10 April 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Shadow people, real lives
There was just one thing that troubled me about this book as I read – and that was the way the author had got inside her subjects’ heads, revealing their inmost, and sometimes very private, thoughts. How could she have known them?
This quibble was resolved when I read her explanatory note at the end and it described exactly how.
To write this book, Katherine Boo spent four years observing and understanding Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai international airport, and here she has profiled some of the people she met and written about the events in their lives during this time.
In Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is beautifully written, easy to read, full of drama and tragedy, and confronts the reader with complex thoughts and feelings – especially privileged readers who believe that Mumbai belongs to them (like me). It attempts to answer Katherine Boo’s questions:
What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government’s economic and social policy? Whose capabilities are squandered? By what means might that ribby child grow up to be less poor?
I felt sad to think that we are probably a long way away from a situation in which someone from inside the many Annawadis in our country could write a book like this a long way away even from an Angela's Ashes kind of book.
What I admired most about
Behind the Beautiful Forevers was its high standards at every level and in every area – time and attention spent on listening and observing, previous perspective, accuracy and detail, literary and intellectual quality – something I’m afraid I have not encountered for a very long time and had begun to believe that I was fortunate to have ever known that it existed at all, but would probably never see again.

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