The One with the Slums and no Millionaires

Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012)

Sometimes  the universe conspires to make you read a particular book. Have you ever had this experience? What were the chances that I’d pick up a non-fiction book set in an Indian slum? I don’t know much about India, and have seldom read any book about it. But my workplace library had it (weird?! we usually only have bestsellers), Anne Bogel mentioned it in her podcast WSIRN (I think it’s in this episode), and then the Sinica podcast (of all things!) mentioned it among random favorites.

So, thank you, universe. It was well worth reading. It’s a piece of non-fiction like no others (or if there are others out there, please let me know!). I would have thought it as “novel inspired by a true story”, but the postface made it clear that Katherine Boo actually interviewed and followed each of the “characters” of the book for quite a long time (4 years!) in order to “get it right”. I don’t know enough about India to judge if it is right or not, but I did learn a lot through the book so I hope very very much that it is as truthful as it is memorable.

I had heard about India’s extreme inequality between the richest and the poorest, all living side by side. But I had not heard of the degree of corruption in the political, economic and judicial systems.  Government or foreign aid money is funneled into the pockets of some people under the guise of opening schools for poor kids, of installing public infrastructures like sidewalks or sewers, but it’s all pretense. As soon as the foreign aid worker or the official have turned their backs, the thing disappears. And don’t let me start on the judicial process, the health system and on the police crime stats.

Another shocking fact from the book is the absence of any sense of community among the slum dwellers. Poverty makes them think of themselves first, and their family second. Oftentimes if they can benefit from a neighbor’s misery they won’t hesitate to take it.

In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of a mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.

The book is not specifically a call to action, nor is it a tear-jerker tale of misery told by a well-meaning Westerner, but a complex portrait of the other side of the Indian miracle, that many people want to ignore. It is not a pessimistic book because some people in the slum find ways to be hopeful, but if they survive very few of them thrive. What is sure is that individual striving is not enough and that a political overhaul would be more than necessary to bring some solutions to the problems described in the book. I do wonder what Indian readers make of it.

3 thoughts on “The One with the Slums and no Millionaires

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