BoatGirl’s #CBR4 Review #15: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
Everyone should read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, an account of 4 years in a Mumbai slum. It reads more like a novel than it does non-fiction which makes it speed by. According to the author’s note, plus interviews on NPR with the author, she really did spend huge amounts of time in the slums, interviewing the subjects of the book and documenting all the, well, crap, they go through. The book is heartbreaking and should be read by everyone with an ounce of compassion. I saw it as both an indictment of our modern capitalist society and a warning of what could happen in 1st world countries if we don’t pay more attention to the huge divide between the haves and have-nots.
The author focuses on the lives within a small section of the Annawadi slum, on the outskirts of the Mumbai International Airport, and by so doing illuminates the hopelessness and extreme corruption rampant in India. The people within the slum are primarily migrants and Dalits, of the casted formerly known as Unctouchables. Throughout the 4 years, the author loosely follows the story that unfolds around the suicide of Fatima, a one-legged woman at odds with all of her neighbors, but most especially with the Husain family. Prior to Fatima’s death, she casts blame for her suicide on the Husains, which tumbles them into a multi-year nightmare of inept bureaucracy and corrupt officials in an uncaring country.
This is one of the most depressing books imaginable. The few people who get ahead do so only by finding novel ways to take advantage of their neighbors, government, or charity organizations. The people who try to get ahead by getting an education or by doing an honest days work are pretty much all doomed. Characters are introduced, only to die horribly a few pages later for no good reason. A young trash picker/petty thief named Kalu is brutally murdered one night, but the police record it as death due to tuberculosis. His senseless death causes a spiral of depression in his friend Sanjay, culminating in his suicide, recorded by the police as the suicide of a heroin addict. And young women are basically doomed.
I loved this book even though it made me very, very angry. It is horrible to read about these people, some who seem very kind and good and full of hope, and know that they really have no possible hope of escape. The sheer level of corruption permeating every level of India made me want to never go there, and gave me a hopeless feeling of “Oh screw it, let’s just nuke the place and start over. It’s not like an atomic bomb could make it that much worse.”