Author Katherine Boo chronicles three years of living in Annawadi, located in Mumbai, across from an international airport and luxury hotels, in her stellar book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. The book is centered on a family falsely accused of a crime, but beneath that, it is a broad perspective of living in the slums. Unlike first world societies where basic justice is a given, the family faces rampant corruption and bribes just to stop their situation from becoming worse. The struggle to survive, including the daily task of finding clean food and water, and the difficulties navigating the weak justice system are constant and pervasive throughout the book.
The people in Annawadi are mainly scavengers. Not many children attend school, not only because it ends at 7th grade, but also, for many schools, teachers are not adept at teaching and frequently to not even show up. Also, with families already struggling to make ends meet, children are needed to scavenge items and hopefully bring in money to carry the family over to the next day. And yet, as bad as the conditions are in Annawadi, the fact that people migrate there is an indication of how much worse conditions are elsewhere.
One of the shocking things that stuck with me after reading this book is the role of non-profit organizations. It is disheartening to know that although there are many NGOs helping, there are also many corrupt ones that impede the upward mobility process of the poor.
Boo’s writing is spectacular; although the book is nonfiction, it reads like a novel, and captures its audience from the first page. Without being preachy, she effectively writes why those in abject poverty have such difficulty rising. It is not one or two problems that are the demarcation of the poverty from those better off. In short, it is a lack of necessary resources: education, jobs, housing, healthcare, sanitation, and a fair and balanced judicial system.
After reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I’m eager to read another articles by Boo. Her ability to make an abstract concept (life in a third world country) concrete and moving is amazing and made me step back and reassess my views.