Sunday, July 1, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Readers, buy this book! Make a bookmark with the words: THIS IS NON FICTION in large letters and keep it as a reminder because you'll swear this is a novel.  Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Katherine Boo has brilliantly succeeded in making the story of "life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity" radiate with energy and emotion.  How a non-fiction writer could develop characters and capture dialogue while staying true to facts that illuminate the story of Annawadi, a self-developed slum of 3,000 people living on half an acre on the outskirts of the Mumbai airport, is a testament to Boo’s ability to embed herself, listen and then etch an indelible picture that makes the reader know, yes, really know, those residents. After more than three years of research with translators beside her, all of whom had constant fevers and infections from the filthy conditions, Boo captures the heart of the community.  She paints each resident with a palette that shows many transcending their surroundings.

Abdul, a Muslim teen, is trying to get his family out of the slum through his ability to find and resell recyclables and by his adherence to his motto:  avoid trouble.  But, in Annawadi, trouble comes unbidden when Fatima, the foul-mouthed, one-legged harridan, accuses Abdul of a crime he didn’t commit.

Asha, who’s turning forty, dreams of becoming Annawadi’s first female slum lord and gains success as an influence peddler.  Her daughter Manju is about to become the area’s first female college graduate if her other duties and a possible arranged marriage don’t derail it.  Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap metal thief, is a joyful mischief maker.  Boo makes the reader value Annawadi’s residents while they see daily reminders that they are of no worth to others. In a place where teens debate the best suicide methods and see death daily, Kalu’s friend Sunil, climbs to a roof top where “something he’s come to realize . . . looking out, thinking about what would happen if he leaned too far, was that a boy’s life could still matter to himself.”

Boo reports the residents’ thoughts as in Abdul’s pondering: “Water and ice were made of the same thing.  He thought most people were made of the same thing too. But here was the interesting thing. Ice was distinct from – and in his view, better than – what it was made of.  He wanted to be better than what he was made of.  In Mumbai’s dirty water, he wanted to be ice.”

Whatever you’ve read or thought about India today, this book will turn it upside down.  It will sadden you and it will make your heart sing with hope.  Most of all it will make you thankful that there are writers with Boo’s talent and tenacity who are willing to sacrifice to show the real Mumbai. Out of filth, Katherine Boo has created a magnificent ice sculpture of a book.

When Kirkus Reviews, arguably the toughest book critics in the business, call a book: “The best book yet written on India in the throes of a brutal transition,” you know you’re in good hands.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Nonfiction, Gourmet, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date: February 7, 2012

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