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behind the beautiful forevers [sic], Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai UndercityKatherine Boo; New York, Random House, 2012.

            A concrete wall separates the Mumbai Airport and its accompanying luxury hotels from the slum settlement called Annawadi.  The wall is plastered with advertisements for Italian floor tiles that will remain beautiful forever.  Annawadi, therefore, is behind the beautiful forevers. Katherine Boo, staff writer for The New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize winner, recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” grant and a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing, spent three years getting to know Annawadi and its citizens.  The result is her first book, a superb piece of creative nonfiction, a journalist’s report that is at the same time a profound, compelling novel.

            No urban slum that I have seen—in Detroit, San Salvador, Islamabad, or Cairo—can compare with the fetid squalor of Annawadi.  During the monsoon, “the sewage lake crept forward like a living thing.  Sick water buffalo nosed for food through mounds of wet, devalued garbage, shitting out the consequences of bad choices with a velocity Annawadi water taps had never equaled.”  This sewage lake serves up rats and frogs to be caught for food.  Twice a day Annawadians go to the public taps to draw water.  The public toilets are generally overflowing.  The economic base of the slum is scavenging garbage for saleable items, a highly competitive occupation.  As one young Annawadian described his community:  “Everything around us is roses. . . .And we’re the shit in between.”

            The individuals Boo observed and talked with come alive in her book.  Abdul Husain, sixteen years old—or maybe nineteen, he isn’t sure—is reserved, hard-working, and heroically honest.  He is also, at the beginning of the book, the most successful scavenger.  His family’s situation changes, however, when he and his father are falsely accused of contributing to the suicide of a community prostitute, and must spend time in jail, and later, prison.  The family’s business decreases dramatically.  It is while in custody, however, that Abdul demonstrates his integrity.  Pressured by the authorities to confess to his implication in the suicide, he refuses, despite the prospect of more beatings. Meanwhile, Abdul’s mother, Zehrunisa, frantically tries to raise the bribe required to release Abdul and his father from prison.

            Asha Waghekar is a thirty-nine year old politically ambitious manipulator, as well as a prostitute, who schemes her way toward the position of the community’s slumlord, the chief liaison with the corrupt world outside Annawadi.  Her daughter could be the first Annawadian to graduate from college, such as it is—an institution in which memorizing the summary of a novel earns credit for studying the novel.  Among the young garbage sorters, Sunil, noted for his foul breath, lives day to day expecting luck; Meena, beaten mercilessly by her father and brother, escapes through rat poison, as does Sunjay.

            Perhaps the chief character in the book is blatant Corruption that poisons all institutions: government, security forces, education.   Even Sister Paulette, who runs the Handmaids of the Trinity Children’s Home, sells donated food outside the orphanage.  Corruption is most obtrusive in Zehrunisa’s attempts to free her husband, Karam, and Abdul from prison.  Every officer she encounters demands payment.  Abdul comes to understand that “The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage. . . .Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”

            The sub-title of this book promises stories of life, death and hope.  The reader finds life and death abundant, but hope?  There is an optimism that somehow rises to the surface of spirits that will not succumb to victimhood.  And there is the skeptic/realist who hears the hollowness of the words.  Boo cites Karam Husain for the epigraph of Part One:  “Everybody talks like this—oh, I will make my child a doctor, a lawyer, and he will make us rich.  It’s vanity, nothing more.  Your little boat goes west and you congratulate yourself, ‘What a navigator I am!’  And then the wind blows east.”

            Still, Boo wants her reader to see that the people whose lives she chronicles are neither passive sufferers nor heroic endurers.  They are, like the rest of us, individuals and families trying to make a life where they are planted. 

            Why do I strongly recommend this book to preachers?  Unless you can spend three years in a Mumbai slum, absorb its soul, and share the Word of God from that soul, you need this book.

Pat Chaffee, OP

Racine, Wisconsin

Book Review Archive

Just click on a book title below to read the review.
(The latest submissions are listed first.)


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• A Joint Review •
• St. Dominic: A Story of a Preaching Friar •
• Moses in Pharaoh's House •
• ...and the Mountains Echoed •
• Behind the Beautiful Forevers •
• Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily •
• The Rhythm of Being... •
• Remi De Roo - Chronicles of a Vatican II Bishop •
• Redeeming the Past •
• Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings •
• This Is Our Exile •
• Compassion: Loving Our Neighbor in and Age of Globalization •
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• Racial Justice and the Catholic Church •
• Let the Great World Spin •
• The Priesthood Of the Faithful •
• Living With Wisdom •
• Where the Pure Water Flows •
• Best Advice For Preaching •
• We Speak the Word Of the Lord •
• Great World Religions: Islam •
• Of Books and Preparation •
• After Sunday: A Theology of Work •
• A Captive Voice: The Liberation of Preaching •
• Written Text Becomes Living Word... •
• Voicing the Vision: Imagination & Prophetic Preaching •
• The Death of Innocents •

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