Stop what you’re doing and start reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Really.
Katherine Boo’s heartbreaking, enraging, and moving book is the culmination of her years reporting in a slum of Mumbai, and it shows: her acute understanding of the community allowed her to construct a narrative so engrossing that you’d be forgiven for assuming its fiction.
If only. In fine detail, Boo lays out the daily trials and tribulations of the residents of Annawadi, a settlement next to the gleaming Mumbai Airport. There’s Abdul, a 16-to-19 year-old garbage appraiser who earns most of the money for his 11-person family; Asha, an aspiring slumlord who lies, cheats, and steals in order to make enough money to send her daughter, Manju, to college; Sunil, a young garbage-picker who desperately wants to grow taller; and many more.
This is a book that, time and time again, will make you feel restless. You’ll read about Abdul and Sunil, two of the many children who are forced by circumstance to spend their childhoods earning, not learning – and how even if they had the time to learn, they wouldn’t have the place, or someone to teach them. This will make you restless – you’ll want to do something, probably donate some money to an education-focused NGO doing work in India. But then you’ll read about Asha and how she pockets donor funding rather than uses it to create the schools it’s meant for; about the fake microfinance groups that she creates to impress donors. Hence the restlessness; you want to help, but it doesn’t seem like you can. Make it your charge to not let that sense of unrest turn into a sense futility.
It will stir up your preconceived notions of the impoverished, cause you to reevaluate what you think. The Annawadians aren’t lazy squatters living off the government dole; by and large, they’re resourceful, innovative, hard-working people afflicted by devastating poverty – not causing it. Abdul hones his skills at appraisal to provide his parents and siblings food; parents care deeply about education for their children, “…getting by on roti and salt in order to pay for private school tuition.” Like the vast majority of people on earth, they’re simply doing the best they can under the circumstances to provide for themselves and their families. There is far more that unites us than divides us.
The rampant corruption will make you viscerally angry. From the police officers who beat innocents in order to extort a larger payout, to the doctor who demands a bribe to decide on Abdul’s age, with significant consequences hinging on the outcome – it’s everywhere. Throughout, nearly every person in a position of power abuses it – even the nun who runs an orphanage sells donated food meant to feed the orphans she purports to care for. It’s heart-wrenching to read, and imagining what it would be like is near-impossible for someone who grew up with little reason to distrust institutions and the people in power of them.
And you’ll feel a deep sense of unease, too, as you recognize that solidarity isn’t possible in the Annawadi community; it’s so common in middle-class America that it’s treated as a given. One of the recurring themes of the book is how, when push comes to shove, the Annawadians are incented to treat each other poorly just to stay afloat; Asha recognizes that its exceedingly unlikely that Manju would have the money to go to college if not for her machinations, and neighbors are forced to treat all opportunities as zero-sum – either they feed their kids, or their neighbor does. In Boo’s words:
“In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of the mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets…”
The weight of this string of emotions is nearly crushing, but it’s partially lifted by a sense of hope brought by Annawadians striving to be better in the face of corruption and poverty. Boo paraphrases Abdul, who puts this sentiment in a beautiful way:
“Water and ice were made of the same thing… But here is the interesting part. Ice was distinct from – and in his view, better than – what it was made of. 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…He wanted to be recognized as better than the dirty water in which he lived. He wanted a verdict of ice.”
Or, as Boo puts it, in Mumbai, “…it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be…” That’s where you’ll find hope in the midst of overwhelming poverty and seeming futility.
This is a remarkable book that I can’t recommend highly enough – it’s one that will change the way you see and feel. You really should read it.