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September 9, 2013 / subramanyam

Behind the Beautiful Forevers— Nice book by Katherine Boo

          Finally finished reading Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” . Received this book as a gift  almost 8 months back from an American Friend of mine.  She wanted to know my views on this book as  I was born and raised in India.  Somehow, I kept postponing reading the book.  Reasons— plenty of them but let’s not get into them (I too am not convinced of many of them 🙂 )

          Coming to the book part of it, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity ” is a non-Behind_the_Beautiful_Foreversfiction work that describes the lives, loves, lies ,troubles travails and dreams  of the financially less-fortunate slum dwellers of Annawadi, a slum that is located near the Chatrapati Shivaji international airport ,Mumbai India.  Annawadi’s first inhabitants were migrant laborers who came to the city to work in the airport and started settling in an otherwise un-used land adjoining the airport. (Did they name it Annawadi in fond remembrance of Annadurai— a celebrated leader down south, just my imagination though—Kathrine has no mention about this in the book).

          Today, Annawadi is an area bustling with activity, with residents from all religions and regions of India, the slum has its own good-bad-ugly things to be taken care of.  We have the Hussain’s who have a thriving scrap business that feeds the family of eleven, the family hopes to renovate the house and also wishes to move out of Annawadi when they have enough with them. Then, we have Asha who already is the de-facto Slumlord and has her eyes fixed on more money and more power.  She, with her power, cunning intellect, authoritative tone and political leanings is aspiring for more.  Then we have the emotionally charged Fatima whose extra-marital amorous escapades leave her husband  and her neighbors red-faced, then we have petty thieves like Kalu, starving kids like Sunil who struggle day in and day out to make their ends meet.  Then we have shy, uneducated and innocent girls like Meena, Well –educated , well behaved and ethically and morally conscious girls like Manju and then people like Sister Paulette who sell away food and clothing that comes as a charity for the children.

          Interesting characters aren’t these?  How these people force themselves into the rat race of life and how lack of knowledge and information force them to compete with each other rather than thinking of getting out of the total system are well portrayed in the book.  The book starts with a sudden crisis that engulfs the Hussains and end with the way they come out of it.  Were they hurt, unhurt or deeply hurt in the process—- read the book to know more about it.

          Coming to my take on it, I liked the book.  Non-Fiction accounts of people and the system are a rarity, so reading a non-fiction dsc00267and getting the first hand  account of things was good.  Yes , all these things do happen in India, we still house a significant number  of the world’s poor and there are a few people in this country who are experts in ensuring that the poor remain poor in this country.  Another thing  which most Indians do acknowledge is the fact that the economic reforms of the 90’s have undoubtedly made many Indians better-off, but have also increased the rich-poor divide in the country which is increasing with every passing day.  The system is improving and we are on our way to bridge the gap, however ubiquitous corruption and  huge amounts of money that’s siphoned off by middlemen is creating bigger and bigger obstacles for us to bridge the rich-poor divide. 

          How do the poor fight for their existence? how do they fight to make their ends meet? How are they manipulated by the rich? How do they fight amongst themselves and make themselves worse off are all brilliantly depicted in the book.  While reading all this I felt like yeah , all this happens, all this happens in  India and it  happens in people and communities around us. For all reasons, it’s a fight for existence for most of them.  However, things are improving and we need them to improve at a faster  pace so that we can  get  rid of these issues.

          I liked the way the author has portrayed the characters, the pains she took to interview all the people, the way she captured details and the way she presented all of them in the book is real good. The fact that she took 3 -4 years in completing this work stands as a testimony of her commitment and diligence towards her work . She tried to uncover a lot of truths (known to most Indians — probablyKatherine unknown to many foreigners) and a side of India which Indians might not want to show to the world.  I would say a very good effort in showing how the system works with the urban poor.

          While reading the book I felt that the author did not have any bias in writing, It did not seem to me that she was bent on insulting or showing the country in poor light, so I liked it.  Again, as even Katherine might acknowledge, this is just one side of India. The country whose soul was long oppressed by the foreign occupation and loot that happened, is rediscovering itself and in the  process is having a lot of things to take care of.  This book is about urban poor and the slum dwellers in the financial capital of the nation, had the author gone to rural-India the experience would have been different.  There are poor even there, but probably the issues there and the way people react to it would have been different. The culture, the way people react to things might have been different.  Then we have the great Indian middle class (to which even I do belong) where people would welcome the reforms and have another story to tell.  I would be very glad to read a book by Katherine on any of these topics. 

          While I liked the book for the way it was written, I appeal to the audience (particularly foreign audience) that this is just one dark and ugly angle of the things in tis nation. There is a lot more to explore and infer from the world’s second most populous nation that boasts itself on  a 5000 year old culture.

          My Sincere and heartfelt thanks to Therese for introducing me to this book.  Thank you very much Therese for being such a good friend and gifting me the book.  I am indebted. 

          Friends, do pick the book for some serious and good reading. Happy Reading.


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