Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

When a writer – a he, or she, a Hindu, or a Catholic, a Turk, or a Slovak – fundamentally writes about an Other, we expect the writer to blunder more than to succeed. Perhaps there is something inevitable about the fact that we are born and raised in a certain skin, framed through the experiences of culture and upbringing. Why there are some people who are able to look past this and see the innate human experience and others who are fundamentally unable to is a mystery for me that I have wasted many days of thought on. I have theories about what causes it, but we do not read or write book reviews to mill over such differences.

What I would like to communicate is that Katherine Boo is a white American who made me understand the psychology of the Indian poor with more clarity than many contemporary Indian writers. Certainly, I would not compare her to a writer like Premchand, but Premchand is writing of poverty in a much more formational way. What Katherine Boo made me realize is that, in the city I live in, where there are millions of people who live in tall skyscrapers, scraping away at Maggi noodles while watching Netflix and bitching about their bosses, are people who live underneath them, in tin tenements, or in tents, or simply on the floor of a sidewalk, sleeping with next to nothing, working next to nothing. They are people who I simply pass by. They are people who think with the same breadth of thought as I.

India is a society literally divided between a poor class and a rich class, probably the most extreme example of such in the world. For those who are used to it, they are simply used to it. I don’t think the average person tries to dehumanize the poor or the lower caste, but they are so used to seeing them that they might as well be the passersby on the New York metro; nameless faces. After reading Katherine Boo’s non-fiction book, I had a little bit more of a sense of the unjustice that has internalized certain people, the stubbornness that forces people to move up, the very real belief that no matter how ugly your lot in life has ended up, you have the capacity to someday become something greater. I imagined the waiters I have seen at certain restaurants going back to their slums, playing video games with their younger brother as their aunties bicker between holes in the wall. By being put in their shoes, I have been able to truly imagine them as if they were any brother, or any sister, or any auntie, or any neighbor. Because I am able to imagine them, I am able to see them as an existence, as someone like me, as a human worth every damn amount of worth as I.

This is the power of literature, and for Boo to have arrested my mind the way a 19th century novel would is a testament to her powers as a storyteller. Boo sought to illuminate how the mind of the poor work regardless of country and city, and largely it works. Boo’s story of Mumbai could equally be the story of Jakarta or Lima, it could be the story of someone living under a bridge in Atlanta or in the suburbs of Cape Town. The characters Boo has created out of real life Annawadians are universal. Even for those who are fundamentally not accustomed to countries of wealth inequality, to those who learn to look without judgment and prejudice, there is something to be learnt.
Now, some caveats.

The are exceptions to what I am about to say (I myself am a pretty hard-core atheist), but I feel that India is a country where issues of religion always come out into the psychology of its people, and I don’t feel that Boo did a good enough job of relaying that in her characters. The gaze of her sweep is fundamentally secular, but I would have liked to see the intersections of Islam and Hinduism play into the way these people think.
2) The book feels like it would have been more powerful as a novel than as a piece of non-fiction. It already reads like fiction more than a piece of investigation (albeit well-researched), so I think taking more advantage of the novel form could have brought the work to greater depths.

3) A little too much of a good thing. The stories Boo weaves are fundamentally dramatic and sharp turning, which I think ultimately makes the novel a little monotonous. At some point, one gets tired of hearing of bad things happening always to decent people, and the eyes start to skim.

But, overall, a riveting read, worth anyone’s time. I do not know whether I would call this a book worth the annals of literature, because the depth of story-telling is not intricate or complex, I do not think it is worth a re-read or heavy over-analysis. I do believe that it is a book that taught me something, and it gave more strength for me to understand a world that I inhabit. I think that is powerful enough, for any book of our time being.

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