Compelling and exciting as any fiction this report of life in a Mumbai undercity – Annawadi – will stir something deep within you. An unforgettable read.
And not fiction.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo ostensibly examines life on the fringes but this study is much more than just that. Families in a slum in India's biggest city Mumbai live literally next door to the luxury hotels catering to the nouveau riche separated by a thin wall carrying advertisements for floor tile: Beautiful Forever. How they interact with each other and the greater environment propels this stroyline.
Gripping and fascinating this read is yet not easily digested. The value of life in Annawdi is perhaps different than what you might hold as people – young, old and injured – tend to die routinely under suspicious circumstances. And while convenient to write off the resident's fate as that destined to those living in an illegal slum the details of public service and indifference, police protection and brutality and government control and corruption all collide in the miasma that becomes undercity and overcity.
In this environmental soup the question begs: what is legal?
Katherine Boo does a masterful job not only in weaving together the narrative but in painting the larger picture: Annawadi as flashpoint of globalism. In just one slum the author is able to show realtime the impact and response of the changing global marketplace. Economic changes, social policy and terrorism affect the residents of Annawadi just as much as the sewage lake they stare at across the maidan, lack of running water in the shacks of paper and cardboard and abject poverty that somehow won't cease or deter them.
Painting her subjects realistically the author presents them not as noble survivors or helpless dependents but as individuals each thinking of the appropriate next step. Focused is a word that came to my mind as I read Abdul's exploits and exploitation and his family support system's response. And yes, I found myself pulling for him.
This is a painful book in many ways. Sad, disheartening and with a violence in daily life it will make you think. Boo does a masterful job representing Annawadi as proxy for so many undercities around the globe: there is no ethnocentrism here or faint praise. Yet if you can read it, you will sense more or what the human condition can be under differerent circumstances – both the good and the bad.
I recommend this book wholeheartedly – and promise that you will not be the same after having read it.