Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Author: Katherine Boo
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: 02/07/12
Genre: Historical Nonfiction
Welcome to Annawadi, a once unwanted marshland outside of the Mumbai airport that today holds hundreds of migrant families squatting in temporary-made-permanent huts. To the government, the police, corporations, and middle and upper-class citizens, the people living there are uneducated thieves who are to be kicked out, beaten as drunken entertainment, and used as toys in a game where foreign funding for schools, purified running water, and food for the impoverished can be easily diverted into personal pocketbooks.
Well, that’s the outsiders’ perspective. Here’s the other story:
Meet Asha, a middle-aged housewife turned slumlord who dreams of escaping her drunken husband, lazy children, and lower-class status by obtaining political power and influence. With this influence, which can include a small part in the same governmental corruption which hurts Annawadi residents, she can earn enough money to feed her family and to finance her daughter Manju’s college education.
Meet Manju, the soon-to-be first Annawadi college graduate who hopes to better society by educating young children with her college teaching degree. Instead, she must support her mother (as all good daughters do) in the corruption she disapproves of so that her family can eventually become lower middle-class citizens.
Meet Sunil, a young scavenger who finds out that stealing trash and scrap metal from airport construction sites to be sold for a dollar or two a day yields more money than just picking up trash (somewhat legally) along the side of the road. In a life where finding underage temporary work is difficult and reporting on drug deals to policemen can pay well but possibly lead to being killed by enraged dealers, his proudest moment is when he finally realizes he is eating enough to begin growing again.
Meet Abdul, a sixteen year old boy who buys trash collected by other families to sort and sell to recyclers. He makes slightly more money than picking up the trash himself this way, and his family is saving up to put down a deposit on a plot of land back home, where they can legally own their own place. However, after an unfortunate encounter leaves him under arrest for possible murder, he finds himself contemplating about how good things happen to some people and bad things to others.
In a book where you are almost forced to read the people and stories as fiction to keep yourself from going crazy about the lives the Annawadi residents live, Boo does an excellent job of reminding readers that there aren’t “good people” or “bad people.” Just people.
I’ll be honest: it was very hard for me to get through the first couple of chapters. Not because of Boo’s writing style, descriptions, lack of action, etc., but because the characters were real. Honestly, almost too real. I enjoy reading YA fiction, where the characters are set in a dystopia or at least in circumstances different enough from “real life” so that the majority of things that happen could happen sometime to me but likely wouldn’t affect me in the same way. You know the type: the books set abroad, in travels, in boarding school, etc. Places that I may go to visit at some point in my life but would likely not have as crazy of a turn of events.
What hits you about this book is that it’s real. The stories, the political events, the corruption, and -most importantly –the people are all real people going through lives that are drastically different from ours… but still lives. Honestly, I am the type to read an article about terrorist attacks in the Middle East or a public passenger plane struck by a missile that killed tens of civilians- normal people, like me- and wonder how those sorts of events can happen on the other side of the world so different than mine. Yet, after reading for about 5 minutes, I’ll do nothing about it, continuing through my business and my life as usual. Because what else is there to do?
Obviously, as a twenty-one year old woman living on her own a year removed from college, I don’t have all the answers and can only try to begin to wonder about the lives of those in Annawadi and other similar areas around the world- before actually thinking of ways to help.
But perhaps my most important takeaway from this book is that I can try to be more aware of people. Rather than glaze over breaking news stories, I can try to do more investigation into them. I can try to learn more about people living in poverty around the world and figure out other ways to help. I can try to listen more to my coworkers and friends to discover their joys and challenges- and love them for them. And I can try not to cast others in different circumstances into a giant group of people “different” from me. Because while their lives are different from mine, they are still people who are living lives, the same as mine.
Here's to embracing the dirty water and the ice,
"Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is In Another Castle"- The Mountain Goats