Thursday, February 9, 2017

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

It seemed to him that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.
Katherine Boo's nonfiction gem chronicles the lives of inhabitants of Annawadi, a Mumbai slum nestled behind a wall plastered with tile advertisements that promise your floors will be "Beautiful Forever." Annawadi sprung up in the shadow of luxury hotels next to Mumbai's airport, and its residents subsist (or fail to subsist) on tiny incomes from gathering and selling recyclables generated by the airport and surrounding construction sites.

The lives of Annawadians are incomprehensibly difficult. Their feet sprout towers of fungus during monsoons; their children's rat bites become infected and erupt with worms; they live on the brink of a lake of sewage, scrounging for food and recyclables in its midst. The infrastructure keeping them safe and alive is broken and corrupt--hospitals are decrepit, police and politicians all in someone's pocket, and their justice system is hopelessly convoluted. Nevertheless, Boo manages to craft a cinematically beautiful, suspensful tale around the tragically intertwined lives of Annwadi families after a woman sets herself on fire (suicide, as one can imagine, is a common way out). The prose reads like fiction--vivid, piercing fiction:
Let it keep, the moment when Officer Fish Lips met Abdul in the police station. Rewind, see Abdul running backward, away from the station and the airport, toward home. See the flames engulfing a disabled woman in a pink-flowered tunic shrink to nothing but a matchbook on the floor. See Fatima minutes earlier, dancing on crutches to a raucous love song, her delicate features unscathed. Keep rewinding, back seven more months, and stop at an ordinary in January 2008. 
Boo's writing is so seamless and her characters so layered and nuanced that I had trouble believing that this was really a work of nonfiction. She follows her characters through so many moments--both public and private--that it was hard to imagine how she could have gotten such access. I found myself distracted by the specificity of insight she had into individual characters' thought processes--how could she possibly know what they were thinking in that moment? There is an author's note at the end of the book that I wish she had put at the start. In it she describes her process, the years she spent building relationships, the video cameras she gave children to film many of the events she describes. I was a little more sold after reading it, but still somewhat incredulous.

All that being said, this was a fantastic read. It's packed with information about corruption and poverty in India, but it doesn't read like a book packed with information. I've read a fair amount about India over the years, and I learned more from this book than from anything else I've read. It's heart-wrenching, but manageably so. I wish I had more of a sense of what to do or how to help--this is certainly much more of a descriptive account than it is a call to action--and I don't know how Boo spent as much time as she did immersed in this level of poverty without losing her mind (or just giving away all of her money).

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