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Thursday, June 18, 2015

BPL Book Discussion: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

This is not your normal installment of my BPL Book Discussion reports because Monday was no normal discussion day.  Monday marked the last time I led the BPL group after 14.5 years. I hope to occasionally return to be a participant in the group, but not for a bit. Also, I will be entering into a new book discussion venture that will be keeping me plenty busy [But that is for another time].

But back to my fabulous ladies [pictured left].  They really outdid themselves to say goodbye.  Not only did they come with snacks, balloons, cards and gifts of beautiful perennials for my garden, but they arranged one of the nicest tributes ever.

Regular readers of the book discussion reports know that I end every discussion with this: "Give me a single word of phrase to define the book." Obviously, the ladies are used to the question. Well, what they did was so perfect.  After our May meeting, one of the participants asked to take my picture.  Sneaky one she is because then she showed up at this discussion with the picture of me blown up in the center of the poster [pictured left].  She gave each participant a pice of paper and asked them to write down a word or phrase to describe me.  She then spent the discussion time writing the words around me in a circle on the poster.  You can see a closeup of what they create for me to the right.


As I had anticipated, it has been much harder to leave my book discussion ladies than the library itself. They are the reason I stayed as long as I did, so this should not have come as a surprise. In fact, they have only reinforced how much I love being a Reader's Advisor and ironically they have also made me realize that I have made the right choice by leaving the BPL to go out to help more libraries and more patrons.

I am so happy to have spent many years exploring hundreds of books with these amazing women.  And although the chapter in my life of leading discussions for them has come to an end, my participation in book clubs will continue. I will still be posting about book discussions here on the blog, including notes of specific discussions I will be leading.

Okay, now back to our regularly scheduled book discussion report.

This month we met to discuss the National Book Award winner, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo.

Here is the publisher’s description:
In this brilliantly written, fast-paced book, based on three years of uncompromising reporting, a bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human.
Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting” in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption. With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter—Annawadi’s “most-everything girl”—will soon become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves inching closer to the good lives and good times they call “the full enjoy.”  
But then Abdul the garbage sorter is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and a global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy turn brutal. As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed. And so, too, are the imaginations and courage of the people of Annawadi.  
With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects human beings to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds, and into the lives of people impossible to forget. 
Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting” in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption. With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter—Annawadi’s “most-everything girl”—will soon become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves inching closer to the good lives and good times they call “the full enjoy.”  
But then Abdul the garbage sorter is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and a global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy turn brutal. As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed. And so, too, are the imaginations and courage of the people of Annawadi. 
With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects human beings to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds, and into the lives of people impossible to forget.
For purposes of this write up, the title of the book will be transcribed as BtBFs.

Here are the notes on our discussion:
  • We had exactly the split reaction I was expecting here-- 6 liked, 2 disliked, and 4 so-so.  
  • Liked comments:
    • I had a personal connection to this story because I was in India, in that slum, working with one of the characters, Sister Paulette, in 2008.  Boo’s work was entirely fair and honest from my personal experience.
    • Another participant shared that as a recent college graduate in 1968, she too took a trip to India.  She could clearly remember coming out of the airport down a dirt road filled with beggars. This book brought me right back.
    • I immediately saw everything in my life differently after reading this book. For example, getting water from a sink.  I also looked at the recycling scavengers in my own alley much differently.
    • I enjoyed the style of writing.  I felt like she really knew the people and could relate their story. It was so realistic, almost poetic.  
    • It was written like fiction with characters I could get to know. I enjoyed that.
  • Didn’t like:
    • It was “too much horrible.” And even worse, I can’t do anything about it.  I hate being helpless and not in control. I would rather not know.
    • I found the corruption overwhelming.
    • I couldn’t handle all the children suffering.
  • So-so: 
    • I can’t fault the author for choosing the topic, but there was no relief here. However, I appreciated the very many interesting insights and philosophical comments by the characters.  The people were compelling.
    • I kept waiting for some uplift.
    • That led to a discussion of the fact that it was a true account so she could not manufacture a happy, closed ending.
  • Question: The author claims there is hope in this book. Do you agree?
    • I think there is hope in that she wrote this book.  Doing her piece to help make people aware. That is a hopeful first step.
    • This book gives hope because some who read it will be able to do something and effect change because of it.
    • I am hopeful that education reform will come. The sham that is “education” in India is now exposed.
    • I saw hope in the children. They all played together and helped each other. They are the next generation. They can lead the change.
  • Questions: Are women more free in the slums than in rural India?
    • Asha and Manju have much better, more free lives living in the slum.
    • Although Asha plays the system very deliberately, I found I liked her resilience and resourcefulness.
    • Yes, her simple Indian truth that to pay people off in the beginning is always better than having to wait until you are out of options.
    • She built her own empire using the corrupt system in a smart way.  She was simply working within the rules of her society.
    • She was “street smart.”
    • She reminded me of my Chicago precinct captain. Not very different we all agreed.
  • Question: I stopped the talk of the women for a moment because people were dying to address the blurred sense of right and wrong in this world.
    • Asha is moral because she is doing what she needs to survive and take care of her family.
    • What is right and what is wrong when society is turned upside down? When the government and police are corrupt, what do you do?
    • I wished that Asha would be proud of Manju for wanting to be “better,” but instead Asha celebrated when her daughter started to follow in her own footsteps.
    • One participant shared a story when she made a “wrong” choice when faced with stupid government rules.  She was caring for her dying mother and needed a copy of her mother’s birth certificate.  She had power of attorney but her mother was mentally incapacitated.  The government would not issue the daughter her mother’s birth certificate.  Each time they asked this woman if she was the person in question, she told the truth and said no, I am her daughter. Her request was denied.  After weeks of making calls and playing by the rules, one day she answered YES when they asked if she was the person whose birth certificate was being requested.  She had it in days.  She totally understands how the people in this book make the choice to get results over being in the right and hers was such a small example.  Imagine the life and death situations in this book.
    • This story was a fantastic addition to our discussion and really helped those who were completely disgusted by the corruption and “amoral” behavior to see the story with more compassion.
  • Question: Why did Boo choose to frame her 4 years of research around an event in the middle-- Fatima’s burning.  Boo starts the book at this midpoint and then circles back? Let’s talk about why she made this storytelling choice.
    • The overall theme of the book is that they are surrounded by lies, corruption and poverty with no way out.  Fatima’s burning is a “flashy” way to put a major theme right at the start.
    • As a storytelling technic, she could have chosen any of the people because their lives are so intertwined and also so demonstrative of all of the problems, but Fatima’s burning is attention grabbing. A good center spoke from which the story can branch out.
  • Question: We had a general discussion of the inequality in all societies using this one in particular as a jumping off point.  Here are some of the most interesting comments:
    • The society is so corrupt that the people with the most power are the most corrupt. It keeps feeding itself.
    • One of my favorite insights was when Abdul overheard a police officer talking about not being able to afford the bare necessities for his family. Abdul was shocked.  This opened his eyes to the wider world.
    • Manju had 3 ways she could get out-- find an entrepreneurial niche like Abdul, go with politics and corruption like her mom, or get an education. She chose education, but had no model of someone it worked for.
    • How different is it really than in some of our poorest places in America. These are common issues al over the world; this book just shows an extreme.
    • It is a destitute slum next to a fancy airport. An airport with people from all over the world going in and out each day.  It was a brilliant narrative choice. It is too striking a contrast not to notice.
    • A lot of these issues are because of population.  Overall the world has too many people, but there are cities in India with populations larger than the entire country of Canada.  That is crazy.
    • Back to places where it is bad in America.  Someone shared the work she has done with some of the poorest reservations in South Dakota.  It is not much better there.  They too lack running water for example. Would millions of people read a book about the reservation? It is much harder to face the skeletons in your own closet. Maybe this book will allow others to look at the inequalities closer to home though-- like we are.
  • Question: Let’s talk title
    • The title is literally from the advertisements for tiles on the wall separating the airport from the slum which say “Behind the Beautiful Forever.” So since there are multiple ads in a row, you get the plural.  
    • I liked how the title connects with Fatima’s burning which is central to the story.  A remodel and going out to buy tiles figures prominently in that scene.
    • We also talked about how the title is not capitalized on the cover and what that could mean. One person said she thought it was because we are looking behind the wall at lesser people.  Not capitalizing reinforces that.
  • We had a general conversation on the ending. It was frustrating to many how open it was. We read the last paragraph out loud. We talked about how it closes up the stories of the people in the book and opens up the story as it will continue.
  • Someone else said she didn’t realize this was nonfiction until she got to the end and read the author’s note. “If I knew it was real, I would have read it differently.” She probably would have liked it more.
  • Question: Who had the best life in the book and why?
    • No one wanted to answer this question because all of their lives were so bad, but I made people offer things up.
    • Zehurisia- 2 votes
    • Manju- 2 votes
    • Abdul- 4 vote
    • Asha- 2 votes
    • Sunil- 1 vote
    • Meena- 1 vote, but she clarified because Meena does kill herself.  But this participant felt that she was inspirational in her ability to be philosophical in the face of her terrible life. She had the right idea but couldn’t survive with that idea in her world.
  • Words or phrases to describe this book:
    • ugly
    • makes you see/ opens your eyes
    • corruption
    • frustrating
    • poetic
    • memorable
    • new look at India
    • overwhelming
    • real people
Readalikes: During the discussion someone mentioned that this book is eye opening much like the 1962 publication of The Other America by Michael Harrington.

In that similar vein, the style of writing [compelling yet still journalistic] and the brutal honest truth about the way people on the margins live was reminiscent of Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. We read that book in book club many moons ago.

Now these are both American parallels.  Many will want to read more about India. For them I have a plethora of fiction and nonfiction suggestions.

The novel The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga is a compelling story which gives a realistic peek into life as a poor Indian.  It also plays brilliantly with the idea of a twisted sense of morality when living in such a corrupt society, just like BtBFs. With this link you can also see a few more readalikes that I included in my review of The White Tiger, including The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri.

For a little lighter, but still honest, look into modern India in novel form, I highly suggest the Vish Puri mysteries by Tarquin Hall

In terms of nonfiction about slums, NoveList suggests Favela by Janice Perlman about the Rio de Janeiro slums or Shadow Cities by Robert Neuwirth which includes India.

Finally, one person compared BtBFs to when we read Escape from Camp 14 because in both cases she learned something horrible that is going on in her world right now and she is completely powerless to help.  That was very frustrating to her, but she did make an interesting comparison in terms of appeal.  Yes, she did not like the book for that reason, but others may want to read more books that let them know about world problems that are not on their radar as of yet.  This is a great example of one of my favorite training tips-- you can learn just as much about who to suggest a book to from the people who hated it as you can from someone who loves it.

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