When I think of India, I remember reading Lights of the Veil, the smell of a friend’s curry cooking in her dorm room, and Monsoon Wedding, one of my favorite Bollywood films. I call to mind memoirs which have included pilgrimages through India, which observe extreme poverty and begging children and then continue on their way to a Hindu temple.
When I think of India, I remember watching Mowgli in Jungle Book as a child. I envision shrines and saris. I flash to a pink tunic, discarded by my brother’s friend and worn by me for several years. (I rarely wear pink but I was enthralled by the intricate embroidered design.) I think of princes and tigers and slums. I don’t know anyone who currently lives in India but I have several friends who called it home at one point.
Up until several years ago, I didn’t think much about this swirling mix of stories I’d absorbed about India, the US, myself. I didn’t question the accuracy or assumptions made. As I pressed in to my then-job as a hospice social worker, I heard such a wide variety of stories from people with all manner of backgrounds, cultures, and class. I could not help but start to read books and hear stories (told by someone other than the individual) with a more critical lens.
To paraphrase Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, there’s danger in listening to only a single story. Although I trusted my friends who recommended Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I worried this look at an Indian slum would confirm the sole image many bring to mind when they hear “India.” What story would Katherine Boo share? I need not have worried.
When I started reading, I kept stopping to figure out if this was actually a novel. It reads differently than the average non-fiction book. Not quite memoir, certainly not fiction, wholly investigative journalism. Katherine Boo found a way to bring us right to the Annawadi slum and in to the world of the people we meet. Annawadi exists behind the airport, hidden by a wall covered in Beautiful Forever ads. The contrast is striking.
We see Asha plot, Manju study, Abdul barter, and Zehrunisa fight for her family. They live in the same settlement but hierarchies still exist. Those more well off than others. The Hindus compared to the Muslims. Men holding more power than women. They do have this in common: they dream of success and they work hard for it. Some through bribery, others picking up and reselling trash, a few through the power of education.
While Behind the Beautiful Forevers engages its reader, it is not always an easy read. It is not a spoiler to say it includes self-immolation, murder, illness, and rampant corruption. On the other hand, there are also stories of friendship, justice, and hope. The citizens of Annawadi strive for a better tomorrow, in spite of what many of us would call abject circumstances.
You will root for some of the people you meet in these pages and curse others. Boo humanizes them all.
“Abdul hadn’t previously thought of policemen as people with hearts and lungs who worried about money or their health. The world seemed replete with people as bad off as himself, and this made him feel less alone.” (p. 130) That Abdul is able to acknowledge this is all the more stunning when you consider how the policemen have treated him.
As for me, I’m thinking about what’s behind the Beautiful Forevers in my city. Though it may look different, India is not unique in its class division, corruption, and poverty. No place is exempt from these struggles.
It is for this reason I encourage you to read along with us. If you do, you will not view poverty or the poor in the same way again. We are in this together. Oh, that we would have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to care.
Come back Wednesday March 26 for a discussion post led by D.L. Mayfield. We now have a Facebook group so we can share quotes and discuss the book throughout the month. Come join us! On Twitter, the official Red Couch Book Club hashtag is #redcouchbc. Next Wednesday we’ll announce the next quarter’s book selections. Pretty sure many of you already own (and love) our April book. Stay tuned!
- Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide– Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
- Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men– Mara Hvistendahl
- A Walk Across the Sun– Corban Addison
- Secret Daughter: A Novel– Shilpi Somaya Gowda
- Why Not Today: Trafficking, Slavery, and the Global Church…and You– Matthew Cork, Kenneth Kemp, and Joseph D’souza
- Not Today (movie based on Why Not Today)
- War Photographer Series– D.L. Mayfield
Will you be reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers with us?
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Image credit: Chris