Most of what I have been reading for pleasure lately have been mysteries and bestsellers of years gone by that form gravity-defying piles on my night table. I pluck out a book or two to read on my flights as I crisscross the country and most are enjoyable distractions but largely forgettable once they are finished. This does not apply to Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the thought-provoking and incredibly moving Pulitzer Prize-winning book I just finished. Katherine Boo’s recounting of “life, death and hope in a Mumbai undercity” was gripping and has left me deep in thought.
Nonfiction, when it is well written and tells a gripping tale, is just as entertaining as the best fiction. I remember years ago convincing my book club to read Robert Kurson’s Shadow Divers, about a group of deep sea divers who discover a sunken German submarine off the New Jersey coast, because it sounded so fascinating on NPR. It did not disappoint, even though it was a subject that I knew nothing about nor had any real interest in learning about prior to reading the book. (The same cannot be said for The History of Salt. In that case, NPR led me astray and my reputation at book club was forever tarnished.) So the fact that Behind the Beautiful Foreversis nonfiction did not detract from its page-turning nature or the way the characters (all real people Boo interviewed and observed for years in a slum adjoining the Mumbai airport) have incredible and compelling storylines that intertwine and draw you in.
I have seen the kind of poverty Boo describes. I actually wrote my college essay about a beggar girl I encountered in Pakistan. I remember so clearly pondering how very different and arduous her life was. That began a lifetime of feeling incredibly grateful for the fate that allowed me to live a comparative life of luxury, solely due to the circumstances of my birth. It was pure luck of the draw that I got to go get a glass of water out of my fridge whenever I was thirsty while this girl had to lug it up from a ravine, only to repeat the same arduous task the next day. That is but one small difference in our lives, but it speaks volumes about the nature of our days and the paths that lay before us.
Behind the Beautiful Foreversbrought it all back. The daily challenges of being poor, the hopelessness of climbing out of poverty and the parade of horribles – lack of education and opportunity among them – that such poverty engenders. And you don’t have to be transported (in a literary way) to the slums of India to view the disparity between the have and have nots in this world, the jarring chasm between great wealth and poverty. I see examples of it all the time, everywhere I turn. When I am in cities like San Francisco and New York City and Portland, where I have been in the last few weeks, I walk out of fine hotels to people begging for food and sleeping on the sidewalks just outside those same hotels.
I applaud all of the people I have encountered – many of them profiled in this blog – who are actively trying to do something about leveling the playing field. I will also continue to appreciate my own good fortune on so many levels and do what I can to pay it forward. And I will try to always be mindful of the fact that my problems pale in comparison to those described so beautifully and poignantly in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. As Boo states in the Author’s Note following the book, “the unpredictability of daily life has a way of grinding down individual promise.” If desperate times call for desperate measures, then it is right to expect more of those to whom more has been given. That is my main takeaway from this moving book. I will try to continue to be good and do good, to take the moral high ground whenever possible, and to appreciate all that I have and make the most of all that has been given to me.