Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai UndercityBehind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

wow. very hard to know what to say about this book.

it’s beautifully written, entirely un-put-down-able. Boo takes us so deeply and deftly into the lives and minds of her subjects that a reader cannot but be swept along. sort of like the lives of her subjects, who despite their best efforts can claim, in the end, very little control of their own lives.

i’m significantly flummoxed by this book. i know, relatively speaking, zip about Indian culture/s. never been there, don’t know the languages, read some of the writers both indigenous and british, fiction and nonfiction. but i am quite sure i have never read another book like this one.

the man who takes some hours to die of car-crash injuries, all the while begging for help and receiving none. the woman attached to the court system who extorts money from the impoverished for better-sounding witness “statements.” the young girl who drinks rat poison to avoid a future married off against her will; the young man who drinks rat poison because bad luck has positioned him in an untenable place between drug dealers and cops.

what really gets to me is the endless and ubiquitous corruption. everybody wants some payoff, no matter how rich the payee relative to the payer, no matter how unimportant the sum: power is graft’s secondary point. people force others to pay up because they can.

what makes my head hurt today is that yes, i can believe that everyday life is as awful as Boo depicts it for these impoverished people. but i don’t want to believe that life is this awful for anyone.

and should you read this book? i don’t know. reading this book is not going to help one whit any of the desperately poor of India. in all probability, all it’s going to do is introduce a number of ugly images and truths into your head, which you might in fact be happier without. what is the purpose of a book like this, anyway? we of the west can’t even resort to the reflex to send money: Boo makes it clear that nonprofits have as dismal a record of actually helping as does the government.

so why read it? i don’t know. first time i’ve ever read a beautifully written, perfectly executed book and not felt compelled to recommend it, because what it has to show us is possibly too painful to be borne.