I am drawn to stories that chronicle how people get by in times of great adversity. I am not talking about action movies, which feature flat characters facing danger and evil without a waver in their convictions or hairstyles. I like the grittier tales that show the great range of the human response. Some of my favorite all-time characters are Ferdinand Bardamu from Journey to the End of the Night, Sonny in Sonny’s Blues, Marjane in Persepolis, and even the Thénardiers from Les Miserables. These are not classic heroes; they are people figuring out how to mitigate oppression and suffering in their hardscrabble world. And it ain’t always pretty. These characters display nihilism, depression, anger, and cruelty. But they also show admirable resourcefulness, beauty, and brilliance.
Katherine Boo’s Pulitzer Prize winning work of narrative nonfiction, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is another impressive work of this genre. Here, in the Mumbai slum of Annawadi, the residents build crude dwellings along a sewage lake and next to the international airport. Hidden from sight by a colorful billboard advertising ceramic tiles (the source for the book’s title), 3000 people face hunger, infected rat bites, water-borne diseases, and horrific domestic violence. Yet, in the midst of these insalubrious and downright unlivable conditions, people live.
The Annawadians who do not succumb to their environment forge on, creating the best situation they can for themselves. The central character, Abdul, makes his living in the garbage trade – buying bags of trash from local scavengers, sorting it, and reselling the salvageable materials (like plastics and aluminum). This is a promising career, and his family begins to improve their position, provoking the envy and wrath of their nearest neighbor, a one-legged woman who refuses to play the part of a cripple. Through this feud, and the chain of events that follow, we learn more about daily life in the slum and the rampant corruption in Mumbai’s legal and political system.
There are few overarching statistics lumping together the plight of the “poor” in this work. Each resident of the slum is an individual, and each person comes to terms with their personal suffering in their own way. Manju studies and teaches children, Abdul works hard, Fatima has sex, and Meena takes rat poison. The most intriguing character, Asha, deals with her wretched lot in life by gaming the system, making pots of money through corruption, and increasing her political influence. I find it hard to sort out the right actions from the wrong ones among those who live in overwhelming misery and chaos like this. One coping method seems just as good (or bad) as another.
As I read on, I found myself wondering what I would do in their place. Who would I be? The fighter, the rebel, the righteous, the doormat, the bully, the victim, the worker, the drinker, the scammer, the victim, the helper, the living, the dying…all of the above?
Each main character is vividly developed in this story, all the more impressive, I suppose, since they are not characters at all. In the author’s note, Katherine Boo describes how she became acquainted with the residents of Annawadi and painstakingly recreated their stories over the course of three years through hundred of interviews, video recordings, and public documents. Her dogged pursuit of the facts even provoked the gentle Abdul to say at one point: “Are you dim-witted, Katherine? I told you already three times and you put it in your computer.” The book is such a fluid read, and so full of rich moments, I had to keep reminding myself that it was not a work of fiction. These events really happened, and continue to happen each day.
I am hesitantly featuring this book under our August theme of “Beauty” because of the title, but there isn’t much in this story that could be called beautiful. Sweet and poetic moments are in short supply, while cruelty and filth abound. Unless, of course, you consider having the courage to rise and live another day as a beautiful thing.
Is this book hard to take at times? Yes. Is it shocking and sad? No question. But, is it worth a read? Absolutely.