Saturday, November 22, 2014

behind the beautiful forevers

"Often in journalism, stories about the poor began with a reporter going to an NGO and saying, 'Tell me about the good work you're doing, and let me follow you, and maybe if you could just pick out some real success stories, I'll write about them.' I think that those kind of stories do an injustice to the enormous amount of creative and enterprising problem-solving that low-income people do for themselves, that most of the ways that people get out of poverty in the United States, in India and anywhere else I've ever been is through their own imaginations and their own fortitude." 
--Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, as quoted on NPR

 Katherine Boo's gorgeous, terrifying, heart-breaking, and glorious book was one of the more painful things that I have ever read.

I just finished reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which is a non-fiction narrative of families in Mumbai's slum city of Annawadi, focusing on tragic events in a close-knit ring of families, and the destruction that falls upon their lives.

When we flew into the Mumbai airport, I will never forget seeing the corrugated metal slum huts hugging the airport fence. It was the first time I had ever experienced a stark contrast between another world and mine. How close those homes were to the bus I was riding on; and yet, how far away they were. The inhabitants of those huts would never cross the fence into this airport; they were never going to fly on a plane from this airport to mine. It was a harsh realization. I wonder if one of those cities I saw was Annawadi.

The panoramic group portrait that Ms. Boo draws of the inhabitants of Annawadi paints her subjects with vivid, inescapable clarity. The reality of their stories, their names, their situations leaps off that page and hits you in the small of your stomach. Their stories are real stories. The deaths that occurred here were real deaths. Tragic suicides, pointless murders. The staggering amount of pain that is compressed into several young lives is nearly incomprehensible. One particularly poignant vignette she recounts is the story of an injured scavenger on the side of the road leading into the slum. Four of our characters pass him without doing anything. One assuming he'll be taken care of by someone else, one too scarred by his last encounter with the corrupt and cruel police officers to take any action, another too busy, trying to catch a bus, and so, the poor scavenger dies of thirst, exposure, and bleeding.
His body is cleaned up by the police a few hours later, and his death is written down as tuberculosis before his body is shipped off to a medical school to fill their cadaver quota.

I felt that that story she chose to tell was rather a damning story: for I do the same thing everyday. Not that I pass by men bleeding on the side of the street. But, everyday, I pass a man or a woman begging, asking for a handout, sleeping in a subway station, and I, too, assume that someone else is going to take care of them. I leave the common task of humanity: to care for our fellow men and women to someone else. This is a sin of omission not easily navigated. But Ms. Boo's portrait of poverty is primarily moral poverty. Poverty creates this moral vacuum in a young man or a woman. One of her young protagonists, Abdul, uses the image of ice: he wants to be ice: better, different, more solid than his surroundings, but he is just dirty water, he says, like the rest of Annawadi.
The forces that keep these families in poverty, that stifle their will to succeed, despite their best efforts, are the same forces of sin that perpetuate injustice in all our lives. If there were a way for human beings to reach beyond their own selfishness, then perhaps these families might be homeowners. If humans could transcend their own selfish desires, then perhaps the corrupt slumlord would funnel money to the elementary school instead of his own pocket. If the success of a neighbor was greeted with joy and not envy, then perhaps families would not have to suffer so many unnecessary evils.

In the uncomfortably real, high-stakes world of Annawadi, Ms. Boo creates a picture of not only Abdul and Sinul, Fatima and Karam, but of you and me. We, too, have probably acted out of malice, or envy, or self-interest, but, thanks to the bubble of comfort separating us from our neighbors, we never see the fruits of the ugly seeds we sow. In Annawadi, there is no illusion of separation: the consequences of virtue and vice are felt sharply by each member of the community. So we come to identify with these characters, whose lives are so saturated in desperation and drama. Yet, when an American businessman or tourist enters the book, we realize we are a part of their world. Our representative in this narrative is the rich, clueless American tourist in the luxury Hyatt, just meters from the homes of our protagonists. Just yards apart, but in a completely different world.
We are sundered from them by the airport wall.

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