India, the rising economic superpower still mired in many problems from its past, is home to 1.2 billion of the earth’s human inhabitants and one-third of the world’s impoverished people. Roughly 55 percent of India’s children suffer from malnutrition. In a land where the promise of a brighter economic future beckons, and signs of flashy progress abound, many Indian citizens, both young and old, still struggle to just survive.
Journalist Katherine Boo’s nonfiction National Book Award-winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers takes us inside an Indian no-man’s-land, providing a real-life account of those struggles. Boo, a staff writer for The New Yorker and former reporter for The Washington Post, lived in India for three years to write this book, getting to know the lives and personalities of those who call home a swampy Mumbai slum near the newly renovated international airport and a row of gleaming, glitzy hotels.
The slum’s name is Annawadi, where 3,000 souls cram themselves into 300 makeshift hovels next to a lake of sewage. Many work from before dawn until after dark in dangerous, dirty, temporary jobs. Despite the evidence of the growing economy all around them, permanent work is hard to find for many of the slum-dwellers, thanks in part to India’s notorious caste system and to corruption around every corner.
A smart, driven teenager named Abdul serves as the book’s main character. He works tirelessly sorting garbage to resell to recyclers. It’s filthy, frustrating work, but young Abdul is his family’s primary earner, supporting his mother, father and eight siblings. His work has managed to improve his family’s standard of living relative to those around them in the slum, both a blessing and an ongoing weight on Abdul’s shoulders.
Boo faithfully tells Abdul’s story, as well as his family’s and his neighbors’ stories, making you forget from time to time that she’s not writing fiction. In fact, in the first few paragraphs of the book, an event happens which shapes the narrative in such a way, you’d swear she made it up. (But she didn’t.)
Boo’s a true journalist here, reporting the facts, and not openly inserting her opinions about India’s wide economic disparity, about the excessive wealth which exists right alongside excessive pain and suffering, about the rampant corruption that infects everything. She lets you draw your own conclusions, through the stories of those living in Annwadi. And while there’s definitely heartbreak, it’s not all bad in the slum. There’s hope in Annawadi, and a striving perseverance that can inspire.
— LouAnn Lofton, firstname.lastname@example.org