Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers – by Katherine Boo

The author of this book is an American Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who is married to an Indian man. After spending three years researching for this book she realistically portrays life in a Mumbai slum. All the people are real. All the incidents really happened.

The slum Annawadi houses thousands of people in a very small space, right next to the main airport road to the Mumbai airport. There is a sewage like that borders the slum. Dead and rotting feral pigs float in the lake, yet, some crazy kids swim in it.

The slum is separated by a sheet metal wall from the road, but visible from the upper floors of the many five-star hotels at the airport. The people of Annawadi are looked upon by the hotel guests and rich Indians in the hotels perhaps like ants on a kitchen counter. Visible, easily ignored, but nonetheless a pest, if it invades your life.

One of the protagonists is in prison and observes:

Many of the children had been detained because they’d been caught working. Most child labor had been outlawed even when Abdul was young, but now, occasionally, the law was enforced.

Two boys who looked to be seven years old had been picked up while sweeping floors in a cheap hotel. They reminded Abdul of this little brothers, and he felt emotional being around them. He couldn’t see why the state had taken them from their parents. Being so poor that you had to work so young seemed like punishment enough.

The poorest of the poor, which is a large majority of the Indian population, is preyed upon by all above them in status. Many people don’t know how old they are, since their parents never bothered to track their dates of birth, being illiterate and too busy scraping for morsels. Abdul was charged with a crime, and to determine whether he should be tried as an adult or a minor, the state needed to determine his age:

In the examination ward, Abdul was weighed by a medical assistant: 108 pounds. He was measured: five foot one. He lay naked on a table as his pubic hair was declared normal, his facial hair categorized as “sub-adult,” and a bunchy old scar over his right eyebrow placed in the public record. Then a doctor entered the room with the results of the forensic investigation. Abdul was seventeen years old if he paid two thousand rupees, and twenty years old if he did not.

Abdul sat up angry. He didn’t have two thousand rupees, and what was it with this rich doctor, asking a boy in detention for cash? The doctor held up his hands, rueful. “Yes, it’s rubbish, asking poor boys like you, but the government doesn’t pay us enough money to raise our children. We’re forced to take bribes, to be kamina.” He smiled at Abdul. “Nowadays, we’d do almost anything for money.”

The Indian criminal justice system appears to be a market like garbage. Innocence and guilt can be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags at a recycler.

Katherine Boo describes the lives of the poorest of the poor in one of the poorest nations on earth in bright detail. And yet, the combined wealth of the hundred richest Indians was surging to equal nearly a quarter of the country’s GDP.

Boo exposes corruption on all levels of society, where the only way to come out ahead is by paying somebody off. The slum-dwellers who are fighting for subsistence living, where little children pick single grains of rice out of the dirt, are preyed on by the police, who patrol the slums and extort “protection money” from those who work 16-hour-days sorting garbage and selling it to recyclers. The poor steal from each other, beat each other up, for a sack of garbage. A slum-dweller unfortunate enough to get hit by a car will lie in the ditch moaning to passersby for help for hours, without anyone stopping. Only when he is found dead at the end of the day will somebody come and haul the corpse away lest it stink up the street.

To understand what being poor really means, to get a grasp of the size of the differences in the Indian class system, to feel the bone-deep corruption that has permeated the entire society like a cancer, you have to read Katherine’s Book Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

Rating: ****

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers – by Katherine Boo

  1. reiseliesel

    This seems to be an important book! Whoever is interested in other cultures should have a look at it.

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