Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
The “moral” of this book could be “Life sucks and then you die… or kill yourself.” This is a painfully realistic depiction of life in the slums of Mumbai, derived after the author lived among these real people for four years. It is written like a novel, focusing on a particular family who lived next door to a woman with one leg. Fatima, or “One Leg” as she was called, was always jealous of the money the family earned by collecting recyclable trash and in a jealous rage, set her own face on fire and accused the family of triggering her suicide attempt. Because of this, the family had to confront the unabashedly corrupt criminal justice (or IN-Justice, really) system in order to extricate themselves from this messy nightmare. Meanwhile, in the telling of this story, the author weaves the pain and the misery of the other surrounding characters into the tale and leaves the reader plainly devastated.
The level of poverty is frightening enough, but the competition and jealousy and the level of corruption that perpetuates the poverty is just overwhelmingly depressing. Many times while reading this book I found myself yelling at a page in outrage. Investigators into the supposed “crime” made aggressive advances to extort bribes in exchange for reporting more favorable evidence. Potential witnesses asked outright for bribes to speak on either side. Another unrelated example of the corruption was when federal funds were extracted from the government to set up schools to educate these poor children and then this money was pocketed by the officials who set them up (fake accounts made for fake teachers on a fake payroll — the whole 9 yards). And it was based on truth.
What is so sad is that the people are so disenfranchised and discouraged that they do not band together and revolt. Rather, they compete against each other and push each other down to make themselves feel elevated. A profound quote on page 254 summarizes this by saying, “In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your own ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of the 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.”
This book is difficult to read, but very eye-opening into the underbelly of India.