Life? Check. Actually, I would change that to hard life.
Hope? Well, I’m not so sure.
Mumbai, the financial capital of India, is also home to thousands of slum dwellers, eking out a living. There is a stark difference between the lavishness of the five-star hotels near the international airport and the flimsy huts whose inhabitants live next to a sewage lake. The blight of the slums are hidden behind a wall that advertises L’Oreal and promises buyers that they can be “Beautiful Forever …Beautiful Forever.”
I found the narrative to be objective and unwavering. At first, I was turned off by this. I think I was expecting something more poignant and touching like Kite Runner or Nectar in a Sieve, two novels I dearly love.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is different. For five years, Ms. Boo, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, followed the lives of certain Annawadi slum dwellers. It’s a hard life for sure. Tap water is offered for only 90 minutes in the morning and 90 minutes in the evening. Either one gets in line or heads for water in the sewage lake.
Abdul Husain and his family are accused of throwing kerosene on Fatima, the one-legged slut of Annawadi. It’s not true, but the Husains are asked to pay money they don’t have to make the charges go away. Everyone wants a bribe– from Asha who is the first woman Annawadian slum lord, to corrupt police officials, to tired hospital workers.
Yes, there’s life. There is certainly a lot of death. I wasn’t sure if there was any hope, but there it was, materializing in the smallest and strangest ways. Abdul, who accepted his fate as a garbage sorter and never yearned for what he could not have, suddenly decides that he wants more.
He wanted to be better than what he was made of. In Mumbai’s dirty water, he wanted to be ice. He wanted to have ideals. For self- interested reasons, one of the ideals he most wanted to have was a belief in the possibility of justice.
I didn’t like the book until I was three-quarters of the way through, and I had to think about why I felt that way.
I realized that the book made me feel uneasy. It pricked my social conscience.
I take it for granted that my most basic needs are met– clean water, shoes, a sewage system.
I never worry about things like “Will the monsoon rains cause flooding of the sewage lake again? When it does, will my feet grow mushrooms? Where will I scavenge for garbage so I can sell it for money?”
The life of a slum dweller in Mumbai is not just about the battle against poverty. It is also a fight against corruption and injustice. Yet, they soldier on with ingenuity, hard work and yes, hope.
Yes, I would recommend the book.
Do you ever feel uneasy when reading books like these? Does it nudge your social conscience?
Acknowledgments and Attributions
- Extraordinary book – Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” (patricia-cohen.com)
- Life goes on in the starkest poverty (thisislondon.co.uk)