This book took me a little while to get into because at first I had trouble identifying the many characters and keeping their names straight. But once I figured out “who’s who” — by about the end of the second chapter — I was hooked, and found this piece of nonfiction as much a page-turner as the best novels.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the story of life in a Mumbai slum, as seen through the eyes of several residents — teenagers, adults, women, men, Hindus, Muslims. A single incident — a woman sets herself on fire and blames her neighbours, with whom she has been quarrelling — serves as the focal point for a story that stretches over two or three years, revealing the lives of those both directly and indirectly involved in the incident, the events leading up to it, and the aftermath. But the woman’s self-immolation is just an entry point to explore the many issues that face slum-dwellers: the (in)justice system, the (lack of) health care system, an economy in which booming wealth for the middle and upper classes trickles down to the poor in the form of a thriving market in saleable garbage. Most importantly, there is corruption — at every level, permeating every aspect of life. For the fiercely ambitious, upwardly-mobile residents of Annawadi slum — and most of the book’s characters are, in one way or another, ambitious — the goal is not to end this corruption or even to find a way around it, but to figure out how to get their piece of it.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a refreshingly different look at extreme poverty in the developing world, in the sense that its primary goal does not seem to be to evoke pity for the downtrodden poor, nor admiration for their nobility. The people of Annawadi are just like you and me — flawed, anxious, hopeful, greedy, generous, vindictive, humble and arrogant. In the Afterword, Katherine Boo explains how she gathered material for this book, describing years of length interviews with the people she met and studied. This afterword is a useful piece of context, because Boo writes the book as if she has a transparent window into the lives of her characters, rather than inserting herself into the narrative and explaining her presence there (with notebook, recording equipment, camera and translator). Clearly this is a situation where the act of observing cannot help but impact the people and events being observed, but by using so many direct quotes from her interview subjects, Boo may have gotten as close as an outsider can ever get to capturing an insider’s view of this particular world.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a vivid reminder of two things we already know, but often forget. First, the problem of poverty is real and deserving of our attention. Second, none of the solutions are simple. In this story alone, aid money from governments and well-intentioned charities gets misdirected, repurposed, and diverted away from its intended recipients in more clever ways than we guilty cheque-writing Westerners could ever imagine. This book is engaging, enlightening and informative, and I recommend it very highly.