Behind the Beautiful Forevers
by Katherine Boo
(only) 250 odd pages long!
The book is set in Annawadi, slum near the International airport in Mumbai. The walls of the international airport, during and after construction, were painted with a corporate slogan of a tiles company "Beautiful Forever Beautiful Forever Beautiful Forever". For those of you who live or have visited Mumbai, you'd know that every locality, be it the posh Colaba or the trendy Bandra, would have a striking mix of really really rich buildings with a slum hugging its compound walls providing the array of domestic staff services to keep the rich comfortable. When you land in Mumbai, you can't help noticing the expanse of slums around the airport. Annawadi is one such slum, and the book traces the lives of a few slum-dwellers there - Abdul, a trash dealer (and his family), Sunil, a rag picker, Manju, a college going girl (her family and friends) and Fatima, a lame woman (and her family).
Abdul, his father and sister are accused of provoking and causing the death of Fatima, who immolates herself. Asha, Manju's mother, a wannabe corporator and wheeler-dealer who tries to make enough money to escape the slum into a dream 'first-class' existence, tries to make money off this sordid case using her capricious police and political contacts. Abdul is imprisoned and tries to keep his calm. His life has been altered forever. Meanwhile, Manju realizes that her ambitious mother has been prostituting herself to earn money to fuel her dreams. About the same time, her friend Meena, being forced to return to her village and marry a man of her parents' choice, kills herself, as she feels that the busy but abject life of the Mumbai slum is better than an unknown future in a village.
Their hopes and fears and changing ambitions juxtaposed on global recessionary fears, communal tensions and political ambitions is captured and nuanced brilliantly. For example, the demarcation of trash in various areas around the slum.How the same things affect the rich and the poor so differently, and how one's worries change overnight is expressed almost lyrically. For example, Abdul, from worrying about how to build a trash sorting room in Saki-Naka to worrying about when he'd get out of prison, what he'd eat and where his family would live.
Clearly, Boo has done EXTENSIVE research. I have to mention here that 'despite' being a Westerner, she has immersed herself into the mindset of the slum dwellers in particular and India at large. Her writing is sincere, to-the-point and crystal clear in narration. Most importantly, the characters are real. You can identify with them. Breathe their dreams, understand their fears and worry about their future. What's wonderful is that she hasn't glorified poverty (and Thank God for that!) nor vilified corruption (you KNOW we have to live with it in India, the land of 'jugaad'). For example, not becoming preachy about Sister Paulette for using western (and Indian) philanthropic donations for her own growth and not providing services that she receives grants for. The distinction between the haves and have-nots is not thrust in your face nor is anyone blamed.
The book leaves you with a bitter-sweet feeling at the end, hopeful for the future, yet disgusted by the reality of today and helpless in the context of the larger picture. A lovely read. I totally recommend it.
ps: The line that fired my imagination and captures the essence of the book perfectly. "It interested him that from behind Airport Road, only the smoke plumes of Annawadi's cooking fires could now be seen". The reality of Bombay!