Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
Maturity Level: 5
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Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting” in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption. With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter – Annawadi’s “most-everything girl” – will soon become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves inching closer to the good lives and good times they call “the full enjoy.”
But then Abdul the garbage sorter is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and a global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy turn brutal. As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed. And so, too, are the imaginations and courage of the people of Annawadi.
With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects human beings to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds, and into the lives of people impossible to forget.
Wow. I don’t even know what to say about Behind the Beautiful Forevers. It’s a gorgeously written book. There’s a reason it won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, and a half-dozen other prestigious awards. But I’m not going to lie to you guys, it is an upsetting book.
It will come as a surprise to no one that life in a Mumbai slum is horrific. But I don’t think anything could have prepared me for how terrible it is. If the police violence and government corruption won’t get you, the rats biting children each night will. Descriptions aren’t graphic, but it’s horribly difficult to know this is what life is like for the poorest citizens of the world.
Worse, Boo gives no suggestion what to do with this information. We can’t give money, she makes that clear, since corruption just puts that money in the pockets of the greedy, rather than providing the benefits intended with the money. Nor can we send clothes or food, since even the nuns are willing to sell them off to a profit. We also can’t go ourselves and start a program, because apparently the unreliable populace will stop do what they’re being paid to do the second you walk away. So what can we do, other than sit here and feel guilty for eating chips and salsa while kids on the other side of the world eat frogs out of a sewage-lake?
But if you can move past that, this book is a testimony for how the poor are people too. They don’t see themselves as a statistic, or as a symbol of poverty. They have their own stories, their own hopes and dreams, their own heartbreaks. And really, aside from the difficultly of paying for food, their dreams and their problems aren’t all that different from yours or mine. They fight with their neighbors. The have secret love affairs. They want to graduate from college, find a better job, move into a wealthier neighborhood. It’s in the details that their lives are different.
Boo wonders if hope is beneficial or detrimental in this environment. I don’t know that she ever finds an answer. But in spite of everything, the residents of Annawadi have hope. It was a privilege to get to know them.
When I first started reading, I was concerned about the ethical implications of this book. Is Boo simply profiteering on their misery? Am I, the reader, treating them as a spectacle? This was especially a concern to me since there is no call-to-action involved. But the more I read, the more I feel like this book made me a better citizen of the world. While I don’t have a solution, at least I am not living in ignorance. Nor will I ever blame poverty on those living in it for not bettering their situation, whether in India or America. What more can come of this book? Maybe nothing. But maybe something, and that hope of something is thanks to Katherine Boo.
I have to recommend this book. It’s difficult, it’s uncomfortable, it’s upsetting, which is exactly WHY we need it. Read it.