Author: Katherine Boo
Publication Information: Random House Inc. 2012. 288 pages.
Book Source: I read this book as this month's selection for my local book club.
Favorite Quote: "Water and ice were made of the same thing. He thought most people were made of the same thing, too. ... If he had to sort all humanity by its material essence, he through he would probably end up with a single gigantic pile. But here was the interesting thing. Ice was distinct from - an in his view, better than - what it was made of. ... He wanted to be recognized as better than the dirty water in which he lived. He wanted a verdict of ice."
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a snapshot - the history of a place told through the story of one community's fight to survive. The author Katherine Boo is a Pulitzer prize winning journalist. Her connection to India is a very personal one. India represents the land and heritage of her husband.
This book presents a very personal story about a Mumbai slum - Annawadi. Through the lives of its residents, the book tells the story of the place. It deals with the extreme poverty, the corruption, the racial and religious tensions, and the impact of world events on this community. Amidst this abject living exist the bonds of family, friendship, and love.
It is the story of the mother seeking to hold her family together. It is the story of the young man who has to learn to shoulder responsibility way too early. It is the story of the young woman who sees education as her way out. It is the story of some who see death as their only way out. It is the story of the boy who every day makes the choice between a life of crime and something different. It is the story of those who use corruption to survive and those who are caught in its effects.
It is a story of the physical conditions of the place. The open sewage. The garbage. The temporary shelters. The stench. And the disease. Some of the graphic descriptions of the physical afflictions are the jarring note for me in this book. Yes, the conditions are as miserable as the book portrays. I have seen them - not in Annawadi but in similar places. However, the graphic descriptions particularly of disease repeat so often in the book that the repetition becomes an unneeded element.
What stands out most for me is that people everywhere are the same - whether in the mud and filth of a slum or in a suburban home or in a mansion; whether in India or the US or anywhere in the world. Families who agree and disagree. Parents wanting a better life for their children than what they have. Friendships that flourish in the unlikeliest of pairs. Love. Human nature that transcends our circumstances. We as people are the same no matter where we are. We are blessed if our circumstances are worlds away from those described in the book.