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A Book about Mumbai Takes its Toll On Me

Deeply insightful. Thoroughly painful. That’s how it was reading Katherine Boo’s acclaimed book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.

You know how it happens?  A friend recommends a book and soon after that someone else mentions the same book, and then it becomes a must-read.

When I first started on it, I knew nothing more than that it was set in Mumbai.

It turns out that it is actually set in a Mumbai slum. I was half way through reading the book and it was touching me fiercely when I decided to look it up and see what else I could find out about the author and her writing.

To my utter shock I discovered that this was a non-fiction book.  Until then, I was reading it as fiction. Even so, it was a painful read. Immensely painful. Can you imagine how I felt when I discovered that this was really non-fiction?

The Mumbai slum has played a major character is a couple of famous books and movies. The most well known book (until now) is Shantaram – a must-read for sure. And, of course among movies, there’s the much admired, equally criticized Slumdog Millionaire, which took the Mumbai slums to a new level of fame, adulation and fortune.

For those who have read Shantaram (for those who haven’t, I do feel sorry for you…) I’m sure you can easily recall some of the unforgettable images that his writing sketched for us – of his life in the underbelly of Mumbai, including the phases that he spent living in its slums.

It is a fascinating story with so many colorful characters and incredible episodes that sometimes it just made you stop, take a deep breath and say, “is this for real?” Well, let me tell you, that even with all that was remarkable in Shantaram, when compared to Boo’s book, that feels more like an adventure of the lighter kind. (Well, not exactly ‘light’, but you get my point).

And then when I discovered that Boo was writing non-fiction, I almost did not pick up the book again. These were not characters in a story created from an author’s imagination, these were real people, real lives!

Her intense descriptions of a few families, their unfortunate lives trying to make enough to eat and live while dealing with the scourge of corruption (in that state of poverty!) and yes, their hopes are so vivid, that they affect you deeply. I won’t lie – it was painful and harrowing. The inequality, the injustice and the fight for some of the most basic of human needs for people in the slums is beyond tragic. And all too real!

These fact-based stories and lives seeped into me,  making themselves felt strongly, refusing to leave me and my mind alone, as much as I tried to chase them away.

In all ways that I can think of, it is a brilliantly written book. Certainly it’s one which bears a weighty theme, and for the reasons mentioned above, it’s not an easy one to recommend that you read. Personally, I am torn.

Here are a couple of excerpts that I had to share, the first a quote from a boy from the Annawadi slums:

“For some time I tried to keep the ice inside me from melting,” was how he put it. “But now I’m just becoming dirty water, like everyone else. I tell Allah I love Him immensely. But I tell Him I cannot be better, because of how the world is.”

….Abdul’s father had developed an irritating habit of talking about the future as if it were a bus: “It’s moving past and you think you’re going to miss it but then you say, wait, maybe I won’t miss it – I just have to run faster than I’ve ever run before. Only now we’re all tired and damaged so how fast can we really run? You have to try to catch it, even when you know you’re not going to catch it, when maybe it’s better just to let it go –“

And here are excerpts from the author’s note:

….Although I had no pretense that I could judge a whole by a sliver, I thought it would be useful to follow the inhabitants of a single, unexceptional slum over the course of several years to see who got ahead and who didn’t, and why, as India prospered.

….The events recounted in the preceding are real, as are all the names.

….In the age of globalization – an ad hoc, temp-job, fiercely competitive age – hope is not a fiction. Extreme poverty is being alleviated gradually, unevenly, nonetheless significantly.

….Too often, weak government intensifies it and proves better at nourishing corruption than human capability.

….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, 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.

….It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in under-cities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good and that many people try to be — all those invisible individuals who everyday find themselves faced with dilemmas….

….If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?

There’s more info on the author, Pulitzer Prize winner, Katherine Boo on the website for the book, along with deservedly glowing testimonials from its readers (some famous ones).

Have a look around and then decide for yourself if you want to read (no, experience) it. I hope you do, and if you do I know that it will affect you just as deeply while giving you an acute understanding of yet another side of what is quickly becoming for me one of the most ‘interesting’ yin-and-yang cities in the world. Mumbai.

I daresay that this darker side of Mumbai is not contemplated, registered or understood to this level even by most people who live in this very city (the ones who live outside of those slums that they see and pass by each and every day).

As a temporary resident, I am glad to have happened upon a book that shed this kind of light, as heart breaking as it was to travel through some of its stories. While they are still fresh in my mind, no doubt I will be thinking of the Ashas, Abduls, Sunils and Fatimas who live in the next slum that I travel past.



Photo credits:

Slums: By Abhisek Sarda from Goa, India (Slums) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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