Behind the Beautiful Forevers
There’s probably nothing I can say about Katherine Boo’s Pulitzer Prize winning book about a Mumbai slum, Behind the Beautiful Forevers that other reviewers haven’t already–the book gives us a staggering view of the poorest of the poor in India. Annawadi, a sprawling slum that sprung up around the Mumbai airport sometime after 1991, has been described by many as Dickensian. And while it might very well be, there’s a better analogy, I think. Boo presents us with some hamster wheel view of life where no matter how hard and fast one might work, Annawadians were simply going nowhere fast. Oh they might have a few months or even years where life is a bit better, as when the teenaged Abdul’s recycling business was doing well and his family could afford to add a storage room and cooking space to their make-shift home. Or when Sunnil braved garbage picking on a narrow ledge between a bridge rail and the river below to afford himself a silver skull-shaped earring. But in truth, there was no real movement forward, or up, or out of their condition.
So read the other reviews because they’ll probably say it better. But I can offer a couple book pairings if you want to go deeper into India than simply watching Slumdog Millionaire. First of all, find a copy of Domenic Lapierre’s 1985 novel City of Joy. (Yes, it inspired the Patrick Swayze movie by the same name, but no, I haven’t seen it.) We see life in the slums through the eyes of Polish priest Stephen Kovalski and American doctor Max Loeb. The book is every bit as powerful as Beautiful Forevers, complete with a cameo appearance by Mother Theresa. I loved it and this might prompt a re-read. For a more contemporary companion, read The Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda–it’s the story of adopted Indian-American Asha, the family who raised her, as well as the family who gave her up. The past meets the present some eighteen years later when Asha goes back to discover the truth about her birth (link).
Which all prompts me to wonder why I’ve read novel after novel about China. Japan. The Middle East, even. Why so few on India?