Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Behind the Beautiful Forevers - Katherine Boo


From Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a landmark work of narrative nonfiction that tells the dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in one of the twenty-first century’s great, unequal cities.

In this brilliantly written, fast-paced book, based on three years of uncompromising reporting, a bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human.

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.


There is so much to say about Behind the Beautiful Forevers that all I’m going to be able to do in this review is skim over everything I’d like to talk about. This is the second world-view-defining book I’ve read in the past week or so ( the first being Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe), but lets just say BtBF affected me in this way much more than any other book I’ve read. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is astoundingly complex, and I wouldn’t expect any easy or straightforward answers about any of the issues Boo raises in this book.

Before you read this book, I’ll tell you about a game you can play. Take a shot every time Boo mentions bribery. You will be plastered, there is that much corruption. The justice system and the police are a joke in Annawadi. Everything can be sorted with a bribe, and nothing can be done without one. Both systems are fuelled by ‘favours’ and brown envelopes. But corruption is not that simple in this novel. Many of the characters use it to better their financial and societal situations. Documents are forged, bribes are given, votes are bought and denied, charitable funds are received and misdirected into pockets rather than schools or other public works projects. Even though surgical procedures were supposed to be free, most doctors still charged under the table fees for them. One of the other surprising things was how the slum dwellers manipulate the “white guilt” of the western charity workers to do better for themselves. It kind of made me more cynical and suspicious of charitable organisations. I always thought that these organisations were corruption free, but it turns out you have to be careful with who you give your money to to make sure it goes where you want it to go. (Just to make it clear, this didn’t put me off donating to charities in India, it would just make me more discerning when it comes which charity I would donate to.) This was one of the things that upset me the most in this novel, that in order to survive in Annawadi, you cannot  be honourable.

Living in the west, we are usually presented with the poor in places like India as a faceless monolith of the hopeless. But the poor in BtBF are presented much more complexly by Boo. Instead of an indiscriminate mass of poverty, we see single, complex individuals. Despite the fact they are all poor, the society in Annawadi is divided by religion and status. Technically, everyone living in Annawadi lives above the poverty line ( which is $1.25 a day I think) but some have a lot more money than others. Characters like Asha live quite comfortably, she can afford to send her daughter to college, and has a job as a kindergarten teacher. If you compare her situation to Sunil, a young garbage collector, she lives like a queen. Sunil is so hungry all the time that he takes up smoking old cigarette butts to curb the hunger pains and his growth has been stunted after years of starvation. Even though both Asha and Sunil are thrown together in the western view of poverty in India, but both lead astoundingly different lives. Boo also deals with the idea that maybe we need the poor to stay poor in order to stay rich. Abdul’s brother (I think) has a fantastic line that goes something like “Everything around us is roses, and we’re the shit in between”, the implication of this is that the rich of Mumbai, and maybe the rest of the world, can only survive while the poor stay poor, that the roses must be fertilised by something in order to stay beautiful and alive. BtBF gave me a whole new, much needed perspective on poverty, and I would really recommend this to anyone interested in humanitarian relief.
The other concept Boo addresses in this novel is how luck shapes our lives. I don’t want to spoil anything by giving too many examples, but the book opens with Abdul’s family being accused of a crime they didn’t commit, which causes ructions in their lives. Using this example , and many others , Boo explores the idea that no matter how hard you work or what you achieve, your life can still be turned upside down by something completely beyond your control. Which is upsetting, but it’s something we need to hear and understand.

Humanitarian organisations always tell us that education is the way out of poverty, and that more education should be made available in countries like India. But the thing is, there is plenty of education available in Annawadi , but it is of such poor quality it is of very little use. Asha’s daughter Manju attends a college where you can pass be essentially learning-off summaries of books. This same teenaged girl teaches the slum children in a kind of semi-official charity funded school, where the children learn next to nothing. This made me re-evaluate my whole opinion that the way to help the poor in India is to provide education, because clearly this is not working.

Overall this is a fantastic plot. If I had to compare it to anything I’d say it’s a bit like A Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. It’s very character driven, with one pivotal plot point. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who doesn’t like quite harsh, adult fiction. If you’re a fan of YA fiction, then I would recommend that you read this. You may not enjoy it as much as I did, but it’s one of those must-read, world-view-changing books that you will remember long after you finish it.

Four and a half Stars

1 comment:

  1. Spot-on analysis of Boo's message, very insightful ;)