Book Review: Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Behind the beautiful

I’m wondering if the First World Problems meme owes its genesis to Katherine Boo’s Beyond the Beautiful Forevers — Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.

Within two chapters, I was immersed in this teeming world, lying awake at night, sifting through the contrasts. Here I am, bitching because I’m scrambling like a madman to find enough money to attend a choice university, only to read about a teenager who had sliced off his hand, and even as his stump gushed crimson, he swore oaths to the heavens, promising not to make trouble for his employer.

Just so he could keep his job.

Here I am, complaining in fewer than 140 characters about incessant migraines, and then finding myself in the midst of a crisis about a half-crazy woman in Annawadi who set herself ablaze because when all the emotions of hopelessness and despair swirled around her, and only revenge separated out.

Here I am, saddened that I can’t take Kristina out for her birthday only to remember that the fortunate denizens of this Mumbai slum eat fish stained blue with chemicals from a toxic pond, while the less fortunate fry toads or rats when their traps are successful, and go hungry when they are not.

The stories, these stories! This is India. You can live a lifetime in these 250 pages.

With Boo’s spare, evocative prose, and detailed scene setting, I found it difficult to read Beyond the Beautiful Forevers without feeling sick to my stomach.

I’m not without a worldview and a broader perspective. In the course of writing Four Strong Winds, I cast an eye towards the Indian economy and what its effects on the planet will be. With 1.2 billion souls, most clawing their way out of poverty, the portents are ominous.

A decade ago, the mere mention of such sprawling and unfettered capitalism would have given an environmentalist like me the bends. But treehuggers are also social activists at heart, and we know that we have to lift millions in developing economies out of poverty. In India, a country where the per capita annual income is only $1,219 US, the need is beyond understanding. In 2005, 27.5 percent of India’s population lived below the poverty line. If you do the calculations, 332 million people barely survive. No wonder my heart bleeds.

But these are numbers. And while numbers matter, faces matter more.

The world I found in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers was a world of faces. Before, when I imagined India, my mind bounced endlessly, and my senses were fully engaged, but I was seeing the India of films. I would see beautiful saris on beautiful women, and a merciless pink-orange sun setting through smog as brown as cinnamon. Before, when I imagined India, I scented the spice of simmering curries, the tang of teeming bodies, and the fug of diesel fumes. I heard the merry cacophony trains and buses and rickshaws and rushing schoolchildren. It felt vital and rich and chaotic — but slightly blurred.

Now when I imagine India, I think of Annawadi, and I inhabit this slum. It feels so real to me, and no, I was not prepared for what I might find. The story weaves and dips, but largely follows the journey of Abdul, the slum’s best garbage trader whose unwavering commitment to his trade has lifted his family from poverty. But his family is Muslim and mistrusted, and success is perilous when tensions simmer. When one woman, in a fit of despondency, lights herself ablaze and falsely accuses the Muslims from her deathbed, the family suffers abuse beyond the conveyance of words. Three family members are arrested, tortured, ruined.

I couldn’t stop reading. I expected my fill of tension and worry, but helplessness roiled in me.

I expected honesty and decency among the poorest of the poor. As though those untouched by capitalism would be among humanity’s most compassionate because they know.

How contemptibly naïve. This is the village of the damned. A place where people scrimp and putter, where they scrape and scheme, and nothing ever changes. If you show kindness or compassion to someone less fortunate, then your kin would have less. Any sign of weakness — or success — brings danger.

Residents are constantly cut down, if not by circumstances, then by each other. They live in fear of corrupt police offers and government bureaucrats. One false note, one false witness, and lives are destroyed.

Everyone toils for years just for a whisper of hope, for the faintest glimmer on the horizon. In end, Abdul’s family finds decency still survives amongst the darkness and despair; at multiple trials, neighbors tell the truth even at their peril. The family has lost everything at the courts, but not their freedom. Somehow, they are the lucky ones.

In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the lives of the poor are disposable. When one thief dies, another rises to take his place. When a known criminal is murdered, his autopsy report is altered, and death by blunt force trauma becomes tuberculosis. People know how to die. While one actively chooses rat poison to end his misery quickly, another passively stops eating. Within a few days, the results are the same.

There is so much here that is poignant and heartbreaking. Boo has the strength of a journalist and the heart of poet, and both were required to see this project through. She has the bonafides. As a former Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for The Washington Post and a New Yorker staff writer, she has long labored to tell the stories of America’s poor. When she fell in love with an Indian, her focus shifted to the world’s second-most-populous country.

The story of the Annawadi slum took years to tell. At first, the pale blonde was a suspicious interloper. But within a few months, they thought nothing of this Westerner accompanying them on their daily toils, or asking them the same questions repeatedly in the search for truth.

At first, I found the coolness in Behind the Beautiful Forevers an odd choice. Boo’s prose is lyrical, her descriptions and imagery masterful. Her characters are so finely drawn I feel I might recognize them on the street. But it seemed as if she kept her distance. I wondered, at first, if this was a function of language difficulties, or because she missed important events in the timeline, and so resorted to reconstruction. But now, I feel differently. The distance I find here conveys the truth that exists between people who are hurting and broken. Everything feels meticulous and considered; nothing seems exaggerated. I doubted nothing that I read.

In the end, I learned that Boo was anything but unaffected by her years in Annawadi, for she returned with her healthy royalty cheques to make a difference. I admire her more than I can say.

Every year, if I’m lucky, I’ll read a sumptuous book that moves me so deeply that think about it for a long time. The tapestry woven by the complicated lives seen in Behind the Beautiful Forevers has done that, and more.

Beyond the Beautiful Forevers is a triumph in every way — it’s intelligent, thoughtful, and brimming with rawness and humanity.

I found such power in these stories. As a writer, I will aim higher.

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