November 26, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

by Katherine Boo
ages: adult
First sentence: "Midnight was closing in, the one-legged woman was grievously burned, and the Mumbai police were coming for Abdul and his father."
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I don't know if I'm the last person to read this one, but I do know that it was its nomination for the 2012 National Book Award that finally spurred me into picking it up. (You would think it was M's desire to go to India for a year. But, no.)

For the twelve of us who haven't read the book yet, this is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Boo's foray into the world of Mumbai's underbelly. She spent several years (from November 2007 to March 2011) in the Annawadi slum, near the Mumbai airport, getting to know the residents. She followed their ups and downs, painting a portrait of people who were desperately poor, and their attempts to do something about it, whether for good or ill.

It's a desperate story, gritty and harsh, and yet it's an incredible work of journalism. Boo's affection for these people come through, and she manages to get them -- individuals who have no qualms in lying to each other as well as police and the government -- to tell an honest story. It's one that made me think: about class, about globalism, about corruption, about India as a country.

Several quotes that struck me:

An aside in a larger discussion about the sections in Annawadi (yes, even the poor in India have classes): "In the Indian caste system, the most artfully oppressive division of labor ever devised, Dalits -- once termed untouchables -- were at the bottom of the heap." (p. 42)

The parliamentarian who would represent Annawadians was hardly in doubt. It would be the incumbent from the Congress Party, Priya Dutt, a kind, unassuming woman who personified two historical weaknesses of the Indian electorate: for flimi people and for legacies." (p. 230)

And what I think is at the heart of this book:
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 they 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, The politicians held forth on the middle class. The poor took down one another, and the world's great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.
Fascinating and thought-provoking.


Abby said...

Nope, you're not the last one! I haven't read it yet, but I'm on the list for it at the library. :D Thanks for the review!

Kailana said...

I haven't read this yet, either, but then I have been out of the loop for most of the year... I will add it to my list!

contemplatrix said...

I'm one of the 12 who haven't read it either, and though mildly interested I wasn't all that eager. Knowing you enjoyed it, and knowing you wouldn't say these things just because it is so well-received and short-listed for awards, I will be giving this another look and will make sure it stays on my tbr list.

~L (omphaloskepsis)

Corinne said...

I found this really worthwhile even though it was really hard to read and sometimes downright depressing.