So I haven’t read a non-fiction, non-parenting book in years. Actual years. (Which makes me feel a little sheepish for the grief I give people who don’t read a single novel in a year, or the scorn I (privately?) feel for those who shrug novels off as ‘just made up’. Not sheepish enough to change my view, obviously, as these non-novel people are clearly Bad). But I kept seeing Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity on best-of lists, and, more promisingly, described as ‘novelistic.’ So off I went and read it.
And it is very much worth your non-novel reading time. I’d agree with the ‘novelistic’ description, in that it follows a closed set of characters in the smallish Mumbai slum of Annawadi, located next to the Mumbai airport. The book finds a plot around which to explore these characters in the suicide of one of the neighbourhood women, Fatima ‘One Leg’ and the subsequent arrest and trial of three members of the Husain family for murder because of her suicide.
Attached, coral-like (or what I imagine coral to be like – something like hooked to the main story, but spreading, fully-formed and beautiful in their own directions) are stories of the neighbours: the aspiring slum-lord, Asha; Asha’s daughter, the first college educated woman of the slum, Manju; the Husain parents; Kalu, Sunil, Sanjay and Sonu, garbage pickers or thieves,; and Meena, the first woman born in Annawadi.
While the individual people (I suppose I ought not call them ‘characters’) have unique and specific stories, taken together the novel offers a sharp critique of the way inequality and corruption is structured into Indian (and every) society. Through the experiences of these individual stories we witnesses the injustice of the legal system, education, politics, business and health care. In one of the most pointed and non-fiction-est points of the book, toward the end, Bo writes:
“Powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked. Sometimes they tried to destroy one another. Sometimes, like Fatima, they destroyed themselves in the process. When they were fortunate, like Asha, they improved their lots by beggaring the life chances of other poor people. What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too. In the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament. Poor people didn’t unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as hey were provisional. And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of the society at large. The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached.” (237)
I’m not sure I needed this expository conclusion, as the work of the book through the compelling presentation of the individual lives presented this argument in a less didactic and entirely absorbing way. That said, if you wanted a precise of what the book is ‘about,’ that paragraph gives you a solid start. So… enjoy?