Friday, November 30, 2012

book talk: behind the beautiful forevers

In behind the beautiful forevers: life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity, Katherine Boo takes the reader inside a makeshift Mumbai slum - the Annawadi -  showing us this world through the eyes of its residents.

There are no saints here, although Abdul - who has been sorting sorting trash for income since he was six years old - comes close under the most extreme circumstances: "He wanted to be better than what he was made of. In Mumbai's dirty water, he wanted to be ice."

Boo resists the temptation to paint another resident, the endlessly ambitious Asha - who takes the means to an end approach to lifting herself and her family out of the slum and into the middle class to its limits - as a simple villain. While we might not like her, I found myself asking what lengths I might go to in seeking an exit strategy under similar conditions. And Boo is not shy in pointing out the role that corruption plays at all levels of Indian society:

"In the West, and among some in the Indian elite, this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India's modern, global ambitions. But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained."

Throughout, Boo is telling us the extraordinary everyday stories of the residents of just one slum, and in doing so she gives lie to the conservative notion that poverty is the result of a lack of character or work ethic. She asks:

"What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government's economic and social policy? Whose capabilities are squandered? By what means might that ribby child grow up to be less poor?"

The Author Note answers many of the questions that I carried with me as I read. How did Boo - a white English speaking American - get inside the heads of the residents of the slum, so much so that they appear in the book as characters in a novel rather than subjects of a sociological study? And what were her motivations?

It  turns out that love took her to India, but her interest in what she describes as the "infrustructure of opportunity" in societies, is anything but passing. And given the parallels she sees between the extremes of wealth and poverty in India and the United States, it is no surprise that her work has a similar quality and impact to Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed; both immerse themselves in the lives of people who we rarely encounter as anything more than a statistic.

Questions about foreign aid and how it is used in a country that is riddled with corruption at all levels plagued me as I read of the endless ways that funds for development programs were siphoned off, manipulated and used for anything but helping the people for who it was intended. There are clearly no easy answers to this question, but turning our backs on the real people who fill the pages of this book because of imperfections in the distribution of aid is clearly not an option.

behind the beautiful forevers reads like a great novel, but it is so much more.

NoteI dare not call this a book review. The idea of reviewing somebody else's work, as if it were an essay to  be marked and graded, fills me with dread. I not only believe myself hopelessly unqualified for such a task, but also know that if you want a book review you should head straight to Google or the New York Times Sunday Book Reviews. Instead, my aim here is to simply share books that I have loved and my responses to them. This is my first book talk post and hopefully not my last.


  1. It's on my list ... as are so many others (have you read Mudbound? Riveting). Thanks for your BOOK TALK (And I like your distinction between the two!)

    1. No I haven't. Will add to my list. There is another book I read a review of on the weekend about India that sounds fantastic but of course cannot for the life of me remember the title.
      And glad you like the 'book talk' concept. Something I have been vaguely thinking about for awhile and was nice to finally just get on with it.

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