How are Americans, mostly protected by a safety net of government and private programs to provide economic aid should they suffer misfortune, able to comprehend Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo? The conditions in the Annawadi slum outside the international airport in Mumbai, India are appalling. The people crowded into pieced-together shacks around industrial waste and sewage, without running water, are so poor. It is a setting unlike what we see in the U.S.
Boo has been living in India off and on with her Indian-husband for ten years. In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, she recounts slightly over three years in the lives of the sons and daughters of Muslim day laborers, garbage pickers, teachers, and housewives mired in a slum. The central character in the huge cast is Abdul, an industrious scavenger with a strict moral conscience, who is falsely accused of contributing to the suicide of an irritating neighbor. Though there really is no evidence and most of the community vouches for innocence of Abdul, the corrupt local police see an opportunity for extortion. Abdul, his father, and his sister are beaten and imprisoned to await a distant trial.
The author states that not all of India is like the Annawadi slum, but it is also not unique. Boo describes corruption at many levels of India's government affecting the slum. Elected officials help constituents just before elections (and only then), and the police are always shaking down anyone with a spare rupee. Particularly appalling are the schools that only exist on inspection days, reaping government grants and international aid for their crooked directors.
Some readers may give up quickly on Behind the Beautiful Forevers with its many characters and seemingly hopeless situation. If they stick out the introductory chapters, they will find a universal drama tied closer to the U.S. economy than one might think. A promising book for discussion groups.
Boo, Katherine. Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Random House, 2012. 256p. ISBN 9781400067558.