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Behind the Beautiful Forevers

August 22nd, 2013by Dan Thomas

Recently, I had the privilege of reading a book of “narrative nonfiction” that reads like a novel. It was an incredible book that captures fully the world of the subtitle “Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.” It tells that story of the people who live in the slum called Annawadi, located in Mumbai, across from an international airport and luxury hotels. The words of the title “Beautiful Forevers” were inscribed on the walls separating the slum and the luxurious world next store as part of an advertizing campaign aimed at those in the airport and hotels.

Focusing on Abdul, his mother, Zehrunisa Husain, his family, his competitors in the salvaging business, and his friends, this book is a portrait of the poor of India and certainly much of the rest of the developing world. It is a tale of struggle for survival, of a legal system full of bribery and corruption, and of the anger and competition among the poor themselves. A competition that is destructive of their need for cooperation to deal with the overwhelming difficulties they face.

I was so struck by the power of this book that I searched for what I could find about the author, Katherine Boo herself. I discovered a woman who could capture in words and phrases the experience of the downtrodden. Her essay “The Marriage Cure,” which won the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing in 2004, is another excellent picture of poor women in an Oklahoma community who were part of a government program to encourage marriage.

Both of these reading experiences presented powerful and compassionate images of those on the edges of society. Their struggles come across from the inside of their lives helping the reader to appreciate how they came to be in these difficult circumstances.

Several things struck me as a reflected on what I had read. First, a call to be compassionate in judging anyone whose life I know nothing about. Secondly, a realization that my struggles are challenging for me and I wrestle with them mightily. But I am gifted with enough of the basic needs of life that being hungry, cold, and lonely are not part of my struggles.

There is also the challenge to do what I can to alleviate what I can for those in these circumstances. I need to support those politicians who ideas and ideals include programs that will help to solve these problems. My monetary support must go to those places that are effectively dealing with them. And maybe I need to go back to the St. Vincent Hotel to serve meals to those in need.

Dan Thomas

Dan Thomas is a retired Director of Religious Education, living in Dayton Ohio. His education includes graduation from Chaminade HS and the University of Dayton (MA in Pastoral Ministry). He is married with two adult sons and is a parishioner at St. Helen, Dayton.