Saturday, March 23, 2013

Books: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers
By Katherine Boo
Copyright 2012
290 pages

The Awesome but Humble Women's Book Club to which I belong read this for our March selection; I read it on my Nook. (See, I do do the electronic reading thing sometimes.)

The book is called narrative nonfiction though I think perhaps creative narrative nonfiction might be more appropriate. The author, Katherine Boo, is a journalist who once worked for The Washington Post and who now is a staff writer for The New Yorker.

She embedded herself for three years in a slum near the airport in Mumbai, India, and this book is the result.

The story has a loose plot that follows Abdul, a young man who has been accused of a crime he did not commit. Abdul makes his living by buying and sorting trash. Apparently picking up trash and selling and reselling it is big business in India.

Abdul and his family live in Annawadi, the slum area. The book follows Abdul and several others. Apparently the slum area operates a bit like a small town, complete with corruption and a political process. As in the United States, money and influence leads to power and corruption.

The story was difficult to read. I had a hard time with the author's style, for she jumped around a lot. I wasn't sure if that was the book or me trying to adjust to reading on the Nook, though.

My book club group had many questions about this story. For one, we wondered about the author, who reported on tragedies such as seeing a man run over by a car but left alone and ignored by others while he lay dying. We had to wonder if the author actually witnessed this, why did she not do something for this man? The same with the young fellow accused of a crime. If she was there, and witnessed the incident, how was it that she did not become involved enough to help him, especially when she reported that he was badly beaten at the police station.

As a newspaper reporter I understand that the job entails standing back and witnessing, but I have never hesitated to step in and intervene when I saw someone being hurt or wronged, even if it meant I could no longer write the story. The story is not more important than my morality, ever.

My book club group is generally a fairly progressive group, so most of us read the book as a denouncement of poverty, corruption, religion, etc., all of those things that hold society and people back. However, thanks to a comment I'd had via an email from a friend of mine in England, I asked if this type of story has a downside - in other words, did it allow us in the US to stand back and say "our poor aren't that bad off, so capitalism must be the grandest thing ever."

At first the majority dismissed that notion, but one of our number teaches life skills to poor people through her church, and also teaches middle-class people a course on poverty. She indicated that ultra-conservative groups do tend to look at stories like this as an example of the "goodness" of capitalism. Something along the lines of "our poor in the USA sleep in broken down VWs while India's poor sleep under boxes, hence capitalism must be great."

Which is like saying a rotten apple is better than a rotten peach; they both still stink.

Socio-economic practices all have their problems, capitalism included, and I do not think any one of the identified economic theories is the best. I think a blend of capitalism and socialism - sort of what we had after World War II until Reagan in the 1980s - worked well and was a fairer system than what is currently in place in the US. We need a social safety net so that people have a survivable standard of living. I do not particularly want to live in a world where the only thing that matters is how much is in your bank account. Life is more than that, and we have diminished ourselves as human beings by chasing after material wealth instead of choosing to better our selves in more ethereal ways.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers has its problems as a book - the story line is rather weak, and the author took liberties with thoughts and character that cross the line from journalism into creative thinking that makes the work less reputable than it might otherwise be. Her methodology might have been sound but I had concerns about the writing style.

Even so, it's an important story, one that likely wouldn't have been told otherwise. Americans on the whole do not travel, nor do they explore other cultures, and I think any endeavor, however ultimately misused, that opens minds and creates discussion has value.

1 comment:

  1. I'm surprised that someone who writes for The New Yorker did such a poor job of it. The title is kind of boring too. Wouldn't inspire me to pick it up at all.

    I agree with you. A blend of capitalism and socialism is best of course. I wish I would have known about your book club group while I was living there. How come I was unaware of the existence of ANY open-minded people when I was living there?


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