Behind the Beautiful Forevers
“Only in detention had it occurred to him that drudge labor in an urban armpit like Annawadi might be considered freedom.”
I sat in front of a blank screen trying to write this review for several days before realizing that this is really the kind of book you just have to read for yourself. This book is the most complex portrayal of poverty I have ever experienced.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a work of non-fiction but it reads like a novel. I found myself repeatedly forgetting that the characters and events in this book are real. This book follows the entwined lives of several families living in a large slum in Mumbai, called Annawadi. As the narrative develops, one family’s desire for a better life leads to ruin and destitute when a kitchen renovation escalates into disaster.
This book is based on Katherine Boo’s careful and thorough research but the people are individuals in a narrative rather than interviewees. The individuals in this book are so likeable it is incredibly painful to remember that this story is their reality. More than anything I want an update on the individuals we meet in this book: what has happened to them? Have they prospered? Are they still alive?
Katherine Boo often introduces the individuals in an offhand and judgmental way through the eyes of other people from Annawadi. Then, in later chapters, the characters we judge and dismiss become the narrator and we are pulled into their world to realize just how wrong we were about their situations. This is a very thwarting experience and it has made me much more conscious of the snap-judgments I might make about individuals I see in my own neighbourhood in Toronto.
Boo’s book is crowded with characters and seems loud, unruly and sometimes downright chaotic, just like the slum in which it takes place. This book is also dense with information about Mumbai’s political, economic and social situation but the material is presented in such a readable way that I almost didn’t realize how much I was learning while reading. What is most striking to me is the amount of loss, hopelessness and despair among the young people in Annawadi who see the new modern, technological world but have no means to enter it and instead are left behind. I am also interested in Boo’s apparent priority of sharing the experience of women and children over that of adult men.
Another fascinating aspect of this book is its focus on sewage. In the literal sense, Boo’s narrators often speak of the sewage lake that borders Annawadi and the effects this lake has on the garbage collection that is central to the slum’s “economy.” I also saw Katherine Boo’s frequent return to this image as an emphasis on a more figurative moral sewage. The corruption and dishonesty both inside and around Annawadi showed not only the rich damning the poor but the poor damning their own neighbours for any chance to put food on their own tables. Katherine Boo’s book displays a corruption so inherent in everyday life that it feels casual and unproblematic. Boo unflinchingly shows the ways this corruption tears apart those individuals who are already in the deepest grips of poverty and hardship.
As I’m sure you have noticed by now this review has jumped around quite a bit. I think this is a book I will need to read again to have anything more intelligent to say about it. The story Katherine Boo brings us in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers is so jarring that it is maybe too much to process all at once. What has stuck with me most of all is the way nothing worked to lift these individuals out of poverty – not education, not ambition, not existing skills and knowledge, not even corruption or crime. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a book about poverty that is incredibly rich – in detail, in insight and in heart. This is an incredibly important story and Katherine Boo has presented it in such a way that I cannot believe Behind the Beautiful Forevers hasn’t become required reading.