At the Sun-Gazette, staff members tend to read. A lot. So we thought we would share what we're reading and let you know how they fare. Submissions from the community also are encouraged and may be mailed to the Lifestyle Department, 252 W. Fourth St., Williamsport, PA 17701 or emailed to email@example.com. We also are interested in what you want us to read and review; just send us an email or give us a call at 326-1551, ext. 3109.
Reviewer: Maddi Dunlap, Williamsport
'Behind the Beautiful Forevers'
What I read: "Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity)" by Katherine Boo.
Non-fiction, 2012 Random House; hardback $27.
Synopsis: Katherine Boo spent more than three years documenting the life and experiences of the residents of one of the poorest places in the world, a slum on the outskirts of the busy international airport in Mumbai, India.
Annawadi was settled in 1991 by a group of laborers from southern India, who had gone to Mumbai to repair an airport runway.
Once that was completed, they stayed to explore other construction job opportunities instead of going back home, where jobs were scarce. They settled on an unclaimed, swampy strip of land adjacent to the airport that was too wet to be considered habitable.
They set to work dragging dirt from other places and packing the mud until soon solid ground took the place of the bog. When Katherine Boo arrived 17 years later there were over 3000 residents living in 355 huts on this plot of land next to a sewage lake in the shadow of luxury hotels.
This book tells the story of a few of those residents. It gives us a real glimpse into the daily lives of the people who reside in a nation that is emerging as one the world's most affluent and powerful countries, while remaining home to 1/3 of the entire world's poorest people.
Like the concrete wall covered with ads bearing the slogan "Beautiful Forever" that separates the airport terminal from the Annawadi slum, it is a study in contrasts.
At the center of the story is Abdul, a teenage garbage sorter, who along with his father and sister has been wrongfully accused of the sudden and shocking death of an Annawadi resident. Abdul is a symbol of the spirit of the Annawadian people.
This man-child has a quiet courage and dignity; and though his cynical eyes have seen more tragedy in 15 years than anyone should witness in a lifetime, beneath his resigned cynicism is hope. Hope that if somehow he works hard enough and is honorable enough, his life and that of his family will rise above their present circumstances. Underlying the sadness and tragedy - and there is plenty of that in Annawadi - hope keeps re-emerging.
We see it even in the story of Asha, a woman who ruthlessly uses the corruption of government officials to her advantage. It is easy to judge her, for she is not always the most likable person and she is hardly a hero.
Yet she simply wants what nearly everyone on the planet wants - a better life for her children. Though very few could or would condone her behavior, because of her choices her sweet and beautiful daughter Manju will become the slum's first college graduate.
So Asha does what she feels she has to do to survive and thrive in their harsh environment. For her the end justifies the means.
What I thought: This book, though entirely factual, reads much like a novel. What haunts the reader is the fact that it is not. These people are real and the horrifying tragedies that occurred within those three years actually happened.
At times that made it difficult for me to get through. Some of it just broke my heart.
That said, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" is worth the read, if only to open our eyes to what life is really like in much of the world, and to remind us of our own good fortune. We take so much for granted here - plentiful food, shelter and clean water are things we hardly think about.
This book offers a whole different perspective.
If I had one complaint, it would be that the book ends a bit abruptly for me. I was left wondering what has happened in Annawadi since Ms. Boo was there. For instance, the slum was to be razed to make room for airport expansion. I wonder if it is still there and what has happened to the residents. I wish that there was an addendum to tell whether Abdul has had his trial or if Manju has found a permanent job. But then it is a true story and life doesn't always have tidy endings or beautiful forevers.