In January, I read six books. That sounds impressive, but The Strange Library falls more into the short-story category and Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library was a children’s book. I skimmed a few parts of The Leftovers and Restoration where they started to drag, and The Fate of Mercy Alban, a murder-horror-romance guilty pleasure, required barely more effort than it took to turn the pages. But one nonfiction book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Slum, will have a place in my thoughts and in my heart for a long time.
Researched and reported on from November 2007 to March 2011, the book explores the lives of the inhabitants of Annawadi, one of Mumbai’s slums. Simply knowing that the characters are real people is different from feeling and understanding that reality, and Boo expertly achieves the latter. From the start, the precise detail and the personalities that Boo’s subjects possess shine on the page, proving that she delved deep into their lives, which she confirms in the author’s note: “I documented the experiences of residents with written notes, video recordings, audiotapes, and photographs. … I came to my understanding of their thoughts by pressing them in repeated (they would say endless) conversations and fact-checking interviews, often while they worked.”
The portraits Boo compiles range from heartbreaking to inspiring, and often manage to be both at the same time. Manji teaches the slum’s children to read while attempting to become the slum’s first female resident to obtain a college education; at the same time, her best friend kills herself by drinking rat poison as a way of making her own decisions in a life dictated by tradition and an overbearing family. The orphan Sunil struggles to make a meager living by digging through the nearby airport’s trash and selling his goods to young Abdul.
Though the book’s primary story focuses on an accusation by a one-legged woman that Abdul set her on fire, Boo constantly provides snapshots into the other residents’ lives as well. She does so with a journalist’s hand, letting the stark truth of an individual’s situation impact the reader and omitting any overly dramatic sentiment. The characters—real people who live without running water, with a shared toilet, with dirt floors and ramshackle homes that threaten to collapse—drive the book forward, and their ingenuity in the face of many obstacles keeps the reader turning pages and, at the end, wondering what they’re up to now that several years have passed.
Despite the sheer amount of journalism that went into the creation of this book, it reads like a novel. The prose manages to be both graceful and blunt, depicting the poverty and corruption in Mumbai but questioning it at the same time. Here’s one passage that really showcases this balance:
Which day was this? How long had he been here? He was being beaten and phones were ringing in a room next door, which Abdul had concluded was some kind of control room, because of the radio squawks. The officers all spoke in Marathi, which he made the effort to follow. Trying to figure out what the officers were saying gave him something to do besides worrying the obvious problem of being innocent and beaten in a jail cell.
The officers had been going after his hands, the body part on which his livelihood depended. Small hands, with the prominent veins, orange rust stains, and healed cuts that were standard in his profession, they had been seriously injured only once—a bicycle spoke that went deep.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is gritty and real, and that’s what makes it a nonfiction gem. Boo’s analysis of social inequality, politics, and commerce doesn’t feel polemic, but is instead revealed through the characters and their stories.
Yet, I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge its flaws. At least one critic has pointed out that Boo reveals corruption and exploitation from the vantage point of the victims, but fails to give equal say to the perpetrators, such as the police officers who beat Abdul or a nun who resells the clothes and food donated to the orphanage. It isn’t clear why these interviews are not included in the book. Perhaps this issue could have been solved if my other minor complaint were resolved: Boo’s character is noticeably absent from the book. It’s naive to think that the author had no effect on the slumdwellers’ lives during her time in Annawadi, and I would have liked to see some evidence of this, rather than act as though flitted from place to place like a ghost. In her author’s note, Boo acknowledges, “Several children of the slum, having mastered my Flip Video camera, also documented events recounted in this book.”
Despite this, the book remains a powerful and extraordinary depiction of one slum in present-day India, and I would highly recommend it. Even if this type of sober, uncomfortable nonfiction isn’t your typical read, it will truly make you appreciate the privileges that we so often take for granted in our lives.