Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai Undercity
by Katherine Boo

This nonfiction book gives us a glimpse into the slum Annawadi in Mumbai. Located near a local airport, the slum is filled with “homes” made out of everything from plastic sheeting to crumbling brick. The society created there is always on the brink of destruction because they have no legal claim to the land and the government is constantly threatening to throw them off of it.

The people the book focuses on are a strange mishmash of ambitious individuals and others that were just trying to survive another day. Asha, one of the former, hopes to one day become the slumlord. She acts as a fixer, stepping in to handle situations for people for a small sum. Her daughter Manju wants nothing to do with her mother’s sleazy dealings and spends her days teaching young kids.

Another family survives on what they can collect and sell from the garbage. That family, especially Abdul and his mother Zehrunisa find themselves in trouble when their neighbor, Fatima, tries to cause problems. Fatima is often referred to as “One Leg” and was clearly a troubled and deeply unhappy woman. Her actions are some of the most disturbing of the book.

There were so many examples of the horrifying state of cleanliness in the slums. For example, one man raised goats and he couldn’t figure out while all of his animals were always sick. Then we find out he lets them drink from the sewage water where he has dumped the bodies of 12 of his other goats that died!

The other disturbing thing was the structure of the government. Everything from the police to the hospitals was corrupt. You can only get things done by buying off officials. The nurses in the hospitals wouldn’t touch the patients and they often reused syringes. They tell all the patients they are out of medicine and the only option is to buy your hospitalized family members the medicine they need on the streets.

So here’s my only problem with the book: how can it be nonfiction? I loved the writing, I thought the whole thing was so interesting, but my journalist brain just couldn’t stop asking how the author could possibly know some of the information that she provides as fact. She had to rely on witness statements and second- and third-hand accounts of things. On top of that, she didn’t speak the language. Everything had to go through her translator, adding yet another filter. I almost wish it was written as fiction based on fact, I feel like I could have relaxed and enjoyed the book a bit more. As it was, I couldn’t stop questioning the truth in everything.

BOTTOM LINE: Read it, especially if you’re interested in India. It’s really good, but take it with a grain of salt. It shows a very specific sliver of Indian life and while that makes for a powerful book, it was hard for me to trust the narrative. I don’t doubt that things are just as bad as the author suggests in the slums, I just don’t know how she could have confirmed and sourced half of the things she writes.

“To be poor in Annawadi, or in any Mumbai slum, was to be guilty of one thing or another.”

“You didn’t keep track of a child’s years when you were fighting daily to keep him from starving.”


annieb said...

I read this book as an ARC and was deeply moved. I think you have a valid point about the narrative, but since I do not have a journalist's mind I took it at face value. Obviously, (at least to me) there is nothing I can do about the situation, so the book made me appreciate my middle class American life so much more. That was the value of the book to me.

Jenners said...

I've heard raves about this book but I can understand your reservations. Non-fiction can be touchy … but I'm sure she probably got the essence of it right.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I had a very similar problem about a book I read recently that was a memoir of things that happened to the author when she was FIVE. The emotions and the conversations that were quoted just didn't seem right. They were all adult versions, but told in the voice of a five year old. Drove me to distraction. This would probably do the same thing, even though the story itself is viable.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

annieb - It made me value the simple things in everyday life too! It's incredible what we take for granted in this country.

Jenners - I do think the essence is probably spot on, it's the journalist in me that kept thinking, "Who is her source for that?"

Sandy - Five! That's incredibly young to remember details. My book club discussed The Liar's Club last night and we were all talking about the author's details of her own life and wondering how she could remember everything. I know there's a bit of license taken and it doesn't bother me with memoirs, but a book like this is telling someone else's life story and that's a bit trickier.