‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’

Life in a Mumbai slum reveals how the ‘brutal capriciousness’ of daily life can undermine people's economic security.

April 08, 2012
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It has become increasingly common in the U.S. to blame the least among us, as well as those who have suffered most from the Great Recession, for their own problems.

Consider the movement in some states to drug-test welfare recipients and those collecting unemployment benefits despite how little evidence there is that recipients use drugs. Or think a bit about the willingness of our political “leaders” to gut successful social programs to decrease deficits and pay for tax cuts given to the wealthiest Americans.

Then there’s the harsh attitude many have toward the nonnative children of undocumented or illegal immigrants, many of whom have been in the U.S. since they were infants and are Americans in all but the strictest legal sense. It’s not our fault you have a problem—it’s yours no matter how complex your circumstances, including those well beyond your ability to control.

Obviously, not everyone feels that way. The other extreme is to blame no one for anything. Neither is right.

And just about anyone can speak anecdotally about a family member, friend, or the guy down the street who won’t look for work or drinks too much or blames the world for his problems.

Behind the Beautiful ForeversBut the question Cain posed when God inquired about Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” apparently is one asked with more frequency in America’s highly charged and politicized landscape.

Thus it was America that came to mind as I finished Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.”

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers”is social journalism at its finest, an immersion over several years into the lives of people we will never know but whose daily struggles with abject poverty, governmental corruption, and cultural differences provide a gripping nonfiction narrative that mostly horrifies but on occasion inspires us.

Katherine Boo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist known primarily for writing about America's poor and disadvantaged.An American married to an Indian, she turns her attention and reportorial skills of observation here to the residents of Annawadi, a makeshift slum in Mumbai, India, of several thousand huts and a clashing mix of mostly Hindu but also Muslim families.

The slum sprang up during the construction of the city’s airport and the five luxury hotels that surround it.

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