Stark Truth: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

I suppose in a large country like India you can see life in as many ways as you can imagine it to unfold. But in the poorest hovels of that huge country the reality is that life unfolds in ways you’ve never imagined. Ways that make you wonder how people can endure them. Ways that coax your admiration for a resilient social class whose existence India would rather not deal with—a fact that inspires the title. The people you encounter live in the slums of Annawadi, hidden from public view by a wall of advertisements for Beautiful Forever, a brand of Italian floor tiles.

India’s poorest—this is the group Katherine Boo, Pulitzer Prize winner for journalism, focuses on. A forgotten group of have-nots who literally lives on, eats, and makes a living out of garbage and other discards. The irony won’t be lost on you: Society’s discards surviving on the same.

Living in a society that thrives on bribery, corruption and injustice is particularly harsh on the poor who have no weapons with which to fight back. They have no money and no education, and others of their kind who have risen above them have no qualms bleeding them of the little money they may have. Money they’ve accumulated from years of dealing garbage.  Such is the fate of the Husain family when father and son are falsely accused by an angry envious neighbor of causing her to immolate herself.

The charge is ridiculous as even the police admit but the Husains have a little money that some predators covet and extort out of the hapless family by threatening imprisonment. As if that were not enough, they beat up Abdul, the industrious oldest son who grows up wiser and unbroken from the experience. Such is sadly how his kind learns resilience—by enduring and surviving unfair, unrelenting assault from those who’re supposed to uphold the law.

It’s a dog eat dog world where everyone becomes a victim of those with more power than they have (because of class, money or position). Although the caste system has been officially done away with, India continues to be a hierarchical society where even among the lower caste, there still exists divisions of the poor, poorer and poorest.

This book is not fiction but reality and the author paints Annawadi’s inhabitants (mainly Abdul and his family and Asha and her daughter Manju) in sharp, vivid strokes. It’s precisely because the book is not fiction that the stories of these individuals will haunt you. Truth, in this case, is not stranger than fiction; it’s  downright depressing. Yet, many survive (Abdul) and others even thrive (Asha) because of determination and enough savvy to manipulate the system as others more equipped have done before them.

Ms. Boo shows once more that equality is a myth: The have-nots theoretically may, but never actually, enjoy the same privileges, opportunities, and protections as the haves.  Occasionally they’re in luck when someone in power does what’s just.  A little too often, though, the young give up and kill themselves.

Read this and see a side of life that fiction rarely exposes you to. It isn’t entertaining. It’s stark truth.


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