Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

"From where we are, it is easy to overlook that in these conditions it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be. If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?"

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the story of one of the many slums that exist in India today, this one Annawadi, a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels (and behind billboards advertising beautiful Italian  tiles that will be "beautiful forever, beautiful forever") near the Mumbai airport. Katherine Boo, an American journalist,  spent four years living among the residents of Annawadi and getting to know the people.  She tells their story, focusing on several individuals and families and documenting their lives as some of the most desperately poor people in the world, even though by India's low standards, they are not considered officially poor by the government. As India begins to prosper, the Annawadians feel glimmers of hope, believing their lives might improve as well. We soon learn that is not the case in India. The caste system makes it all but impossible for anyone to rise above, and the Indian government and political system are so corrupt that even when someone makes an effort to better their life, they are kicked back down. One of the main characters in the book is Abdul, a young Muslim man who is makes his living collecting and recycling the trash of the rich, and he is doing well for his family. Their house has four actual walls now, instead of a sheet which used to separate them from their neighbor. When his one-legged neighbor Fatima attempts suicide by self-immolation, she accuses Abdul of beating her, and ultimately ruins the lives of Abdul and his family, sending them all to prison.  People know this is not true,  the police know it is not true, but that doesn't matter.  Fatima was jealous of Abdul's small successes in and all that matters is trying to beat him back down. And this is just one family we meet in the book.

One of the most striking things about the book is how it is written. If you didn't know it was non-fiction, you would think you are reading a novel, until you come to the Author's Note at the end of the book explaining how and why she wrote the book-- she wanted to "follow the inhabitants of a single unexceptional slum over the course of a couple years and see who got ahead and who didn’t and why, as India prospered.” Well, no one really does.  This is not an easy book to read--it is so hard to read about the people in our world who are living such desperate lives, and with no real hope for change. Katherine Boo manages to show the political corruption at every level, the caste system, the joke of a health system, the lack of community, and the huge and growing divide between the rich and the poor.

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