Non-fiction that reads like literary fiction. Katherine Boo’s stunning first book, winner of several coveted awards, in addition to being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, showcases narrative non-fiction telling the heartbreaking stories of optimism and hope that weave a dirt poor community together in Annawadi, a makeshift slum settlement in Mumbai. When truth surpasses fiction, when you rush to turn the pages of non-fiction to see what is going to happen to its characters, you know Ms. Boo has achieved something remarkable.
Salman Rushdie says, “Must read. A Mumbai slum understood and imagined as never before in language of intense beauty.”
And he is right.
The Beautiful Forever is a wall that separates the glitzy, modern airport from the Annawadi slum. A slum where people are so poor, they sometimes resort to catching and cooking rats for dinner. A slum where head boils and lice are rampant, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases are the norm because of the profession a lot of its inhabitants resort to: rag picking, described in such delicious detail, you can actually picture the aluminium strips they hide in their clothes, or the seven plastic bottles retrieved from behind some drain, high up on a hazardous to reach ledge.
This book revolves around the young and hardworking rag picker, Abdul, and his mother, Zehrunisa, and a journey of their family through a fight with their neighbour, Fatima, a cripple with an insatiable sexual appetite, also known as One Leg. The third family, we get to know intimately, is of aspiring slumlord, Asha, a party worker for the right wing Shiv Sena, scarred from a childhood in rural poverty, with a teenaged daughter, Manju, idealistic and hardworking, who runs a slum school and is studying English at University through a technique she calls “by hearting”, as in learning by rote. Boo has a complete lack of maudlin or unnecessary emotion as she describes death, loss, love, and longing in a journalistic, unbiased fashion, and it helps her pull off what may otherwise have been difficult as a foreigner, an American, to spend months in a slum, researching, fitting in, and getting the trust of the Annawadians as they told their stories.
Several other characters play short-lived cameos: Kalu, a fifteen year old scrap metal thief, who is inching towards a better life, Meena, Manju’s confidante and friend, who consumes rat poison, ostensibly for eating an egg, and others. Their lives, their consumption of Eras-ex, a glue they sniff to help them cope, their friendships, their dreams, their heartbreaking innocence, Boo describes all these as if she were a worm on the swampy, lushy, smelly ground. As if she were there. The Indian judicial system, the corrupt police, the political parties who install drain covers only for a visit by a dignitary, only to remove them the next day and shift them elsewhere, all these are painted in masterful strokes that show Boo’s restraint.
Boo, a New Yorker staff writer who won a Pulitzer Prize while working at The Washington Post, spent three years and four months (from November 2007 to March 2011) following the lives of these families. Although Boo is a foreigner married to an Indian, she is no foreigner to the poor; she has written extensively about the American poor as a journalist. Her book deconstructs a lot of the myths we have about slums and the people that inhabit them, and she tells this story of an imminent destruction of the slum by the airport authorities. A lot of us believe that in India, life is cheap. This book demonstrates quite clearly how it is not. “Behind The Beautiful Forevers” is a 250- page book that will continue to haunt you long after you put it down.