Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is the most compelling narrative nonfiction I have encountered.  She spent years researching in Annawadi, a slum in Mumbai, and the results are stirring.  The story is one of real life, not unbridled success.  Some people do well, others die.  Some people are unlawfully detained and beaten, others aren’t.

I plan on volunteering in another year, and I would most like to do so in India.  Since I think of myself as something of a writer, I figured I would write about my experience.  Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the book I hoped to write.  It did exactly what I wanted to do: tell honest stories that help people empathize, not pity.

As every slumdweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains had found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha placed her hopes; and education.

Pity is a complicated sentiment.  Some measure of sympathy might lead to individuals taking action to help alleviate another’s plight.  Too much pity devalues the subject.  They become helpless victims, defined only by what they lack, reliant upon a White Savior to cure their poverty.  I can’t stand that viewpoint.

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.

I was inspired by what I read.  No one works harder than the impoverished slumdwellers depicted in the text.  India’s poor work as hard as they can to survive.  America’s poor rely on governmental safety nets in their (brief) times of need.  I am not arguing against welfare programs, but this illustrates a profound difference in their personal responsibility.  Most Annawadi residents were entrepreneurs, and effectively, small business owners.  They understood market value, competition, governmental policies, and economics better than some Western business students.  They sold scrap metal, mitigated disagreements, cleaned bathrooms, and hustled hard to provide food and shelter for their families.

It was a great book, I am very glad I finally got a chance to read it.  Katherine Boo’s journalistic experience and tireless research made Behind the Beautiful Forevers a unique story, full of truth and life.

Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

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