Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a National Book Award winner, is a nonfictional account of life in Annawadi – a makeshift settlement behind Mumbai’s international airport. Journalist Katherine Boo did three years of exhaustive research and interviews, which turned into a story about three very different individuals: Abdul, a quiet, observant boy who has managed to raise his family’s status and income through his skill in recycling garbage. His status and income are threatened when he’s falsely accused and imprisoned for inciting a neighbor to set herself on fire. Asha is an aspiring slumlord, expert at negotiation and manipulation. Her daughter, Manju, is sweet and hardworking and determined to be the first female college graduate from Annawadi.
I will be honest with you – as much as I loved this book, it was almost too difficult to read at times. I wanted to shut my eyes to the fact that there are women who find life so devastatingly without hope that they drink rat poison or set themselves on fire. I didn’t want to read about the corruption that is present at every level of government or how almost anything can be bought and sold, including someone’s virtue and integrity. And the descriptions of the living conditions in the slum and the way supposed friends and neighbors treated each other were unbearable at times.
Yet, you, as the reader, keep on reading because you realize this is happening, people are living these kinds of lives, and it’s important for you and the rest of the world to know about them. Boo doesn’t offer any kind of grand solution or even a lot of hope in the end. She is a realist and doesn’t do her interviewees the injustice of suggesting that these conditions are easily remedied. Throwing money at the problem won’t make it go away, especially when so many of the charities that are supposed to benefit the people of Mumbai often end up exploiting them (one charity actually turns around and sells their expired goods).
This is why I’m so grateful to writers like Boo who expend time and talent in sharing people’s stories. One can only hope that some good will result in the telling of them.