Remarkable book set in India illuminates deprivation

An engrossing and enlightening book came to my attention a while back.  It was written by Katherine Boo, a longtime New Yorker writer whose prose is elegant and artful.

Behind the Beautiful ForeversHonored by a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, a National Magazine Award and a Pulitzer Prize, Boo had her book published in 2012.  I cannot recommend too highly Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity.

I have to say its ring of authenticity is a clarion invitation to understanding and empathizing with the poorest of the poor.  So compelling are the book’s descriptions that I felt as though I could smell the smells of a slum, taste the bitterness of injustice and feel the pain of deprivation on which Boo trains her attention.

Stupid me, either when I ordered Behind the Beautiful Forevers or got down my list of reading material, I forgot a key fact about the book until I arrived at Boo’s author’s note at the end.  In it, she talks about the research she did to write not a novel, but a work of nonfiction.

I think I exclaimed out loud when I realized that the conditions she brought to life actually were life.  (I said I was stupid, right?)

Because I reside in Cambodia, a country where where corruption is a way of life and crippling poverty is endemic and inescapable, what with child labor visible on virtually every block and evidence of malnutrition widespread, I felt while reading through the “novel” how universal were her observations, how important they were.  They certainly seemed as applicable here as they are in India.


Just across the river in the capital, you can glimpse the skyline toward the southern portion of Phnom Penh.  On the other side of the road from which I took this photo on New Year’s Day sits a new luxury hotel, the Sokha, which even has running water.  The three towers in the distance are in a gated community complete with supermarket.

Boo seems to have gotten into the minds of the Mumbai slum dwellers she profiles.  I don’t doubt for a moment that the thoughts she ascribes to the individuals in the book actually were honest and credible.

“My reporting wasn’t pretty, especially at first,” the author confesses in her Author’s Note.  “. . . I was a reliably ridiculous spectacle, given to toppling onto the sewage lake while videotaping and running afoul of the police.  However, residents had concerns more pressing than my presence.  After a month or two of curiosity, they went more or less about their business as I chronicled their lives.”

Boo ends her author’s note with a question that is relevant in most developing countries, a question that she leaves unanswered:

It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in under-cities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good.  The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be — all those invisible individuals who every day find themselves faced with dilemmas not unlike the one Abdul confronted, stone slab in hand, one July afternoon when his life exploded.  If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight? 

I waited too long to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers.  I hope, if you haven’t had the signal experience of having it move you until now, that you’ll put the book at the top of your list.

a_thousand_splendid_sunsLet me recommend as highly A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Housseini, which takes place in contemporary Afghanistan.  Although Suns, too, hardly amounts to escapism, the book by the author of The Kite Runner is one of the best that I have read in a long time.  I am betting you will agree.


One thought on “Remarkable book set in India illuminates deprivation

  1. I read THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS several years ago and thought it magnificent. I could “see” her people and places, especially as I recalled being taken to the airport and passing the Mumbai airport slums. I believe they also “made it” into a play that the National UK Theater did.

    Also read A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS and agree with your critique of it.


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