Thursday, February 9, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Katherine Boo's book Behind the Beautiful Forevers has been garnering quite a bit of attention. It is narrative non-fiction at its best, as Boo writes of life in Mumbai for the city's poorer residents. Annawadi is a settlement next to the Mumbai airport, full of makeshift homes and residents struggling to get by. Abdul picks and sells trash trying to earn money to help his family make a better life. Asha, is a kindergarten teacher who plots and schemes about ways to make easy money, and who has sent her daughter Manju to college. Fatima "One Leg," another woman in the community, has set herself on fire and died, her family accusing the Hussains of her death. Each person has dreams and desires, but their life circumstances make them nearly impossible to achieve and for many their lives are cut short.

While I was reading I had to constantly remind myself that this was a work of non-fiction. The goings-on seemed storylike and in some ways unbelievable. The poverty in India is not news to me, but Boo has put a human face on the lives of Annawadians.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is such an amazing book - both for its content and its writing. Even readers who do not normally enjoy non-fiction would be hard pressed not to find this book a brilliant read.


Melissa Mc (Gerbera Daisy Diaries) said...

I have this marked to read soon!

Ceska said...

I honestly think it would be hard to say you "liked" this book (four stars); the level of Katherine Boo's commitment to her reporting and her beautiful writing made that a given for me. The tough part, of course, is the book's topic: unbelievable poverty, corruption, and the struggle to survive in one of India's dense and miserable slums. Boo says in her notes at the end that she wanted to look behind the official booming view of India's economy in the face of globalization, at how this seeming leap forward in prosperity for a very few at the top was trickling down to affect the lives of those on the ragged fringe of society. I think she has obviously achieved that, but if I described the book dryly to you in such terms, would you want to dive into it? Or would you shy away from it, feeling it was just another exploitative, depressing tale of "poverty porn" (as one Amazon reviewer derisively labeled this and other current books examining the plight of India's poorest - incorrectly in this case, I think), meant to beat Westerners over the head with it's solemn message?
Well, if that description of this book or all of the earnest reviews telling of being stunned by the poverty and struggles of the inhabitants of Annawadi (the slum located in the shadow of the luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport that Boo reported on) turn you off, you'd be missing out on an amazing, involving and ultimately hopeful read - no, I didn't say optimistic, that's too simple. There are heart-wrenching stories told here, but since I am interested in India and have read other fiction and non-fictional accounts of this rapidly modernizing and growing world power, I wasn't totally gobsmacked as some readers seem to be by the conditions. Boo reports on all she witnessed and researched over several years so unobtrusively and unsentimentally that the real people she met and talked with come through in all their humanity - humor, bitterness, unrealistic optimism, greed, hope - real people, warts and all. People like those we work with, live with, care about, who want to make their way in the world, give their children more than they had, have their chance at the good times Annawadians call the "full enjoy".