Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

I love India.

Wait, let me clarify: I love what I know about India. I am sure I don't know enough about it, but some cultural elements fascinate me: Bollywood, daal, saris, Hinduism, bustling cities.

Each of these is a single idea — and Katherine Boo has replaced "ideas" with realities: real people, real situations, real dilemmas.

In Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo reveals the private lives of some of the residents of Annawadi, a "slum" near the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.

It may be my own shortcoming, but the word slum connotes in my mind a certain surrender, as though people have resigned themselves to the inevitable. Those who live in Annawadi are a diverse lot, Hindu and Muslim, and some have seen the undercity as a way to make their mark, or to gain control. For others, it's a temporary place until they find their niche in the city. Others expect to use the system that has promised them a life very different than what they're living. Each person has her or his own dreams, fears, expectations and struggles.

The disregard society has for slumdwellers is as prevalent in India as it is anywhere else. They're invisible, worthless, in the way. Life is plentiful and, therefore, cheap. What happens to the injured man at the side of the road? Worse, what value do the destitute put on their own lives?

As noted in one of the blurbs, the book reads as a novel. The characters were painted in vivid colors — but at first I worried that I wouldn't be able to keep the "cast of characters" straight. I needn't have worried: as the book unfolded and they were introduced, even before I looked at the photos on her website, I knew these people. Sunil's despair that his younger sister was growing taller than he was palpable. The trial of Karam and Kehkasham's trial left me tense, then finally baffled. Manju's by-heart learning, and how she reinforced it, warmed me. The tales of success, daring, life and death, suicide and marriage kept me riveted.

I knew the — I nearly called them "villains," but they may not have been inherently evil. They were flawed people taking advantage of the system. Now, I have an opinion about whether or not one person breaking the rules is cause for abandoning the rules, but I also do not live in 100 square feet of house with 11 people. Would I skim the fat off the stew in the cauldron if I lived that close to a sewage lake? I may not throw people to the wolves, but I may not try to save them, either, if the choice was myself or them.

India has been in the news lately with pointed accusations of police corruption and disregard of human life and human value. Boo's book helped me see how this is possible — deplorable, but possible. She also helped me see this beautiful country with beautiful people in a way I could only have imagined.

Read this book. You'll be glad you did.

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