Behind the Beautiful Forevers: a book that is equal parts heartbreak and inspiration (excerpts)

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine BooBehind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo [Kindle]. The book came recommended by two friends and it didn’t disappoint. When you read obsessively like I do you, every new book comes with an instinctive sense of how long it’ll take to finish. I estimated two months for this one and was done in three weeks. That’s a good sign. The author has a scholar’s eye for explanation and research and a novelist’s nose for story and emotion. Instead of poorly describing the book or my thoughts on it, I’ll just share some powerful passages.

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Had the family funds been at his disposal, he would have bought an iPod. Mirchi had told him about this iPod, and while Abdul knew little of music, he had been enchanted by the concept: a small machine that let you hear only what you wanted to hear. A machine to drown out your neighbors.

Abdul kept working. He was a categorizer of people as well as garbage, and as distinctive as Fatima looked, he considered her a common type. At the heart of her bad nature, like many bad natures, was probably envy. And at the heart of envy was possibly hope — that the good fortune of others might one day be hers.

At this hour, cooking fires were being lit all over Annawadi, the spumes converging to form a great smoke column over the slum. In the Hyatt, people staying on the top floors would soon start calling the lobby. “A big fire is coming toward the hotel!” Or, “I think there’s been an explosion!” The complaints about the cow-dung ash settling in the hotel swimming pool would start half an hour later.

She smiled. “What the One Leg should do is tell the police, ‘I was born Hindu and these Muslims taunted me and set me on fire because I’m Hindu.’ Then these guys would be inside the prison forever.”

Food wasn’t one of the amenities at Cooper, the five-hundred-bed hospital on which millions of poor people depended. Nor was medicine. “Out of stock today” was the nurses’ official explanation. Plundered and resold out of supply cabinets was an unofficial one. What patients needed, families had to buy on the street and bring in.

“And don’t be afraid to talk to the first-class people directly. Some of them are quite nice, they’ll speak back,” Asha instructed her daughter. “Inquire of them how to look better, take their advice.”

As Abdul and his family had already learned, the police station was not a place where victimhood was redressed and public safety held dear. It was a hectic bazaar, like many other public institutions in Mumbai, and investigating Kalu’s death was not a profit-generating enterprise.

As Manju became consumed with shame and worry over her mother’s affairs, Meena could only offer perspective. Her own parents and brothers beat her regularly, with force, and the big expeditions punctuating her housekeeping-days were visits to the public tap and the toilet. In Meena’s opinion, any mother who financed her daughter’s college education, rarely slapped her, and hadn’t arranged her marriage at age fifteen could be forgiven for other failings.

The newspapers Sunil collected said that a lot of Americans were now living in their cars or in tents under bridges. The richest man in India, Mukesh Ambani, had also lost money—billions—although not enough to impede construction on his famed twenty-seven-story house in south Mumbai. The lower stories would be reserved for cars and the six hundred servants required by his family of five. Far more interesting to young slumdwellers was the fact that Ambani’s helicopters would land on the roof.

Every country has its myths, and one that successful Indians liked to indulge was a romance of instability and adaptation—the idea that their country’s rapid rise derived in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life. In America and Europe, it was said, people know what is going to happen when they turn on the water tap or flick the light switch. In India, a land of few safe assumptions, chronic uncertainty was said to have helped produce a nation of quick-witted, creative problem-solvers. Among the poor, there was no doubt that instability fostered ingenuity, but over time the lack of a link between effort and result could become debilitating. “We try so many things,” as one Annawadi girl put it, “but the world doesn’t move in our favor.”

Triumphant, Asha felt confirmed in a suspicion she’d developed in her years of multi-directional, marginally profitable enterprise. Becoming a success in the great, rigged market of the overcity required less effort and intelligence than getting by, day to day, in the slums. The crucial things were luck and the ability to sustain two convictions: that what you were doing wasn’t all that wrong, in the scheme of things, and that you weren’t all that likely to get caught.

The previous week, a Congress Party truck had pulled up outside Annawadi, and workers unloaded eight stacks of concrete sewer covers. A crowd amassed on the road, excited at the pre-election gift. Thanks to Priya Dutt’s party, the slumlanes would have no more open sewers. A few days later, the Congress Party workers returned in the truck. Instead of installing the sewer covers, they reclaimed them. The covers were needed in one of the district’s larger slums, where the prop might influence a greater number of voters. Older Annawadians laughed as they watched the truck depart. The blatancy was refreshing.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.