When I first started reading, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo, it didn’t strike me as a different book. I mean I had read the similar story in Suketu Mehta’s, “Maximum City” (Honestly I didn’t think much of it), though it was in brief. It was still more or less the same – Mumbai and its dichotomy (like every major cosmopolitan), its slums, its smells and sights and the hidden side to the city, which we ignore or pretend doesn’t exist most of the time. Then what made this book so different that I finished in almost a day?
The difference lies in the way Katherine Boo has written the book – from providing a perspective on the what, the why and the how to experiences that will sometimes warm the heart and sometimes break it, knowing that this is the condition of a city that never sleeps. Having said that, there were also gaps in the book – the way it jumped from one story to another and how that was written almost in a haste which at times provided some disconnect with the overall structure.
The book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is essentially about “Annawadi” – a slum in Mumbai next to the International airport and close to the luxury hotels there (again another facet of the caste and class division). The Annawadians are full of hope as the Indian Economy rises without any realization that nothing is going to change for them. The parity will exist if not widen itself. The under-city and over-city are explicitly portrayed in the book and that makes the reader think: Is this my city? Or could this be any booming cosmopolitan in the nation? The story (I call it that because it reads like one at times) is essentially about these people and their lives – some more and some less.
Abdul, a teenager sees a future beyond counting the recyclable garbage that the city’s rich throw away. He is quick at sorting waste. He is almost there in fulfilling his family’s dreams of moving out of the slum. Asha, a woman of the world and witty at the same time, opts for a different way out of this misery: political corruption. She wants her daughter to become the first female graduate of the slum and will not stop to make that dream come true. And just when all seems to fall in place, there is global recession and Abdul is falsely accused of a terrorist attack and the dream-world they are hoping has crashed to pieces.
Boo’s writing is stark and in your face. There is no pretense and cannot be when one is writing life-stories. The people in the book may seem stereotypical but they aren’t. Each of them is as different as you and I and with their own story to tell, which Boo captures beautifully. There are times when she appears disjointed in the book and fragmented, however in the larger scheme of the plot and writing, the reader tends to easily overlook that.
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is a depiction of our times and where we live. It represents the societies we create and how we take advantage of those to fulfill our selfish ends. The book removes masks that we sometimes wear and compels readers to take a better look at their worlds and surroundings. A disturbing read at times, however quite stark and impactful in its essence.