Monday, February 20, 2012

Book review: Behind the beautiful forevers

Katherine Boo with her first book

To really understand the labour of love that has gone into this book, it is more than essential to know who the author of this book is: Katherine Boo.

Katherine Boo is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post. Her reporting has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur “Genius” grant, and a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. For the last decade, she has divided her time between the United States and India. This is her first book. In her own words, she has been writing and reporting on people living on the other side of affluence, under the poverty line, in her own country, the United States. Since the last ten years, after she fell in love and married her Indian husband, Sunil Khilnani, she has been dividing her time between India and US.  Since, 2007 upto 2011, she has been working on this project of trying to find how those who live on the very edge of megacities like Mumbai, trying to make both ends meet, take to the changes that globalization has brought to India. It is with this keenness of observation, painstaking work of interviewing, re-interviewing, observing, collecting data and collating them, writing out a journal of events and talking to the persons all of whom feature in the book, finding and working with translators, government archives, police and many other bodies, that she finally wrote a book, which is a true story, as raw as raw can get. Because it is about those people who live just behind a massive wall on the beautiful Airport Road, to Mumbai’s Sahar Airport, a cluster of peoples who came mainly from Tamil Nadu, UP and Vidharbha, who make up the meat, the blood and the society called Annawadi, just Behind the beautiful forevers. In the book, Katherine has gone deep under the skin of all her characters, as if she had inherited India, in her bloodline and her birth. It is her shadow self, as it were. And given a taste of the reality to even those who live, love and sweat it out in Mumbai.

About the book:

Annawadi is a small strip of land, about 200 yards, just behind the high wall that hides the scum from the high class jest set, global Indian in and out of Sahar Airport, Mumbai.

This small space is rife with activities that almost run all across Mumbai is terrains one may call, spaces where those who live below the poverty line, as the cities scum and slum dwellers, making a day to day living, by collecting, organizing, selling stolen goods and rich people’s waste and throw away – the scavengers. Dirty, diseased, depressed, despondent, the inhabitants of Annawadi, make their living, by close knit neighbourhood all of whom are involved in making two ends meet by competition, squabbles, fist fights, daggers, knives, curses and daring, a life so different from those who live on the other side of the wall.
The central story revolves around two families, one of Zehrusia, her husband and her children, the most handy and helpful being Abdul. They share the tin wall with the One Leg, whose backside protrudes and lips are lustrous red, as in the afternoons, when her husband is at work, she entertains one lover after another, only for a few rupees. Yet, it is not her wayward behavior that caused a flurry of events to follow, that brought life to a stand still for Zehrusia’s family. It was in fact, the latter’s desire to have a kitchen of her own, a mere wall made of brick which could hold a shelf or two. But this ignited a sequence of events that play out themselves, exposing the rot that stinks in the whole system – call it the police, hospital or whatever. But did we not know all about it all? Not, it’s one thing to read about it, it is quite another, to sit there with the with all the characters in the book and go through it ourselves! So vivid it the experience!

But what was the great Asha doing while the two families were driven to disaster? Asha, from drought driven, Vidharbha had at twenty seen poverty and lack of education. At forty, she had used her charm to get herself ahead and while she was a teacher by profession, she had been taken to warm the beds of some politicians and policemen, including the local politician of the Annawadi. She didn’t mind; after all she was able to cater to higher dreams in her heart – her daughter Manju was going to college and studying Psychology, while holding a hut school in her own hut.  She was hoping to give her in marriage to a highly placed groom in the near future. As the custodian of Annawadi, she tried her best to be a good Council to Zehrusia. But the cost of freedom was too much to pay for mere scavengers!

Through out this book the reader is faced with life that is forever on the edge and yet life that never loses hope and the struggle, despondency, even death, all are part of a hope that never leaves the heart that one day, they will see a life, on the other side of the beautiful forever.

What then is the Beautiful Forever? Read it all, in what I deem as one of the best book I have laid my hand upon, a book, everyone, who lives in Mumbai, or loves Mumbai or ever has lived there, must read.

Last but not the least: A sure BIG Literary Award to Ms Karharine Boo, I predict. Or I will be dashed!

: Behind the beautiful forevers
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Group)
11, Community Centre,
Panchsheel Park, New Delhi 110 017
Author: Katherine Boo
Pages: 252
` 374

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