Thursday, August 9, 2012

Biblio Babble: The Non-Fiction Book You Wish Was Fiction

The Read: Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

The Writer: Katherine Boo

The Dealio: Set smack up against the incredible beauty and modernism of Mumbai Airport, and flanked by high-rise hotels of unimaginable luxury is Annawadi, a makeshift slum (undercity, in local terms),  populated by people who feel privileged to have pulled themselves up to this crown jewel of undercities. Alternately dedicating  long, hard hours goudging out a living from the trash and cast-offs of the airport and hotels located just there, and trying to work some sort of a deal that will catapault them, effortlessly, into the high life, these people are full of life, hopes and mordant reality. And Boo brings them to us in an almost motion-picture  immediacy. As the citizens of Annawaddy watch a ticking clock intent on the distruction of their slum, they also spin dreams and hopes and plans that see them moving up, and eventually, away. Abdul is a  teenager of few words, but many ambitions, seeing a future of success, built upon his entrepreneurial efforts with trash. Meanwhile, Asha, a woman who yearns to be a voice, a representative, but more than that, a real power-broker in Annawadi, operates behind the scenes of every major event in the undercity, to cement her role as 'the ultimate fixer'. At turns amusing and horrifying, we open the tale with a woman dousing herself with gas and setting herself on fire. Why? In order to embroil neighbors she perceives as more affluent, in the justice systems which may provide some financial relief to her and her family. The events begin to unspool at a hectic rate, interspliced with peeks at the justice system, the pay-offs ('facilitation fees') that bankrupt families, and the yearning of all to live a better life.

The Grading Session: 4.89 pengies out of 5. This was a very difficult book to read-several times, I put it aside to read other, more lightweight ones- because the scenes, all very vividly recounted, made me feel, at once, scalded by their violence, and ashamed of myself for my petty complaints about  my day-to-day inconveniences. However, it was a book that was also hard to put down. Boo spent over three years living in and around Annawadi, researching the book, getting to know the  undercity dwellers and their struggles and victories, as well as the unspeakable, grinding tragedies that were a part of their everyday world. If you are looking for a book with a great, uplifting finale...pass this one on by. But do so at your own peril. You will miss a hell of a story. Your mileage may differ.

Lessons Learned: Wealth is a relative term. For those who live in the undercities, it means having an actual wall between you and your neighbors. Having the money to get medical care. Being able to go to school. Not worrying that you will be unable to keep rats out of your kids' cribs and having water that will not kill them, if they survive the infected bites. It really does not resemble anything you may have seen on My Super Sweet Sixteen.
And, lastly, if superhuman effort were enough, several major players in this story would be wildly successful and set for several lifetimes. Unfortunately, it is not.

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