Here is a book so hauntingly beautiful, I had to go back and double-check to make sure it was non-fiction, because I swore someone had snuck a piece of fiction into my reading list. It’s March, but I already wonder if this is the best book I will read this year.
India, second only to China, is in the midst of an economic explosion. They are rapidly advancing into an industrial power, but it is very hard to raise a billion people in economic stature overnight. While world-class hotels and airports are proclaiming success, hidden behind the surrounding walls plastered with ads lie squatter slums thick with people so destitute they often sleep in streets, or live in pieced-together hovels so small that all of a family may not have room to lie down, where an eight by ten foot home is considered spacious. It is not for laziness: India may be growing, but there are nowhere near enough jobs to support a billion people. Like America in the 1930s, there are day-laborer jobs for one in every twenty people seeking one, and even then the employer may stiff them on their miserable wages. Far too many people survive by picking through garbage and selling it to recycling companies for pennies a day – those that are healthy enough and able enough to do it. If you think that building supplies too often disappear from worksites in America, in India the problem is ten times worse.
From the first line, Behind the Beautiful Forevers reads like a good novel, with lyrical prose that wrings beauty from even the most miserable situations. You are introduced to Abdul, a fairly well-off industrious teen who may be around sixteen years, or maybe nineteen; no one is sure. When a crippled neighbor gets angry and sets herself on fire, the neighbor blames Abdul and his father, even though they are innocent. Abdul hides and his father is arrested, but a good son must take the blame for his father, so he turns himself in. Eventually, even his sister is arrested. What follows is a heartbreaking tale of a country of graft, greed, ignorance, extortion, coverup, hope and hopelessness in a society that can eat even the strongest people alive. The story unfolds like a blooming flower, displaying all the petals, good and bad, without ever passing judgment on it. Never, until the very end when the author discusses the story in the afterward, does the author break from the story to preach or give facts. Never do you feel like you are reading a non-fiction book about India. This is the ideal book for someone who does not like reading non-fiction. It also won the 2012 National Book Award prize for nonfiction.
The people of Annawandi may live in a sewer, but their dignity remains. If you met them outside the Mumbai airport you might turn away, but despite the cultural differences, once inside their lives, you have no choice but to see them as people trying their hardest in a deck stacked sorely against them, people with hopes and dreams and ambitions no different than yours, from Fatima the One Legged, who resents her crippled status, to Manju, who hopes to graduate from the university, to Asha, who wishes to gain political power, to Abdul, who clings to his desire for a higher morality, and Sunil, who dreams simply of having enough food so he can grow. Here unfolds a reality show worthy of the finest television.
Read it. Savor it. You will not forget it.