Reading list as of August 30th

Out on Mumbai’s Airport Road, there’s a fence, covered in an advertisement for Italianate flooring. “Beautiful Forever” is the slogan. Behind that fence lies the slum of Annawadi.

That’s where the title of this book comes from.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers reminds me of Random Family. Not so much in subject matter, but in the way the story unfolds. We’re introduced to a cast of characters: a garbage dealer, a scavenger turned thief, a wannabe slumlord, and a host of others who bicker and gossip amongst themselves. Their stories seem to be held together only by the fact they all live in the same slum of Annawadi, but somehow, Katherine Boo ties them all together with a single, game-changer event: the death of One Leg.

We know, from the very beginning, Abdul the garbage dealer is accused of her murder, because the book opens with him scrambling to hide in his storeroom, the place where he keeps the trash he’s not ready to sell. Boo takes us back a few weeks, lets us get to know the players, and then we get to sit back and watch the drama unfold: the verbal fight that started it all, the beatings, the jail time, the rest of the slum watching the downfall of Abdul’s family.

Boo drops you in the middle of a modern India that is at once intimately familiar and foreign. Corruption is so rampant, I’m surprised the government hasn’t collapsed. You pay off the police. You pay off the doctors. You pay off the social workers, the teachers, the families of crime victims. The elected officials are nothing more than figureheads, people paraded in front of the TV cameras to give some sort of assurance that yes, we are doing something to make your lives better.

They aren’t. Not really.

The way Boo describes Mumbai is something straight out of a movie. Not a Bollywood film, but one made by foreigners, showing us the crowded, dusty streets, the tiny shacks made of salvaged brick and scrap metal, and the heat. The oppressive, all-encompassing heat. If you’re looking for a hopeful book, a story of a slumdog millionaire, this isn’t it. The lives of the slumdwellers are bolstered by small joys: a daughter becoming the first college graduate in the family, a son landing temporary work in one of the fancy hotels near the airport, a mother being able to buy four fluffy white dogs, just for fun, just because she can.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers isn’t a triumph of the human spirit kind of story. It’s more a story of sheer determination to survive, by whatever means necessary.

 

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