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'Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity'

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behind the beautiful forevers

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Katherine Boo, Random House, 2012

To most Americans, poverty is an abstract concept. We read about it, we contribute towards relieving it, and some of us who have traveled to third-world countries can even claim to have “seen” it. In 2011, the NY Times reported that 46.2 million people in the US were living below the poverty line as defined by an income less than $22,000 per year. That is about 15% of the US population of over 300 million people. About half of those people fell into what is described as “food insecure” circumstances (source: WorldHunger.org).

Consider India: almost 33% of the population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day ($456.25 per year). Almost 70% live on less than $2.00 per day. One of every three children is malnourished. With a 2011 population of 1.21 billion people, that is almost 400 million people (source: Wikipedia , IndianChild.com). The contrast is staggering.

This is a book about poverty, hunger, and corruption. It takes place in the Annawadi slum in Mumbai. The title refers to a wall between the slum and the Mumbai airport decorated with Italian tiles and the slogan, repeated over and over again: “BEAUTIFUL FOREVER”. The “hope” in the subtitle extends only to the subjects in the book hoping for something to eat, or to be alive the next day.

The book details the daily lives and struggles of some of the slum dwellers in Annawadi, and their interactions with each other, the police, and the government. It is almost mundane in its story telling, and gives the impression that it’s filled with composite characters, or those whose “names have been changed to protect the innocent.” But reading the Author’s Notes at the end, we find that’s not the case. The book is an actual account of specific people living in the slum. No names were changed. Not the victims, not the police, not the government officials.

According to Ms. Boo, she had to battle Indian bureaucracy for years to obtain the underlying information that forms the backbone of the book. And she reminds us of the courage of the people living in the slum who exposed themselves and the corruption they both deal with and create, in order to survive. It is a stunning indictment of capitalism and democratic society to provide any kind of equality across social strata.

Two of Ms. Boo’s statements underscore the depths of the problem:

“The effect of corruption I find most underacknowledged is a contraction not of economic possibility but of our moral universe.”

“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 the mutually supportive poor community is demolished.”

Janice Pearlman’s Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio (Oxford University Press, June 2010, reprinted 2011) deals with a similar topic. She compares the rise of the favelas in Rio de Janiero, Brazil from 1976 to the present, and details similar consequences of poverty, and similar indictments of society’s failure to deal. The movies City of God, Central Station, and Elite Squad speak to the same subject.

Capitalism works until it doesn’t; the failure point is not a breakdown of democratic institutions, but the rise of greed that leads to corruption. The old saying “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” was rephrased to “power corrupts the corruptible.” Today’s version might substitute the word “money” for “power” and be far more accurate.

Visit her website, www.behindthebeautifulforevers.com, for photos and more information.

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