My first real look into India and the dramatic differences between the classes came when I stumbled onto The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga a couple of years ago. The corruption, the conditions, and the disparity were all pretty appalling, and The White Tiger became my favorite fiction book of the year. So, it didn't take long for me to pick up Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012) by Katherine Boo after discovering it.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an award-winning, non-fiction book about one small slum of approximately 3,000 people located adjacent to the airport and surrounding luxury hotels in Mumbai, India. Boo focuses her story on a small number of families within the slum and what happens to them during a three-year period of their lives. Boo reiterates some themes from Adiga's book: showing the great disparities between the people living in the luxury hotels and those in the slum next door; the incredible corruption throughout government programs, the justice system, and the police; and the overwhelming poverty as well as resourcefulness of some of the people living in the slums.
The central focus in Boo's book are the Husain's, a Muslim family that collects recycling and scrap metal for a living. They are doing relatively well at the beginning of the book before they get embroiled in the justice system and lose almost everything. Other fascinating people include Asha and her beautiful daughter Manju, the first college graduate in the slum, the one-legged Fatima, poor Meena, as well as many of the young garbage pickers.
Even after reading a couple books about conditions in India as the country rapidly modernizes and rakes in money from globalization, the poverty and corruption were still surprising and infuriating. The problem sometimes felt too big to even wrap my head around. At points I simply had to start disassociating because the thought of some poor man hit by a car, pleading for help from onlookers and ignored while he bleeds to death by the side of the road was too much for me to handle.
I was very impressed by this book. It's not simply a romantic story of one poor family in a slum, but a detailed and understanding view of the complex relationships between people in the slum and their relationship to the overcity that is both enlightening and heartbreaking. Some of the negative reviews on Amazon complained that Boo was putting thoughts into her subjects' heads. However, Boo explains in the epilogue that she discovered her subjects' feelings through hours and hours of interviews. It certainly did not seem that Boo was simply projecting her own feelings onto them.
This one was worth reading, and I would recommend it to anyone.