Behind the Beautiful Forever, by Katherine Boo.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo. Random House (2012), Edition: 1st, Hardcover, 288 pages.
A compelling non-fictional account of families living in a Mumbai slum.
Near the international airport and hotels in Mumbai is a wall which displays an enormous ad for tile that is said to be “Beautiful Forever.” On the other side of that wall, hidden from all the glittering progress, is a slum in which families collect and sort garbage to survive. Katherine Boo has meticulously researched these individuals and tells their stories in prose that reads like fiction.
Several families caught up in the crises of daily life provide the core of the book. The Husiains are Muslims, therefore vulnerable in the Hindu-dominated slum. More damning is the fact that, primarily through the hard work of the eldest son, they have managed to improve their lives in minor ways. Then the husband and eldest son are imprisoned and beaten for a crime they never committed. Next door lives a woman born with one crippled leg who finds her only satisfaction from sex with assorted men while her husband is at work and her daughters at school. Never knowing respect, she has a vile temper, especially toward her more successful neighbors. Nearby is Asha, a woman striving for advancement in the Hindu, anti-Muslim political organization. Manipulation of her neighbors is her primary tool. Her daughter seeks a different kind of escape through going to school and learning English. The husbands in these families are, for different reasons, weak and passive although demanding of female subservience from wives on whom they depend for survival.
Out of this material, Boo creates characters that are distinctive and alive, and often full of contradictions. For them small gains are quickly lost when a dramatic event occurs. People who are powerless against those that oppress them turn on each other. Death, even suicide by young people, is part of life in the slum. Those who earn their livings by sorting and reselling trash can see another possibility in the glittering airport nearby and some harbor unrealistic dreams of escaping the hell of their existence
At first Boo’s dramatic prose kept me from being depressed by the conditions she recounted, but I found the arrests and treatment by the police difficult reading. Although the book reads with the smoothness of a novel, there is no grand resolution with everyone living happily ever after. A few individuals have a small glimmer of hope. Hatred of each other, favoritism, and corruption block the paths of most of the residents.
Boo herself is an American journalist who married a man from India ten years ago. Loving him meant she came to care for his land and its people. She turned her skills and her talents to this particular Mumbai slum. In her fascinating afterward, she explains how and why she created this book. For over three years, she conducted interviews with the individuals she wrote about tracing their lives and asking them about their thoughts and motivations. Since they were seldom introspective, she returned time and again until she became a familiar figure to them. Finding children to be the least biased observers, she gave them cameras to record life in the slum. In addition, she combed through hundreds of records kept by various governmental agencies tracking their records of those she was studying. She found her subjects’ accounts confirmed, and corruption and cover-ups widespread. Boo does not offer solutions for her subjects or for creating societies that would deal more equitably with their needs. Her role, as she sees it, is to describe these people so that others may understand their plights. Perhaps the first step is simply to see those mired in poverty as human beings, a task at which Boo excels.
I strongly recommend this book for all who care about understanding the full range of human experience, including what it means to be trapped in poverty anywhere in the world.