Amurph11’s #CB4 Holiday Gift Guide – Your Idealistic College-Aged Sister (Review #44, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo)
You know that scene in High Fidelity where Barry and Dick are standing around listening to this album that turns out to be by the little skate punks that constantly shoplift from their store, and Jack Black admits, with a weary sigh, that their music is really fucking good? Here, let me just show you:
That expression on Jack Black’s face? Is how I felt the whole time I was reading Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
I really wanted to hate this book. First of all, it’s the darling of every white person East of the Mississippi, which always gets my contrarian hackles up. Secondly, and more importantly, it belongs to a brand of non-fiction that I cannot stand, a form of writing that is popular in college freshman seminars and sociology 101 classes the world over. I don’t know if there is an accepted name for this type of writing, but let’s call it Poverty Travel Lit, wherein an author—usually Western, and white—undertakes a book about a poor, non-white community. The protagonist is almost always a white Westerner, and plays the Savior role to the lucky poor, brown community. The best/worst example that typifies everything I hate about this kind of writing is Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin. It is, and I mean this sincerely, the worst book ever, a compendium of paternalistic concern-trolling, a White Savior Complex textbook that worships the white Savior (Greg Mortensen) and is only interested in the members of the community themselves only insofar as they affect our hero. Color me unsurprised to find out years later that Greg Mortensen was mostly full of bullshit, his organization a hive of non-profit corruption.
This is more or less what I was expecting from Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: a glossily written “isn’t it just so sad” pictorial of a white woman’s journey through the slums. Instead, I found the opposite: Boo does not capitulate to the temptation to make oneself a character; in fact, she does not show up at all in this book, except in a brief afterword. The entire book focuses on Annawadi, a slum outside the international airport of Mumbai, and the residents therein. These residents are not pitied, and they are written not with the dissociative alienation of most white writers visiting poor communities, but with an intimate insight into their lives, motivations, and feelings—indeed, the access with which Boo wrote about the internal lives of Annawadians sometimes made me uncomfortable. I assumed she was taking creative liberties, until I read the afterword and realized that Boo reported on this community for five years. Her dedication to her subjects and her awareness of the tight rope she was treading in choosing to tell their stories reminds one of nothing so much as an embed in a military unit. She reports on their lives dispassionately and without judgment, plumbing their motivations without a single condescending aside.
I would be remiss to write about this book without mentioning its flat-out outstanding prose. Boo is a ridiculously good writer, vivid and lyrical, but with a constant, unwavering undertone of realism. In this way, though their subjects differ, she’s actually quite a bit like Sebastian Junger. She writes with both empathy and a distinct lack of emotion—a difficult combination to pull off, to be sure, but one shouldn’t really write about an oppressed community without it. Most of all, she writes with a deep but non-presumptuous knowledge of the subjects on which she is reporting.
The narrative of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is split between the perspectives of several stand-out residents of Annawadi: Abdul, the stalwart teenage owner of his family’s garbage collecting business; Fatima, his one-legged, embittered next door neighbor; Asha, Annawadi’s first female slumlord aspirant; Sunil, an resourceful orphaned scavenger; and Manju, Asha’s daughter, the only female in Annawadi to be attending college. The narrative flows between these characters, tying together two overriding themes: lack of social safety nets, and rampant corruption.
The first theme is the thread the ties all of the narratives in the book together. Abdul’s business is successful, making enough to potentially move his family out of the slums and onto their own property, until the jealous act of one of his neighbors jeopardizes it. This is the hinge on which most of the story turns, and it emphasizes the fact that communities like Annawadi are tightropes without a net beneath them. There are no second chances in places such as these; there is barely a first chance. This is also emphasized by the frequent, pointless deaths that hover around the narrative like fruit flies. At Partners In Health, an organization I used to work for, we used to call these stupid deaths: easily preventable with a bare minimum of resources, and therefore grievously pointless when they occur. Lots of stupid deaths happen in Annawadi. Its residents live under the constant knowledge that death and complete poverty are just around the corner, so easily achievable that they’re almost inevitable.
What this does to the community is without a doubt the most interesting aspect of the book. One might assume, if one had never lived in a beleaguered community, that the single characteristic most affected by constant oppression would be hope. But such is not the case. All the residents of Annawadi have personal hopes and dreams, meager as some of them may seem to our “dreams come true if you only believe in yourself” culture. Instead, it is the capacity for human empathy that seems most ravaged by living under these circumstances. Humans are very resilient; it takes a lot for us to lose hope in ourselves but not as much, it turns out, to lose hope for the people around us. In one memorable scene in a book, a man gets hit by a car and lies in the street moaning as almost every single resident of Annawadi passes him by, each with a reason not to take time out of their day to live in the hospital. He dies by the end of the day, and it’s probably for the best, because with an injury like that he wouldn’t have been able to make a living anyhow.
Corruption, then, seems an inevitable byproduct of a community with so little opportunity. This lack of empathy, brought on by the harsh realities of slum life, makes progress into kind of a competition, and like in most competitions, corruption abounds. It’s difficult to write about corruption in a country that isn’t your own without coming off as smug and holier-than-thou. Boo manages it unflinchingly by actually questioning the origins of that corruption. It was particularly refreshing to get such a dispassionate view of how corrupt not just the government is, but also the non-profits who operate within communities like Annawadi and Mumbai. Asha, for instance, makes a significant percentage of her money from operating a network of schools to empower girls. These schools do not actually exist, except for one small one that Asha’s daugher Manju continues to teach, to Asha’s annoyance. She simply gets a heads-up whenever contingents of (usually white, usually wealthy) donors and managers of the non-profit are visiting, and bribes locals to come pretend they are being taught. This is what happens when non-profits enter a community they have no knowledge of, set up shop without the input or investment of locals, and start pouring money into it, and Boo makes no bones of pointing this out. The genius of her writing, however, is that she points it out not via editorial aside, but by presenting the facts as they stand and letting the reader come to their own conclusions.
This kind of reporting is rarer and rarer, because of the significant investment it takes. Boo spent five years reporting from Annawadi, an investment most of us would balk at. This doesn’t make her a hero by any stretch—it’s that kind of thinking that gets us the Greg Mortensens of the world—it just makes her a really good reporter. And that in and of itself deserves to be celebrated, in an age where the standards of journalism have sunk to depths unimaginable by our predecessors.
The best part of this book, however, isn’t the stellar reporting or the beautiful prose. It’s that, unlike Three Cups of Tea (and even Mountains Beyond Mountains the somewhat less offensive tome about the founder of my former place of employment), this book is unlikely to convince any college-aged kids that they need to visit India, right now, to help all those poor people. There is almost nothing more useless than an idealistic college kid in a community in which she doesn’t speak the language, has no insight into the culture and no skills that would be at all useful to the residents therein. That’s why you should get this book for your little sister. Chances are, she’s already planning to spend her summer break from college abroad somewhere with an organization whose references and credibility are sketchy, but includes room and board in the slum of her choice if she can pay for the plane ticket over there. She’ll spend two weeks there, build half a house, and claim it changed her entire life. For the rest of her life, she’ll speak of that community with the smug knowledge of someone who spent less than a half-season of a TV show there. So unless you want to be subjected to sentences that begin with “Well, in India…” for the rest of your life, buy her this book. It won’t change her life. But it might change her perspective.