Friday, June 8, 2012

How the other half lives. . . on the other side of the world

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity 
by Katherine Boo

Katherine Boo has created something truly remarkable in her nonfiction work Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Narrative in feel, beautifully written, and based on exhaustive research, this book examines questions about poverty, democracy, religion, gender roles, education and the economy in the “New India” by narrowly focusing on the lives of a handful of slum dwellers. The residents of Annawadi are squatters living in shacks shadowed by the international airport and surrounded by luxury hotels, razor wire, and raw sewage. By closely following two families and several peripheral characters over a four-year span, the reader sees the world through their eyes and becomes invested in the ups and downs of their economic, political, and personal fates and fortunes. Teenage Abdul feeds his family of 11 by picking garbage 10 hours a day. Manju seeks to become the first female college graduate of the neighborhood while simultaneously filling her traditional role as daughter of the house. Fatima uses her body to earn love and respect while Asha hungers to be politically powerful in her sphere. Meena finds another way out.

The grinding poverty and the bizarre juxtaposition of old-world and modern is illustrated through details about their days—lining up for hours to get water, public open air toilets, substandard schools where the teacher has a seventh grade education, cell phones, TVs, Bollywood and video games.

This portrait of these real people is powerful and will bring a new perspective to many readers—not all of it compassionate. While thoroughly steeped in Indian culture, this book has broader implications, for, as the author reminds us, “what was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too . . . in Nariobi and Santiago, Washington and New York.”

submitted by Amy

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