269 of 338 people found the following review helpful
A Mixed Review,
This review is from: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Hardcover)
I found this book riveting, thought provoking and highly annoying. The author has distilled what she explains in the Author's Note was a large number of interviews, research into government documents and time spent in the Mumbai slum where the book takes place. The result is a set of appealing characters who live difficult and precarious lives on land adjacent to Mumbai's International Airport. Partially submerged during monsoon season, at the mercy of everything from international financial markets to local police, the author movingly described the energy, and luck, required simply to survive from one day to the next. And any day might bring catastrophe.
Typical of the best of New Yorker writing, this author is able to make a point by obliquely calling attention to it. And that point is the devastation of poverty and the overwhelming odds required of those trying merely to accomplish what most readers of this book undoubtedly take for granted: a fair society that appropriately rewards hard work. The myth that by leaving their rural Indian communities, moving to a big city and being willing to work extremely hard that they can better the lives of themselves and their families.
None of the characters in the book are villainous. Some, such as Asha, are selfish, but the author is careful not to reduce any of the characters to a caricature. Yes, Asha is selfish, but there are reasons for that, and she does accomplish things for her community, even if her motivations are less than saintly. Other characters, such as Asha's daughter Manju, are intent on helping others. But the overwhelming requirements for simply getting through the day leave little room for distracting activities. When Manju's best friend swallows rat poison she is determined to save her friend, but worried about the time she can afford to devote to this. No one can afford the luxury of altruism.
Because of the careful attention to details of the characters daily lives, the ambiguities inherent in negotiating their world are made understandable, believable. If you are unable to feed your family with recycling legal garbage, is it really wrong to recycle stolen articles, particularly when those items are pieces of aluminum, miscellaneous screws, ketchup packets? The answer is that we in first world environments and middle class lives are unable to answer those questions honestly, because we simply can not accurately judge the decisions the people in this book must make. Is it wrong to beat your daughter who will not comply with the requirements of modesty that will allow an appropriate marriage? Is it wrong to sniff industrial solvents to relieve the boredom and agony of a life spent hungry searching through trash for salable items?
The language is colorful, and rarely are relationships, even familial relationships, described in loving terms. There is a good portion of salty language in this book. "Tomorrow if he does not sit with you and study, I will break his legs and pour kerosene on his face." That is fairly typical. But because of the endless (and endlessly oppressive, depressing) details with which these stories are told, that language, and the continual violence underlying so much of the book, is realistic, even understandable.
So why did I find this book so annoying? Because the author fails miserably in putting her well told tale into any larger context that has even a semblance of factual rigor. It is extremely odd that while the author adds a long note to assure the reader that she has spent a vast amount of time and resources to accurately tell the story of this slum and its inhabitants, her only explanations of their plight are stereotyped one liners utterly lacking in factual substantiation. Early in the book we are told that there are only three avenues for advancement: entrepreneurship, education, and politics with corruption. Again and again politics are equated with corruption, without a single fact to support this gross simplification. Political corruption is endemic in many countries, including India (and Mexico, where I live) but to simply equate the two without any analysis of this simplified summary is annoying, to put it mildly.
Manju, a college student, runs a school in the slum that is supposedly run by her mother, who has a 7th grade education. We are given a detailed description of this school, and Manju's teaching. But do we have any sort of overview of education in India? We are simply told that schools of this type are run by nonprofits financed by government money. "It was of little concern to them whether the schools were actually running." Really? And what is the factual basis for that sweeping generalization?
It is not that I particularly disagreed with the sweeping generalizations made by the author, what annoyed me was the utter lack of a factual basis for these broad generalizations. The New Yorker fact checkers would not have been amused.
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Showing 1-10 of 35 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 13, 2012 1:36:34 PM PST
What a cynic this reviewer displayed. How unkind a review I have rarely seen. Her display of arrogance towards the author amazed me as the REFIEWER herself has never visited INDIA.
However in spite of her attitude I am compelled even more so to buy the book. Victoria Ryder
In reply to an earlier post on Feb 13, 2012 1:43:29 PM PST
las cosas says:
I have visited India multiple times, including a half dozen times flying into and out of Mumbai. Beware your assumptions!
Posted on Feb 14, 2012 9:50:08 PM PST
S. Mitra says:
It is easy to believe that you have visited India after reading your review and I am very puzzled how Victoria managed to find any arrogance in your review!
Posted on Feb 16, 2012 7:57:31 AM PST
C. Hewitt says:
To me the author was writing a story depicting the atrocities of the slums in India. I don't need any facts to back them up as I have seen them myself and know they are true without muddling them up with facts which do not necessarily add to the story in this case. Was not impressed with this review.
Posted on Feb 16, 2012 10:47:28 AM PST
Ravi Anand says:
If Ms. Boo had gotten into the weeds and made the book more academic and rigorous (with citations etc), this might have satisfied your itch, but it definitely would have taken away from the emotional power of this book. That would have been tragic.
In reply to an earlier post on Feb 17, 2012 9:40:59 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 17, 2012 9:42:37 AM PST
Joseph N. Vaz says:
This is the most insightful review of a book I have read on the subject of third world poverty. Yes there are too many generalizations, maybe all not needing verification and confirming the locals' and visitors' view of Mumbai. Maybe things are better or even worse in this flashy city yet Mumbai is not India.
Posted on Feb 19, 2012 8:03:09 AM PST
Susan E. Foley says:
"her only explanations of their plight are stereotyped one liners"
I think it is unrealistic to expect a journalist to come up with the solution to third world (or, first world) poverty, a problem which has baffled the best politicians and economists. It is difficult for us in the industrialized West to accept the idea that there may be human problems which in fact have no solutions. That vast numbers of people live in conditions like those described in this book does not mean, inevitably, that it is within our power either individually or collectively to "fix" this.
Of course we should continue to try. No one is suggesting that we should give up. But we do need to be realistic in our thinking. At any rate, Ms. Boo is neither a politician nor an economist. She is describing the situation; that is her charter. Understanding the situation is an important first step towards improving it.
In reply to an earlier post on Feb 19, 2012 8:59:20 AM PST
las cosas says:
I agree that it is not the responsibility of Ms. Boo to "come up with the solution to third world poverty." What annoyed me was that she made bold statements such as politics = corruption and felt no need to document or explain those conclusions. She should either remove these undocumented conclusions or provide the basis for her conclusions.
In reply to an earlier post on Feb 19, 2012 10:48:47 AM PST
Susan E. Foley says:
Perhaps this is the opinion of her sources. (If so, perhaps she should say so.) I know quite a few people in and from India, and by and large they would agree with the proposition politics = corruption. Some of them are appalled by this, some not so much; these latter seem to accept it as a fact of life.
Is the equation true? I have no idea, not being either from or in India.
In reply to an earlier post on Mar 5, 2012 10:47:30 AM PST
Travel Lover says:
Yes in India politics = corruption. There are no two ways about it. It's so open and ingrained you don't really need to prove it. Just head to the DMV or any other public service office.