only ways out are sniffing wite-out or drinking rat poison.

The book ends with the trial of Abdul and his family members.  While that eventually turns out okay, one can't help but wonder whether it really changes their fate.

A fascinating read but very depressing - though on a positive note it does clearly illustrate human resilience in the most dire of circumstances.

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