It seemed to him that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught. – from Behind the Beautiful Forevers –
Author Katherine Boo spent four years following the individual lives of people living in the Annawadi settlement – an Indian slum which sits near the Mumbai airport and in the shadow of opulent buildings where the wealthy regularly live their lives.
The airport people had erected tall, gleaming aluminum fences on the side of the slum that most drivers passed before turning into the international terminal. Drivers approaching the terminal from the other direction would see only a concrete wall covered with sunshine-yellow advertisement. The ads were for Italianate floor tiles, and the corporate slogan ran the wall’s length: BEAUTIFUL, FOREVER BEAUTIFUL, FOREVER BEAUTIFUL, FOREVER. – from Behind The Beautiful Forevers, page 37 –
The contrast between the wealthy and the poor in India is stark and Boo’s wish was to document “the distribution of opportunity in a fast-changing country.” Does she do that? Yes. But she also examines the lives of women in poverty, the effect of corruption on disenfranchised people, the idea of justice and equality, the power of hope even when hope seems elusive, and the struggle to be “good” in the face of unrelenting, heartbreaking poverty.
Behind The Beautiful Forevers reads like a novel, and perhaps it would be easier to read it if one believed the “characters” between the pages were fictional rather than real. There is Abdul, a Muslim teenager whose organizational skills allow him to be one of the more successful garbage sorters in the community; and the politically savvy Asha, a forty year old mother who sells her body and bargains her morals to make a better life for her daughter; and Kalu, a teenager who flirts with drugs and steals scrap metal on his road to finding the “good life”; and Sunil, a boy who seems to have stopped growing while he battles rats, gangs of bigger boys, and fate while he searches for garbage to sell; and Meena, a young woman whose future is so bleak that death is more preferable; and finally Fatima, the “one leg,” whose spite costs her not only her very life, but the lives of her closest neighbors. There are others, of course, all battling to survive in a world we can only imagine and even then, we fall short.
Somehow in this book about desperation and poverty, Boo manages to carve out some hope between the pages. Sunil regularly climbs to the top of a roof four stories above the ground where he enjoys the exhilarating vista of open space. It is here he watches the planes leave the ground and soar into the sky, where he can view the rich people arriving at and leaving the terminal. It is here, high above the reality of his world, where Sunil can imagine himself becoming “a middle something.”
Sunil thought that he, too, had a life. A bad life, certainly – the kind that could be ended as Kalu’s had been and then forgotten, because it made no difference to the people who lived in the overcity. But something he’d come to realize on the roof, leaning out, thinking about what would happen if he leaned too far, was that a boy’s life could still matter to himself. – from Behind the Beautiful Forevers, page 199 –
Katherine Boo’s remarkable book is sad. It is heartbreaking. It pulls the reader up short, has her gasping for breath as she immerses herself into the world of these survivors. Boo writes: “If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?” And this is, perhaps, the central question posed in Behind The Beautiful Forevers. The world feels broken in the Annawadi slum, and yet the luminous lives of its inhabitants offer some hope for answers.
Katherine Boo offers us a glimpse into inequality and poverty. It is a personal glimpse, an unforgettable one. But it is not an isolated one. All over the world the disenfranchised struggle to not only survive, but to elevate their lives. They fight against government corruption, unfair justice systems, and cultures which divide rather than unite people. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a reminder that a slum is not just a slum – it is a community of people just like ourselves only with less opportunity.
Pulitzer Prize winning author Katherine Boo snagged the National Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Behind the Beautiful Forevers. This is a powerful, must read book and one I highly recommend.