Warning: By page 7 of the prologue, you might wish Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a vivid account of squalor, deprivation and tragedy, were fiction. Don't be deterred.
This book about a slum in India informs the mind, elevates the soul and will leave you invested in the lives chronicled by one of the premier journalists of our time.
Hardscrabble represents upward mobility for the lives unfolding in Annawadi, a slum perched on the edge of the Mumbai airport, its trees' leaves grayed by dust from a nearby concrete plant. Its "lake" is putrid and contaminated. Subsistence is gained through prostitution, thievery or any means necessary.
Katherine Boo, a staff writer with The New Yorker, channels the travails of Annawadi through the voices of a handful of residents who managed to eke out a living in the months before the Indian government bulldozed the settlement in 2009.
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It's overrun with rats, roaches, official corruption and desperation, and survival is the order of every day for the denizens of the slum.
Teenager Abdul Hakim Husain survives by collecting and selling refuse from the airport and Mumbai hotels with $800-a-night suites that stand nearby, cruel and taunting.
Abdul's ambitious neighbor, Manju Waghekar, survives by clinging to the education she prays will spare her the fate of her mother — who masks her furtive prostitution behind the cloak of a powerful slumlord — and her best friend, a suicide by rat poison.
Most compellingly, Annawadi is home to Fatima One Leg, arguably the most tragic figure in a book in which tragedy lurks on nearly every page. She is crippled physically and emotionally, and the child she allegedly drowned in a pail of water is but one of many demons haunting Fatima.
"In the monsoon, Fatima's mornings sometimes started like this: one leg, two crutches, 12-pound vessel of pump-water, mud slick, splat," Boo writes. "Add to this young daughters whom she couldn't chase after — needy, rambunctious creatures who laid her deficiencies bare. Only in the hours when the men came — husband at work, children at school — did the part of her body she had to offer feel more important than the part of it she lacked."
It is Fatima's suicide, by self-immolation, that provides Beautiful Forevers with its narrative tension.
Accused of complicity in the death, teen Abdul, his father and sister are jailed and subjected to beatings.
Beautiful Forevers is rich in content, poignant and lyrical in style, and rare is the page that doesn't give the reader pause.
Make no mistake. There is nothing beautiful about Annawadi. "Don't confuse yourself by thinking about such terrible lives," Abdul's mother advises in an axiom introducing the final chapters.
Yet the underlying message from this, surely one of the year's best books, is that the path to survival is paved with resiliency. Which in Annawadi is the greatest triumph of all.