A lady in her mid-40s immolated herself. Neighbours put out the fire. She was taken to the hospital a few hours later by her husband. She died a week later.
We all have read such stories often in our favoured newspaper. Such tragic occurences inundate the 20 odd pages we read so often. Yet, such reporting never moves us. It is like the air we breathe–we are blissfully habituated of it.
But, even the most emotionally stoic among us would be hard-pressed to contain the emotions that gush forth while reading Behind The Beautiful Forevers.
The narrative follows the lives of residents of Annawadi, a slum that used to exist at the periphery of Mumbai’s Sahar Airport (now known as Chattrapati Shivaji International Airport). The reader is eased into gaining familiarity with the Hussain family and their business of scavenging, Fatima–the one-legged, Asha–the almost slumlord and the social dynamics among them. As the dominoes start falling, you recognize the consequences of ill-spoken words, witness the mutilation caused by unrestrained vengeance, and feel, although vicariously, the wounds that befall the innocent. As you progress through the book, you lose the luxury to ignore destitution, corruption and apathy.
This book is not fiction. It is a chronicle of events that took place between 2007-2011 at Annawadi. Through these four years, information was collected using video recordings, endless interviews, audio tapes, photographs, public records, Right To Information petitions and sometimes, late night expeditions. Katherine Boo’s first novel could well be one of the most powerful and significant literary work and journalistic achievement about India in recent times. Yet, I missed it when it was in the bestsellers list. Not enough can be said about this book. If you do read it, be prepared to brace your heart.